Biden’s red line on Rafah puts Netanyahu at a crossroads

President Biden’s red line against a major Israeli military operation on Rafah has left Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a crossroads: Any major move to crush Hamas in its last stronghold in southern Gaza could trigger an unprecedented break in ties with the U.S., while failing to take decisive action could cause his political coalition to crumble at home.

“Israel has to make its decisions,” White House national security communications adviser John Kirby said Thursday.

“We understand that, and we’ll have to make ours based on what they do. I think the president was crystal clear last night that if they do smash into Rafah, go in, and invade in a major way, he’s going to have to make some major decisions. But we hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Biden, during a CNN interview that aired Wednesday, issued his clearest ultimatum to Israel yet in its war to eliminate Hamas, saying he would hold back offensive arms transfers to Israel if it launched a major offensive on Rafah.

This followed the administration’s decision earlier this week to hold back a shipment of approximately 3,000 heavy bombs, amid intense pressure from Democrats critical of Israel’s war conduct and protests on college campuses calling for an end to U.S. support to Israel.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden said in the interview. “We’re not walking away from Israel’s security. We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.”

But Biden’s opposition to a major Israeli offensive in Rafah also comes as the president’s top officials are trying to get Hamas to release hostages in exchange for a temporary cease-fire. But Israel says Hamas’s demands so far are unacceptable, and it seized a crucial border crossing this week to ramp up pressure in the talks.

Netanyahu on Thursday suggested Israel would take out Hamas’s last remnants in Rafah with or without help, though he did not specifically point to Biden’s warning.

“If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone,” Netanyahu said in remarks in Hebrew, posted on the social media site X.

“I already said that if we have to — we will fight with our fingernails.”

That view was echoed by Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party who is also a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet and unity government.

“Israel has a moral and security obligation to continue to defend itself to ensure the return of the hostages and remove the threat Hamas poses to Southern Israel, while the U.S. has the moral and strategic obligation to supply Israel with the necessary tools to complete its mission,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

“Beyond the security necessity, there is an important international political message behind the continued American position in support of Israel,” he added.

Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir went a few steps further in a Wednesday post on X, writing, “Hamas ❤️Biden,” a comment that was condemned by more moderate Israeli leaders.

Even as Netanyahu talks tough in public — largely viewed as an appeal to his right-wing base — he has shown deference to Biden’s demands that have been issued in private.

This includes the Israeli military quickly making public the intelligence failings surrounding a fatal strike on humanitarian aid workers with the World Central Kitchen in April; Israel’s opening additional border crossings for aid deliveries; and holding back, thus far, a full-scale operation in Rafah.

Given that recent history, Netanyahu is unlikely to ignore Biden’s red line on Rafah, said Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. diplomat working on the Middle East and a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Hard to believe that in the face of what the president has said … that the Israeli war Cabinet is going to simply say, ‘Well, thank you very much, full speed ahead on Rafah.’ Hard to imagine,” he said.

“I think [Netanyahu] is always juggling. It’s one step backwards, one step forward, one step to the side, that’s the way he’s operated for decades. And I think this is a classic example of that,” he added.

“But I think [the Israelis] will find a way to test the limits of what the administration believes is an acceptable set of operations in Rafah. So far, it seems to me the administration is prepared to acquiesce in what the Israelis have done.”

The Biden administration has said that Israel’s limited move into Rafah this week, to take control of a border crossing into Egypt, does not constitute a major offensive that it has warned against.

Biden has increasingly shown public frustration over the worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, but his moves around Rafah represent the first concrete actions to rein in Israel’s military.

More than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering in the city that sits on the border with Egypt, an area of roughly 25 square miles. And the population is wracked by starvation and disease, without access to reliable sources of clean water, food and medical care.

The president is largely supportive of Israel’s goal to eliminate Hamas following its Oct. 7 attack — massacring 1,200 people in Israel and taking more than 250 hostage. Cease-fire efforts have focused on securing the release of 133 remaining hostages, though the exact number of those still alive is unknown.

The president is also trying to broker a Middle East mega-deal to reshape the region: for Saudi Arabia to establish ties with Israel. A key aspect of that deal requires ending Israel’s war in Gaza and paving the way for a Palestinian state.

The administration is hopeful that a six-week cease-fire would, first, allow for the release of the hostages, and second, create space to negotiate a permanent end of the war.

Saudi Arabia has said it cannot open relations with Israel without ensuring a pathway to a Palestinian state. Israeli public opposition to a Palestinian state is high, but it’s more popular when part of a broader U.S.-brokered deal.

A survey commissioned by the Geneva Institute and published in January found that 51.3 percent of Israeli respondents were supportive of an overall deal including the return of hostages held by Hamas; normalized ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel; and the establishment of a nonmilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Biden administration envisions a postwar Gaza overseen by the Palestinian Authority — the governing body of the West Bank — with a coalition of Arab security forces to help maintain security in the Strip.

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog spoke Thursday to the so-called day-after scenario for Gaza and the potential for a coalition of Arab military forces to play a security role in the Gaza Strip, but he warned Israel must defeat Hamas first.

The Israelis assess that Hamas maintains about four battalions in Rafah. Defeating these battalions — numbers can range up to 1,000 fighters per group — and securing the border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hamas are viewed as the main objectives of the military campaign.

“We cannot complete the job of defeating Hamas without dealing with these battalions, because if we don’t, we leave them intact, they could serve as a nucleus for Hamas to rebuild its capabilities,” Herzog said in a public conversation Thursday with Miller and hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“I daresay that if those battalions remain intact, I don’t see any outside force going into Gaza, like Arab forces or others before that job is completed. They will not go into Gaza for as long as Hamas is there with these types of capabilities.”

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