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Israeli military operation in Rafah would be ‘a disaster,’ White House says

U.S., Israeli officials drift apart on endgame as Hill Dems fume over Gaza

Palestinians pray on March 22 in the Rafah area of Gaza during the second Friday prayer of the holy month of Ramadan on the ruins of Al-Farouq Mosque, which was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes.
Palestinians pray on March 22 in the Rafah area of Gaza during the second Friday prayer of the holy month of Ramadan on the ruins of Al-Farouq Mosque, which was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

White House officials on Friday continued describing a possible Israeli military ground offensive into the Rafah area of Gaza in increasingly dire terms, as congressional Democrats have stepped up their criticisms of Israel’s conduct of its conflict with Hamas.

The Biden administration’s warnings came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday again raised the notion of sending military forces into Rafah, a relatively tight area near the Gaza-Egypt border. The Netanyahu government had directed Palestinian civilians to flee as it carried out military strikes in the central parts of Gaza. But on Friday, Netanyahu said he issued something of a warning to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken during a war cabinet meeting in Israel.

“I told him that I greatly appreciate the fact that for more than five months we have been standing together in the war against Hamas,” Netanyahu said in a video statement. “I also said that we have no way to defeat Hamas without entering Rafah and eliminating the remnant of the battalions there.

“I told him that I hope we would do this with U.S. support, but if necessary, we will do it alone,” Netanyahu added in Hebrew, with his aides translating the remarks into English in subsequent X posts.

Biden administration officials oppose such an operation, with Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, earlier this week telling reporters such an Israeli military operation would be a “mistake.”

Vice President Kamala Harris said next week’s planned meeting of U.S. and Israeli security officials is crucial because of the humanitarian crisis inside Gaza, where U.S. and U.N. officials say many Palestinians are starving and gravely ill.

“There is nowhere for those people to go and be safe,” she told reporters, referring to Palestinian citizens, according to a pool reporter with her in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Administration officials and many congressional Democrats in recent weeks have stepped up their concerns not only about Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack inside the Jewish state but also over a shared conclusion that Netanyahu’s government is blocking humanitarian aid from being moved into the Palestinian enclave.

On Friday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby appeared to escalate the administration’s assessment of the impacts of any military operation in Rafah. He said that kind of mission, in what he called a relatively “small” area, would be a “disaster.”

While Kirby insisted U.S. officials have tried not to instruct Netanyahu how to carry out the conflict, he said the planned U.S.-Israel summit in Washington next week would include a discussion of “alternative options” for trying to get at what Israeli officials contend are Hamas leaders and operatives hiding in Rafah.

It was merely the latest example of what appears to be a rift in how U.S. and Israeli officials view the conflict’s endgame and strategy.

Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have continued to describe their ultimate goal for the bloody conflict as “destroying Hamas.” But in recent days, Biden administration officials have publicly shared a different view of a possible strategy and endgame — if an end is even possible.

President Joe Biden is “interested in how do we get to the right result, and the right result is the enduring defeat of Hamas, a two-state solution that has a secure Israel and a Palestinian state that vindicates the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and a broader normalization of relations so that Israel also has peace with all of its Arab neighbors,” Sullivan told reporters Monday.

“Enduring defeat” leaves open the door to Hamas existing in some form, even if the organization, in membership and lethality, is much weaker. “Destroying” would slam that door shut.

“He believes we need to drive to that outcome,” Sullivan said of Biden and the “enduring defeat” goal.

And in a late Monday night statement summarizing a Monday telephone conversation between Biden and Netanyahu, White House officials again did not use any form of “destroy” to describe their goal.

“The president affirmed the need to defeat Hamas in Gaza while also protecting the civilian population and facilitating the safe and unhindered delivery of assistance throughout Gaza,” according to the White House statement.

The administration’s new rhetoric comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill have grown more frustrated with Netanyahu.

“This is not just about Israel or Gaza,” New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez said Friday on the House floor. “Our story must be not that we were good men who did nothing but that we were a committed democracy that did something.” She said U.S. officials should “force compliance” by Israeli officials with a U.S. law that prohibits the transfer of weapons to a country that has blocked humanitarian aid.

The U.S. should “suspend the transfer of U.S. weapons to the Israeli government in order to stop and prevent further atrocity,” she said. While not a member of a House committee with jurisdiction over arms sales or transfers, the progressive “squad” member is popular within the Democratic Party and is aligned with Arab American groups that led a protest vote — with more than 100,000 people voting for “uncommitted” over Biden — recently in the Democratic primary in Michigan, a key electoral swing state.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer raised eyebrows with a speech calling for new elections in Israel, saying the brutality of the conflict showed Netanyahu needs to go. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed on Tuesday said in a floor speech he worries Israel is creating a power vacuum in Gaza, much like the U.S. created one in Iraq when it dismantled Saddam Hussein’s government.

“National grief and political fury can cloud the thinking of even the shrewdest military tacticians. I worry that the mistakes of America’s war in Iraq are being made again by Israel in Gaza,” the Rhode Island Democrat said while also calling for “new leadership for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Biden, during a trip to Israel shortly after the war began, said he advised Israeli leaders to avoid America’s mistakes after 9/11 and to avoid being hamstrung by emotion and rage.

The George W. Bush administration set out to eliminate al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks but eventually settled on a strategic goal of targeting the group’s top brass and using military and intelligence capabilities to ensure it could no longer plan large-scale attacks on the U.S. homeland and American allies.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said Wednesday that, despite the rhetorical drift, he sees the Biden and Netanyahu administrations headed to the same spot strategically.

Biden and Netanyahu understand that “the military destruction of Hamas is non-negotiable. So you’ve got to wipe out their military capability,” Graham said. “The key here is to prevent Hamas from coming back. … You can kill their leaders and you can destroy their military capabilities.”

Graham’s comments came before Senate Republicans on Wednesday spoke with Netanyahu over a video chat during their weekly party lunch.

Senate Intelligence Committee member Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Wednesday that when it comes to Hamas, “the Israelis, I think, have to define that more carefully.” He applauded Israel for taking out Marwan Issa, who had been the deputy commander of Hamas’ military wing. (The White House confirmed Monday it had concluded that Israeli Defense Forces had killed Issa.)

“I would like to see more of that, eliminating the top leadership of Hamas, just like we eliminated Osama bin Laden,” Casey said, referring to the al-Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind. “I don’t want to read too much into the language, OK, between the administration and Israel. I think … it’s the same goal, pretty much.”

When pressed on whether a strategic chasm has opened between Biden and Netanyahu that cannot be bridged, Graham replied, “I hope they’re aligned, but it’s too early to tell.” Next week’s planned meeting could provide telling answers.

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