AnalysisSullivan: You're obsessed with red lines, but Biden didn't draw any

After avalanche of Netanyahu criticism, US looks to keep rift from widening further

Top Biden aide swats away talk of ‘red lines’ on Israel, slams reporters for not taking Hamas threat seriously, while quietly summoning Israeli envoy to press him on aid holdup

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden (L), Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (C) and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in the East Room of the White House on March 12, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
US President Joe Biden (L), Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (C) and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in the East Room of the White House on March 12, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — After several days of tough talk from the Biden administration over Israel’s handling of the war in Gaza and the publication of a US intelligence report forecasting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political demise, Washington appears to now want to dial back tensions with Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan repeatedly defended Israel against critical lines of questioning from reporters during a White House press briefing, rejecting the notion that US President Joe Biden had characterized an Israeli military operation in Rafah as a “red line” and pouring cold water on speculation that Washington is considering withholding security aid if the Israel Defense Forces move into the southern Gaza city.

“We’re not going to engage in hypotheticals about what comes down the line, and the reports that purport to describe the president’s thinking are uninformed speculation,” Sullivan said, adding that the policy to date has been against restricting Israel’s aid.

“I would just note — having been around a little while — that I know all of you are obsessed with this concept of the red line, [but] the president didn’t make any declarations or pronouncements or announcements,” he told reporters.

Sullivan was referring to the answer Biden gave in an MSNBC interview on Saturday when Biden was asked whether an Israeli operation in Rafah would be a “red line.” He responded, “It is a red line,” before appearing to backtrack and saying, “I’m never going to leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical. There’s no red line [in which] I’m going to cut off all weapons so that they don’t have the Iron Dome [missile defense system] to protect them.”

Israel says it must go into Rafah in order to dismantle Hamas’s remaining battalions, after the IDF gradually fought its way through Gaza from north to south.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, March 12, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The US has indicated that it is prepared to support such an operation, but only if Israel presents a plan for the mass evacuation of civilians from the city, where more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people are sheltering. The US says Israel has still not offered such a plan, though Jerusalem insists it intends to do so before moving forward.

A senior US official told The Times of Israel last week that Washington is highly skeptical that there is another area within leveled Gaza where one million-plus people can be transferred, and an Israeli official said there are similar concerns within Israel’s own security establishment.

Regardless, no such operation is expected to take place imminently, given that Israel has massively reduced its force presence in Gaza, after tens of thousands of reservists spent over 100 days straight fighting in the Strip, before returning home over the past month.

The US official acknowledged that much of the talk regarding an imminent Rafah operation has been geared toward keeping pressure on Hamas to stay at the negotiating table and agree to the six-week truce and hostage deal that has been discussed over the past month.

Lashing Israel over aid

Biden’s comments on Rafah came together with a flood of other criticism from him and other top US officials over the past week.

In his State of the Union address on Thursday, the president used the unverified casualty count from the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza — a source he had dismissed earlier on in the war — in order to lament the human cost of the war for Palestinians.

Both Democrats and Republicans stand to applaud as President Joe Biden speaks about former Rep. John Lewis, during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol, March 7, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In that same speech, he warned Israel against using humanitarian assistance as a “bargaining chip,” before being caught on a hot mic afterward saying that he and Netanyahu would need to have a tough conversation, a “come to Jesus” talk.

Two days later, US Vice President Kamala Harris stressed, “It’s important for us to distinguish or at least not conflate the Israeli government with the Israeli people.”

While she may have been highlighting Biden and their administration’s deep affinity for the Jewish state, contrasting that love with his rockier relationship with Netanyahu, such differentiations by American politicians between citizens and leaders of foreign countries are typically reserved for totalitarian regimes, not the closest allies of the United States.

A senior US official stressed that the frustration in Washington was genuine — and not just influenced by the approaching presidential election — particularly after the February 29 aid convoy incident, in which dozens of desperate Palestinians were killed while rushing for humanitarian assistance in largely cut-off northern Gaza.

