Biden takes a political risk with his invitation to Israeli officials

When President Joe Biden asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to dispatch a team of top Israeli officials to Washington, his hope was to preempt a large-scale ground invasion of Rafah, which the Biden administration believes would amount to a humanitarian catastrophe.

Whether the meeting, now likely to occur early next week, can accomplish that objective remains an open question. There were indications on Tuesday that – despite dire warnings Biden delivered to Netanyahu in a 45-minute telephone call a day earlier – the Israeli leader remained intent on entering the southern Gaza city, American urging notwithstanding.

That leaves Biden in a now-familiar, if uncomfortable, position: Having staked out a clear position on the invasion, it appears Netanyahu is poised to reject it out of hand.

“Out of respect for the president, we agreed on a way in which they can present us with their ideas, especially on the humanitarian side,” Netanyahu said Tuesday during a speech to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset.

“However, I made it as clear as possible to the president that we are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion,” he went on.

The invitation to Israeli officials for talks in Washington comes with certain risks for Biden, depending how Israel decides to proceed. On one hand, he could appear ineffective in the heat of a reelection run if Netanyahu decides to move ahead with a major ground invasion despite the White House’s warnings. On the other, providing Israel with clear alternatives — even if they are rejected — could distance the president from an eventual decision to launch a major offensive.

Some US officials told CNN they were not concerned about the Biden administration assuming liability for a possible operation, since they remain skeptical the two sides will be able to arrive at an agreement at all. Administration officials have discussed potential responses should an invasion move ahead, and some of Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress have made fresh calls for the White House to consider conditioning military aid to Israel if a Rafah operation proceeds as the president faces intense pressure over his support for Israel from key parts of his coalition.

The Biden-Netanyahu call “helped clear the air” between the two leaders, said a source familiar with the call. It was a “business-like conversation,” the source added, noting that it is always good to talk about working together and what the two sides agree and disagree on. In a sign of continued dialog between the two allies, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to Israel on Friday, an Israeli official told CNN.

But Netanyahu’s insistence on the necessity of a ground invasion seemed at odds with Biden’s message for the prime minister during their phone conversation Monday, during which the president voiced deep reservations on a major offensive of the type that Israel has undertaken in cities like Gaza City and Khan Younis.

“A major ground operation there would be a mistake,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, declared Monday after the phone call.

An Israeli invasion of Rafah would amount to a potentially decisive moment for Biden and his approach to the conflict. He said in an interview earlier this month that the Israelis going forward with the operation without a credible plan to protect civilians would amount to a “red line,” though he added quickly he was “never going to leave Israel.”

The US has been calling on Israel to explain how it intends to protect the estimated 1.4 million Palestinians seeking refuge in southern Gaza before its planned operation into Rafah. So far, the Biden administration says, that plan has not been presented.

“The presumption is that if one exists, they would have showed it to us,” one senior administration official said.

No threats made over US assistance to Israel – yet

On Friday, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister approved the plans for action in Rafah. The military, it added, “is preparing for the operational side and for the evacuation of the population.” But one Israeli official told CNN that while the military plan in Rafah has been presented to Israeli leadership, the humanitarian plan is still being worked out.

Little detail has been publicly offered beyond the suggestion that the Gazans in Rafah – many of whom followed instructions from the Israel Defense Forces to leave northern areas – would be moved to “humanitarian enclaves.”

Officials said another possibility would be to allow for a United Nations resolution to proceed calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a step the US has previously rejected.

In his phone call with Netanyahu on Monday, Biden did not make threats about the future of American assistance, Sullivan said.

“What the president said today was, ‘I want you to understand, Mr. Prime Minister, exactly where I am on this. I am for the defeat of Hamas. I believe that they are an evil terrorist group with not just Israeli but American blood on their hands. At the same time, I believe that to get to that, you need a strategy that works. And that strategy should not involve a major military operation that puts thousands and thousands of lives – civilian, innocent lives at risk – in Rafah. There is a better way,’” Sullivan said.

“Send your team to Washington. Let’s talk about it. We’ll lay out for you what we believe is a better way,” he said of Biden’s message to Netanyahu.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s office said one of the prime minister’s closest confidants, Ron Dermer, and Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, would be heading to Washington for the talks. The Israeli delegation will be accompanied by a representative – not yet named — for the Israeli military body that coordinates the humanitarian efforts.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will also host Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon next week, according to a defense official.

“The two leaders will discuss a range of topics, including efforts to secure the release of all hostages held by Hamas, the need for more humanitarian aid to reach Palestinian civilians, and plans to ensure the safety of the more than one million people sheltering in Rafah while ensuring Hamas can no longer pose a threat to Israel,” the official said Tuesday.

The official added the meeting comes after Austin extended an invitation for an official visit and is separate from the meeting announced after the call between Biden and Netanyahu.

Senate Republicans have rallied around Netanyahu after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called him an obstacle to peace last week. The prime minister is expected to address Senate Republicans via video during a closed-door conference lunch Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the matter.

US presses for more targeted operation

The US has developed some alternatives for an operation in Rafah that would be effective “without a major ground invasion,” Sullivan said on Monday.

American officials are looking to advise Israel to focus more on high-value precision targeting like they did successfully recently with the killing of top Hamas leader Marwan Issa, administration officials said.

The expectation inside the White House is that Israel will not proceed with its operation in Rafah before the meeting with between US and Israeli officials takes place in Washington, providing several days of breathing room before any potential invasion.

The administration also remains hopeful a deal could soon be reached that would secure the release of hostages being held in Gaza in exchange for a temporary ceasefire — an agreement that would presumably pause Israel’s plans for Rafah.

Officials have previously warned a major operation in Rafah would likely scuttle the sensitive hostage negotiations. The administration’s move to invite the Israeli delegation for talks on Rafah next week was part of an effort to buy time for the hostage deal to come together, current and former officials said.

Negotiators met Monday in Qatar to continue painstaking talks on an agreement but haven’t been able to agree on a plan.

Regional experts were not hopeful about the two sides coming to an agreement but pressed that talking is better than not talking.

“It seems that the president made a direct personal request and the prime minister felt both the need to comply with the request, and also assert that he is the leader of a sovereign state that will make its own decisions,” Jon Alterman, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program, told CNN. “I am sure that neither side will emerge totally convinced, but each side will feel listened to.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Haley Britzy, Manu Raju and Lauren Izso contributed to this report.

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