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Israel asks US to reschedule scrapped meeting on Rafah military plans

Netanyahu speaks as German Chancellor Scholz visits Jerusalem

By Nandita Bose and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Israel has asked the White House to reschedule a high-level meeting on military plans for Gaza's southern city of Rafah that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had abruptly canceled, officials said on Wednesday, in an apparent bid to ease tensions between the two allies.

Netanyahu called off a planned visit to Washington by a senior Israeli delegation after the U.S. allowed passage of a Gaza ceasefire resolution at the United Nations on Monday, marking a new war-time low in his relations with President Joe Biden.

The suspension of this week's meeting put a new obstacle in the way of efforts by the U.S., concerned about a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, to get Netanyahu to consider alternatives to a ground invasion of Rafah, the last relatively safe haven for Palestinian civilians.

On Wednesday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters: "The prime minister's office has agreed to reschedule the meeting dedicated" to Rafah.

"So we're now working with them to set (a) convenient date," she added.

An Israeli official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that a new meeting was being arranged and said Netanyahu was considering sending his delegation as early as next week.

There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu's office.

BID TO RESET WHITE HOUSE MEETING

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held wide-ranging discussions with senior U.S. officials this week and sought to lower the temperature between the two governments.

Gallant, though not part of Netanyahu's inner circle, is a key architect of the campaign against Hamas in retaliation for the militants' Oct. 7 rampage that Israel says killed 1,200 people. Israel's military response has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, according to the health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave.

The Israeli team will still be led by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, two of Netanyahu's close confidants, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The talks are expected to focus on Israel's threatened offensive in Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Wednesday, "We do," when asked if the U.S. believes a limited military campaign in Rafah can take out remaining commanders of the Palestinian militant group.

The White House said last week it intended to share with Israeli officials alternatives for eliminating Hamas' remaining battalions in Rafah without a full-scale ground invasion that Washington says would be a "disaster."

The threat of such an offensive has increased differences between close allies the United States and Israel, and raised questions about whether the U.S. might restrict military aid if Netanyahu defies Biden and presses ahead anyway.

Biden, running for re-election in November, faces pressure not just from America's allies but from a growing number of fellow Democrats to rein in the Israeli military response in Gaza.

Biden’s decision to abstain at the U.N., coming after months of mostly adhering to longtime U.S. policy of shielding Israel at the world body, appeared to reflect growing U.S. frustration with the Israeli leader.

Netanyahu issued a stinging rebuke, calling the U.S. move a "clear retreat" from its previous position and would hurt Israel's war efforts and negotiations to free more than 130 hostages still held in Gaza.

U.S. officials said at the time that the Biden administration was perplexed by Netanyahu's decision and considered it an overreaction, insisting there had been no change in policy.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; Editing by Rami Ayyub, Deepa Babington and Alistair Bell)