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Netanyahu’s decision to cancel Rafah meetings causes new rupture with Biden

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision Monday to scrap a planned delegation to Washington — a trip President Joe Biden personally requested a week ago, hoping to offer a constructive approach — amounts to a low point in the ever-deepening rift between the two men.

Netanyahu threatened to pull the delegation if the US did not veto a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on Monday. When the US abstained from the vote, allowing it to pass, the Israeli prime minister followed through, canceling meetings that already amounted to a political risk for Biden.

American officials had planned to offer the Israeli delegation a suite of alternative options for going after Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, hoping to forestall what the US believes would amount to a humanitarian catastrophe if Israel launches a full-scale ground invasion.

Those alternatives will still be shared, American officials said, including in talks early this week between top Biden advisers and Israel’s defense minister. But the public break-off of the in-person talks made for a stark illustration of what has become an increasingly fraught dynamic between Israel and its top backer.

American officials said they were perplexed by Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the delegation after the US allowed the resolution to pass at the United Nations Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Inside the White House, the move was viewed as an overreaction that most likely reflected Netanyahu’s own domestic political concerns, according to a US official. Hours after the delegation was canceled, Israeli minister Gideon Sa’ar submitted his resignation from the current government after not being included in the war cabinet.

Netanyahu did not communicate directly with Biden over the decision, and Biden has no plans to phone Netanyahu to discuss the matter, the official said.

The talks in Washington were set to occur at a crucial moment, not only for the trajectory of the conflict but for gauging Washington’s influence on its ally. Biden’s patience with Netanyahu has been wearing thin and his ability to bend Israel’s decision-making has appeared to wane, even as the US continues to provide critical military and diplomatic backing.

In the United States, calls for an end to the fighting have crossed political boundaries. Even former President Donald Trump, Biden’s rival for the White House this November, said in an interview over the weekend it was time for Israel to “finish up your war” and “get to peace.”

Now, Biden finds himself in a delicate position. If the Israeli prime minister rejects his team’s alternatives — as Netanyahu signaled he would, even before this week’s meetings fell apart — the president could be forced to decide whether to take his frustrations even more public and potentially scale back what has been stalwart American support.

A divide over Rafah

Over the weekend, the US was in regular contact with Israel to discuss the UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire, making clear in those discussions that the American stance hadn’t changed — that a ceasefire must be paired with a release of hostages.

That led American officials to view Netanyahu’s statements Monday that the US had changed its position as peculiar and strange, the official said. Biden’s aides viewed the prime minister as unnecessarily choosing to create a perception of daylight between the US and Israel.

For more than a month, White House officials have watched with growing consternation as Israel’s leaders, including Netanyahu, have signaled their intent on launching a major ground offensive in Rafah, which they say is the last major stronghold of Hamas.

Such a campaign would result in a humanitarian disaster, American officials have warned, and have insisted Israel produce a credible plan to protect the 1.4 million Palestinian civilians who are sheltering there – many of whom fled other parts of Gaza at the direction of the Israeli military.

Still, despite such staunch warnings from Israeli officials, US officials have believed for weeks that, in reality, Israel was nowhere close to being on the verge of expanding its military operation into southern Gaza. The beginning of Ramadan – the deadline that some in Netanyahu government had warned would trigger the next phase of the war – came and went without a shift in the conflict.

“They are weeks away from being ready,” a senior US official said on the eve of the holy Muslim month.

Pressure builds on US and Israel

With Ramadan set to end in about two weeks, pressure is building. But even as US officials continue to insist that Washington must first see a blueprint that assures the safety of civilians, they are also increasingly casting doubt on whether such a plan is even feasible.

They have bluntly pointed to the reality that there is simply nowhere that so many civilians in the enclave can go, as so much of Gaza has been destroyed – and made uninhabitable – by Israeli bombardment. And if there is such an unlikely plan, no official at the White House has seen it yet.

“I’ve looked at the maps, I’ve studied the maps, there is nowhere for those people to go,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the end of last week.

Later, in an interview, Harris declined to rule out consequences for Israel should it move ahead with its Rafah plans.

“I am ruling out nothing,” she told ABC.

Indeed, Biden’s advisers have been weighing various options for how to respond should the Rafah operation proceed. Officials declined to offer specifics, but the president has been under increasing pressure from Democratic lawmakers to begin conditioning military assistance to Israel based on its humanitarian efforts and to take diplomatic steps that would signal American disapproval.

In their meetings this week, American officials had planned to press the Israeli delegation to adopt a more targeted military operation focused on high-value Hamas targets who may be hiding in Rafah, according to people familiar with the matter.

The more surgical approach could be paired with efforts to better secure the Egypt-Gaza border — where Rafah sits — to curb Hamas’s ability to smuggle weapons into the enclave.

Aside from the more than 1 million civilians sheltering there, American officials have also raised fears that an invasion of Rafah could prevent much-needed humanitarian aid from entering Gaza. The city has been the main ground crossing for trucks carrying aid in from Egypt. There is also concern an operation in Rafah could rupture Israel’s relations with Egypt.

US sends warnings to Netanyahu

Biden administration officials have warned Israel it risks becoming an international pariah if the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens or persists for an extended period of time.

When Biden proposed this week’s meetings during a phone call with Netanyahu last Monday, the idea came as something of a surprise to the Israelis, people familiar with the matter said.

“You need a strategy that works,” Biden told Netanyahu in their first conversation in more than a month. “And that strategy should not involve a major military operation that puts thousands and thousands of lives – civilian, innocent lives at risk – in Rafah.”

“Send your team to Washington. Let’s talk about it,” Biden told Netanyahu, according to Biden’s top national security aide. “We’ll lay out for you what we believe is a better way.”

Inside the White House, the move was viewed as a way to signal Washington’s intent on finding a constructive approach to shaping Israel’s war plans.

Ahead of the meeting, however, Netanyahu cast doubt on alternatives that stop short of a full ground invasion, insisting that is the only way to rid the enclave of Hamas operatives.

“We have no way to defeat Hamas without entering Rafah,” Netanyahu said after meetings at the end of last week with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I told him that I hope we would do this with US support but if necessary – we will do it alone.”

Blinken departed the Middle East on Friday without any type of commitment of increasing the amount of humanitarian aid into Gaza or on scaling back plans for a Rafah offensive.

At the same time, Netanyahu has signaled such an operation isn’t likely to begin in the near-term — providing the United States a window to intervene and for talks to continue over securing a pause in the fighting in exchange for a release of hostages.

Those negotiations appeared to be proceeding, as Israel and Hamas wrestle with major differences like the ratio of hostages to Palestinian prisoners who would be released as part of the agreement.

American officials believe the hostage talks would be scuttled should Israel begin its offensive in Rafah – lending even more urgency to their list of alternatives.

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