Biden takes a political risk with his invitation to Israeli officials

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When President Joe Biden asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sending a team of senior Israeli officials to Washington on Monday, their hope was to prevent a large-scale ground invasion of Rafah, which the Biden administration believes would amounts to a humanitarian catastrophe.

If the meeting, which will probably take place early next week, Whether it will achieve that goal remains an open question. There were signs on Tuesday that, despite Biden’s dire warnings to Netanyahu in a 45-minute phone call a day earlier, the Israeli leader remained determined to enter the southern Gaza city, despite insistence. US.

That leaves Biden in a now familiar situation, if uncomfortable, position: Having defined a clear position on the invasion, it appears that Netanyahu is willing to reject it outright.

“Out of respect for the president, we agreed on a way in which they can present their ideas to us, especially on the humanitarian side,” Netanyahu said Tuesday during a speech to the Knesset’s defense and foreign affairs committee.

“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 that without a ground incursion,” he continued.

The invitation to Israeli officials to Talks in Washington carry certain risks. for Biden, depending on how Israel decides to proceed. For one thing, it could appear ineffective in the midst of a re-election race if Netanyahu decides to press ahead with a major ground invasion despite warnings from the White House. On the other hand, offering Israel 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 taking responsibility for a potential operation, as they remain skeptical that the two sides could reach a deal. Administration officials have discussed possible responses should an invasion occur, and some of Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress have made new calls for the White House to consider conditioning military aid to Israel if it takes place. an operation in Rafah, as the president faces intense pressure over his support for Israel from key parts of his coalition.

The Biden-Netanyahu call “helped clear things up” between the two leaders, a source familiar with the call said. It was a “business conversation,” the source added, noting that it’s always good to talk about working together and what the two sides agree and disagree on.

But Netanyahu’s insistence on the need for a ground invasion appeared to contradict Biden’s message to the prime minister during their Monday phone conversation, during which the president expressed deep reservations about a major offensive of the kind Israel has undertaken in cities like the 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 represent a potentially decisive moment for Biden and his approach to the conflict. He said in an interview earlier this month that the Israelis pressing ahead with the operation without a credible plan to protect civilians would amount to a “red line,” although he quickly added that he was “never going to abandon Israel.”

The United States has been asking Israel to explain how it plans to protect the estimated 1.4 million Palestinians seeking refuge in southern Gaza ahead of its planned operation in Rafah. So far, the Biden administration says, that plan has not been presented.

“The presumption is that if it existed, they would have shown it to us,” said a senior administration official.

Last Friday, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister approved the action plans in Rafah. The army, he added, “is preparing for the operational phase and for the evacuation of the population.” But an Israeli official told CNN that while the military plan in Rafah has been presented to Israeli leaders, the humanitarian plan is still being drawn up.

Few details have been publicly offered beyond the suggestion that 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 a United Nations resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza to proceed, a move the United States has previously rejected.

In his phone call Monday, Biden made no threats about the future of U.S. assistance, Sullivan said.

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

“Send your team to Washington. Let’s talk about that. We will lay out to you what we think 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 travel to Washington for talks. The Israeli delegation will be accompanied by a representative – not yet named – of the Israeli military body that coordinates humanitarian efforts.

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

U.S. officials are trying to advise Israel to focus more on high-value precision targets, as they did successfully recently with the assassination of top Hamas leader Marwan Issa, administration officials said.

The expectation within the White House is that Israel will not continue its operation in Rafah before the meeting between US and Israeli officials takes place in Washington, which will provide several days of breathing space before any possible invasion.

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

Officials had previously warned that a major operation in Rafah would likely derail delicate hostage negotiations. The administration’s decision to invite Israel’s delegation to talks on Rafah next week was part of an effort to buy time for the hostage deal to be finalized, current and former officials said.

Negotiators met Monday in Qatar to continue arduous talks on a deal, but have so far been unable to agree on a plan.

Regional experts had no hope that the two sides would reach an agreement, but insisted that talking is better than not talking.

“It appears that the president made a direct personal request and the prime minister felt the need to honor the request and also affirm that he is the leader of a sovereign state that will make its own decisions,” said Jon Alterman, the director. of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN. “I’m sure that neither side will come away completely convinced, but each of them will feel heard.”

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