The administration feels that the tragedy highlighted how Israel has ignored Washington’s repeated warnings regarding the need to avert the humanitarian crisis and provide viable alternatives to Hamas rule, in order to avoid creating the kind of power vacuum that contributed to the convoy disaster.

These messages were relayed last week during war cabinet minister Benny Gantz’s meetings with senior Biden officials in Washington, and they were reiterated on Tuesday to Israel’s Ambassador Michael Herzog, who was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one meeting with Sullivan, a US official said.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, left, welcomes, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, upon Blinken’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

The US official called the meeting “frank,” with the national security adviser telling the Israeli envoy that Washington views Israel as wholly responsible for the humanitarian crisis and expects Jerusalem to address it. Herzog used the opportunity to share some of the steps that Israel has taken in recent days that have led to improvements in aid distribution. A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy called the conversation “constructive.”

The US did not publish a readout on the meeting, in an apparent effort not to hype up the criticism, as it did when Herzog was summoned last year.

Fury in Jerusalem

But with the threat assessment already publicized, Netanyahu did not appear interested in letting the dust settle just yet.

“Distrust of Netanyahu’s ability to rule has deepened and broadened across the public from its already high levels before the war, and we expect large protests demanding his resignation and new elections. A different, more moderate government is a possibility,” the assessment read.

While likely written by a mid-level researcher, the report’s publication at such a sensitive time in US-Israel ties immediately caught Jerusalem’s attention.

“Those who elect the prime minister of Israel are the citizens of Israel and no one else,” said a “very senior” Israeli official who briefed reporters after the premier’s office interpreted the intelligence report as an effort to unseat Netanyahu.

From left: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi at a cadets graduation ceremony at the IDF’s officers school in southern Israel, known as Bahad 1, March 7, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“Israel is not a protectorate of the US, but an independent and democratic country whose citizens are the ones who elect the government. We expect our friends to act to overthrow the terror regime of Hamas and not the elected government in Israel,” the official added.

The statement was released just as Sullivan took the podium.

The national security adviser’s opening remarks focused entirely on Haiti and Ukraine, but as has been the case for much of the past several months, reporters questions immediately went to Israel.

Sullivan did his best to use the opportunity to quash the notion of a crisis in ties.

“You’ve got the president, who from the very first day that this crisis began… with a horrific, vicious, brutal assault by Hamas on the people of Israel killing 1,200 people, raping and pillaging and causing the most death since the Holocaust for the Jewish people,” Sullivan said.

“The president stood up and said Israel would never be alone. He went as the first-ever American president in wartime to Israel to say, ‘I have Israel’s back.’ And he has had Israel’s back. He has backed up those words with deeds all the way through, and not just in terms of providing for Israel’s security against Hamas and Hezbollah, but a broader constellation of steps in terms of military deterrence to keep this war from spinning out in ways that Israel could not handle,” he added, referring to the aircraft carriers he dispatched to the Mediterranean shortly after the October 7 attacks.

A Palestinian searches for his belongings in the rubble of houses destroyed by Israeli strikes in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on March 11, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

When a reporter charged the US with “bear-hugging Netanyahu and his extremist government,” Sullivan accused her of dismissing the massacre perpetrated by Hamas and downplaying the threat posed by the terror group to Israel.

The top Biden aide did reiterate the US expectation that Israel do more to protect civilians and ensure they are receiving aid, but stressed that Hamas’s refusal to accept the six-week hostage deal currently on the table “says a lot to me about [its] regard for innocent Palestinian civilians.”

“One of the things that I have found somewhat absent from the coverage is that what we are talking about in the first phase is women, elderly, and wounded civilians.”

“The fact that [Hamas is] holding on to those folks [is blocking a ceasefire], which not only would bring calm to the fighting, but also would create an enormous opportunity to flow humanitarian assistance in, in much greater quantities,” which has not been able to reach all parts of Gaza given the ongoing fighting.

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