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‘Lost all of his sway?’: Biden faces questions about Netanyahu influence

Weeks later, Israeli leader's Rafah threats remain just that

Palestinians watch Tuesday the transfer of bodies of people killed in an overnight bombardment that targeted a residential area in Rafah, Gaza.
Palestinians watch Tuesday the transfer of bodies of people killed in an overnight bombardment that targeted a residential area in Rafah, Gaza. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — The White House has been peppered with questions and criticisms for months about whether President Joe Biden has lost the ability to influence Benjamin Netanyahu as the wartime Israeli prime minister oversees a brutal war with Hamas.

The prime example is Rafah, an area in southern Gaza to which Netanyahu’s government instructed Palestinian civilians to flee at the conflict’s start. The prime minister’s war cabinet insists up to four Hamas brigades are holed up there, and has vowed for weeks to launch a major military operation in Rafah.

Yet, as pro-Palestinian protesters shout down Biden at public events and cast protest votes in Democratic presidential primaries, and a growing list of Democratic lawmakers have called for Biden to overhaul the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the Israeli threats about a Rafah invasion remain just that.

Biden and some of his aides suggest he and Netanyahu have the same dynamic they have had for decades: a relationship that often includes deep disagreements but also an agreement on Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Still, questions about an unhinged Netanyahu ignoring what should be his top ally continue to dog the White House.

John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, was asked during a March 21 briefing about Netanyahu telling Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken that he would welcome U.S. support and assistance for a Rafah operation, but without it, he would “do it alone.”

A reporter asked Kirby: “So, are we to understand that President Biden has just lost all of his sway here?”

“I would also note that Prime Minister Netanyahu said he recognizes there’s a debate about Rafah,” Kirby responded. “I would also note that the Israeli government will be sending a delegation here in coming days to talk to us … in an interagency perspective about some viable options and alternatives to a major ground operation.”

When that meeting was temporarily canceled over Netanyahu’s anger about the Biden administration allowing a United Nations resolution to pass that called for a temporary cease-fire, there were new murmurs about Biden’s ability to restrain Netanyahu. The meeting was eventually rescheduled, though held virtually on Monday.

U.S. officials on Monday presented Israeli officials with alternative options for a possible military operation in Rafah at that virtual meeting, according to a National Security Council official.

Those alternatives included ways to target Hamas operatives inside Rafah with more precision, another White House official said. Biden and his security team are worried Netanyahu will go in with the full force of his American-equipped military, putting over 1 million Palestinian civilians in grave danger.

‘They will speak again’

“The president and Prime Minister Netanyahu just spoke a few days ago, and they will speak again, no question about it,” Kirby said March 21. “We’ve not shied away from expressing our concerns to them, and they have not refused to listen. And there had been examples in the past — I’ve gone through it from the podium — where they have actually taken on board the advice and counsel we provided.”

Kirby and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, have said for some time that the president trusted Israeli officials’ private assurances they would hold off on any kind of Rafah military operation until after the session that was held Monday. That allowed the Biden administration officials to hold back any potential Netanyahu impulse to storm into the refugee-packed area.

“The two sides over the course of two hours had a constructive engagement on Rafah. They agreed that they share the objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah. The U.S. side expressed its concerns with various courses of action in Rafah,” the White House said in a Monday statement. “The Israeli side agreed to take these concerns into account and to have follow up discussions between experts, overseen by the [Strategic Consultative Group]. The follow up discussions would include in-person SCG meeting as early as next week.”

But what happens now that the initial session has occurred remains unclear.

“I think the Biden administration needs to enforce the president’s requests. He’s made two very simple requests. One, allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza. The president said no excuses. He’s also said it’s a red line for him to have an invasion of Rafah,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Van Hollen told ABC News on Sunday. “So, it’s my view that as part of a partnership, we should get those assurances from the Netanyahu government upfront, rather than just send weapons now and ask questions later.

“I think we need to better use our leverage. We have different parts of leverage and one of them is sending more offensive weapons. So, President Biden needs to be as serious about ensuring more humanitarian assistance gets into Gaza as Netanyahu has been in making his demands,” he added. “I mean, we have a situation where the Netanyahu government continues to rebuff the president of the United States time and time again, ignores reasonable requests. And what do we do? We say we’re going to send more bombs.”

Aid workers killed

Likely to intensify such calls: an Israeli airstrike Monday that killed seven aid workers, prompting the World Central Kitchen organization to halt its aid operation inside Gaza. Netanyahu confirmed Israeli forces conducted the strike, but called it “unintentional.” The strike, which Netanyahu said would be investigated, killed one U.S.-Canadian dual national, three British nationals, one Palestinian, as well as citizens of Australia and Poland.

Kirby told reporters Tuesday the president and administration officials were “outraged” upon hearing of the Monday strike, saying the U.S. side wants the Israeli military to conduct a “thorough” and “swift” investigation — and to hold anyone “accountable” who is deemed at fault.

“My staff, my constituents and I are all devastated and shocked by the killing in Gaza of seven humanitarian food aid workers with World Central Kitchen, which was founded by Maryland 8th District resident and local hero chef José Andrés,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said in a Tuesday statement. “The Israeli Defense Forces has said it will investigate how this catastrophe happened. The world, including the United States of America, waits for a complete accounting and explanation.”

Biden called the celebrity chef Tuesday to express his “deepest condolences,” Kirby said, adding Israeli military officials should do more to coordinate with aid workers and keep them protected. Pressed during a tense Tuesday exchange by a reporter on whether Israel has violated international humanitarian laws since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack inside Israel, Kirby said the State Department has examined specific incidents and decided to not label any of them violations.

Before Congress departed for a two-week Holy Week recess, the administration made a major transfer to Israel. It included 25 F-35A fighter jets, as well as 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs.

Michelle Strucke, a former Pentagon official who now is director for the Humanitarian Agenda and the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted during a recent event hosted by the think tank that just because Israeli ground forces have not stormed the area, does not mean civilians are not already at risk.

“As we’re watching the specter of a potential Rafah invasion, a ground incursion, you know, I want to mention to those who are following this conflict know that bombardment is still happening. The active hostilities are still happening and including in areas that people are, you know, like Rafah, where people are sheltering in great numbers,” Strucke said.

“So as there’s a specter of this potential ground invasion the question of how to ensure that civilians are out of harm’s way, to ensure that health care facilities are protected so that they’re not subject to attacks, all of these are, I think, the most important questions that D.C. policymakers I know this week are thinking about,” she added.

With air strikes ongoing, and because of the prospect of some type of major Israeli ground operation in the crowded area, Democrats have continued putting pressure on Biden to exert his influence more forcefully.

“My view is that a partnership needs to be a two-way street,” Van Hollen said Sunday, “not a one-way blank check with American taxpayer dollars.”

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