Netanyahu agrees to send Israeli officials to Washington to discuss Rafah attack

AP , Monday 18 Mar 2024

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday agreed to send a team of Israeli officials to Washington to discuss with Biden administration officials a prospective of an assault on Rafah, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu
This combination photo shows President Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AP


“We’ve arrived at a point where each side has been making clear to the other its perspective,” Sullivan said.

The White House has been skeptical of Netanyahu’s plan to carry out a military attack on the southern city of Rafah, where about 1.5 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

The agreement to hold talks about Rafah came as Biden and Netanyahu spoke on Monday, their first interaction in more than a month, as the divide has grown between allies over the food crisis in Gaza, blockage of aids, and Israel's conduct during the war, according to the White House.

Sullivan added that Biden questioned the Israeli leader over a lack of a "coherent and sustainable strategy’ to defeat Hamas.

The call comes after Republicans in Washington and Israeli officials were quick to express outrage after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sharply criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the war in Gaza and called for Israel to hold new elections. 

Biden hasn't endorsed Schumer's call for election but said he thought he gave a “good speech” that reflected the concerns of many Americans. Netanyahu raised concerns about the calls by Schumer for new elections, Sullivan said.

Biden administration officials have warned that they would not support an operation in Rafah without the Israelis presenting a credible plan to ensure the safety of innocent Palestinian civilians.

Israel did not present such a plan, according to White House officials. "We did not see any."

Netanyahu in a statement after the call made no direct mention of the tension.

“We discussed the latest developments in the war, including Israel’s commitment to achieving all of the war’s goals,” Netanyahu said.

The Biden-Netanyahu call also comes as the United Nations food agency on Monday issued more dire warnings about the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The World Food Program warned that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza, where 70% of the remaining population is experiencing catastrophic hunger, and that a further escalation of the war could push around half of Gaza’s population to the brink of starvation.

Sullivan called the report “alarming.”

The EU also accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon on war.

Biden after his State of the Union address earlier this month was caught on a hot mic telling a Democratic ally that he has told Netanyahu they would have a “come to Jesus” meeting over the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

His frustration with Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war was also on display in a recent MSNBC interview, in which he asserted Netanyahu was “hurting Israel.”

“He has a right to defend Israel, a right to continue to pursue Hamas,” Biden said of Netanyahu in the MSNBC interview. “But he must, he must, he must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken. He’s hurting ... in my view, he’s hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

He announced that the U.S. military would help establish a temporary pier aimed at boosting the amount of aid getting into the territory.

The Biden administration resorted to the unusual workarounds after months of appealing to Israel, a top recipient of military aid, to step up access and protection for trucks bearing humanitarian goods for Gaza.

Since Israel launched one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history, it has killed over 31,000 Palestinians, 70% of them women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry in the Gaza Strip. 

Around 80% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, and a quarter of the population faces starvation.

* This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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