Sullivan: Israel intrudes more in US politics than vice versa

Biden rules out support for major Rafah op, in first call with PM in over a month

After long indicating US could back offensive if IDF ensures civilians’ safety, president says he wants a more targeted approach; White House says PM agreed to send team to discuss

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, confers with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, during their meeting with US President Joe Biden, left, to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, confers with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, during their meeting with US President Joe Biden, left, to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)

US President Joe Biden effectively ruled out any potential support for a major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah during a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan revealed, changing course after the administration had indicated for months it could support an operation there under certain conditions.

“A major ground operation there would be a mistake. It would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza and further isolate Israel internationally,” Sullivan said, offering a readout on the 45-minute call in his opening remarks at a White House press briefing.

The call between Netanyahu and Biden was their 20th since the outbreak of war following Hamas’s October 7 attack, but their first since February 15. It came four days after an unprecedented speech from longtime pro-Israel stalwart and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for early elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu, who the most senior Jewish lawmaker in Congress said has “lost his way” and branded as an obstacle to peace along with Hamas, the Israeli far-right and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Biden on Friday hailed the speech and said many Americans feel as Schumer does, though the White House clarified that elections were a matter for the Israeli people to decide. Schumer’s remarks infuriated Netanyahu, who has accused the US of trying to interfere in Israel’s domestic politics.

Sullivan hit back on Monday, charging Israel interferes in American politics more than the other way around.

But the purpose of his press conference was to present the new, hardened US stance regarding a widescale Israeli operation in Rafah.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For months, the US indicated that it could potentially support an offensive if — and only if — Israel presented a credible plan beforehand for how to protect the over one million civilians sheltering in the southern Gaza city.

Netanyahu has said the IDF will evacuate the civilians to areas north of Rafah before beginning the operation and declared Friday that he had approved the military’s plans for the offensive. US officials speaking on condition of anonymity to The Times of Israel in recent weeks increasingly expressed their skepticism that such a large-scale evacuation would be possible, but the administration refrained until Monday from publicly coming out against the planned Israeli operation altogether.

“The key goals Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be done by other means,” Sullivan asserted, revealing that Biden asked Netanyahu during the call to send an interagency team to Washington “to lay out an alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements in Rafah and secure the Egypt-Gaza border without a major ground invasion.” Sullivan said Netanyahu agreed to the president’s request to send a delegation.

“Obviously, [Netanyahu] has his own point of view on a Rafah operation, but he agreed that he would send a team to Washington to have this discussion, and we look forward to those discussions,” the US national security adviser added.

Sullivan clarified that Biden again rejected during the call “the straw-man (argument) that raising questions about Rafah is the same as raising questions about defeating Hamas. That’s just nonsense. Our position is that Hamas should not be allowed a safe haven in Rafah or anywhere else.”

A potential Israeli operation in Rafah has been a point of contention in ties with the US for months. The southern Gaza city is just about the last part of the Strip where Israeli ground forces have not entered en masse, after starting in northern Gaza and making their way down the enclave. Jerusalem says an offensive in Rafah is necessary to dismantle Hamas’s four battalions there, but it is also looking to gain control of the Philadelphi Corridor between Egypt and Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Strip after the war.

Palestinians line up for a meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

The administration began hardening its approach in recent weeks, with Biden saying earlier this month that an Israeli offensive in Rafah would be a “red line,” adding that “there cannot [be] 30,000 more Palestinians dead as a consequence of going after” Hamas. But he then appeared to backtrack, insisting that “there’s no red line (in which) I’m going to cut off all weapons so they don’t have the Iron Dome to protect them.”

Sullivan reacted somewhat angrily on Monday in response to another question about whether Biden told Netanyahu that a Rafah operation is a “red line” for the US. He called the query an “obsession” of the media that “is not stated as a declaration of our policy, and we’ve made that clear.”

Regardless, no operation is seen to be imminent, given that Israel has withdrawn most of its reservists from Gaza, and thousands would likely need to be called up again before any major offensive in Rafah could begin. Netanyahu reportedly told security cabinet ministers on Friday that he never said the operation would take place during Ramadan, which ends on April 9.

Talk by Israeli leaders of a coming operation in Rafah appears to be part of an effort to put pressure on Hamas to agree to the hostage deal currently being negotiated or risk having its last stronghold dismantled by the IDF.

Why Biden is ‘deeply concerned’

Sullivan laid out the three reasons why Biden is “deeply concerned” about a massive Israeli offensive in Rafah akin to the ones carried out thus far in other major Gaza cities.

He noted that over one million people are sheltering in Rafah after fleeing repeatedly from elsewhere in Gaza.

A girl carries a canvas bag filled with food aid bearing the logo of non-profit non-governmental organisation World Central Kitchen, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“They have nowhere else to go. Gaza’s other major cities have largely been destroyed, and Israel has not presented us or the world with a plan for how or where they would safely move those civilians, let alone feed and house them and ensure access to basic things like sanitation,” Sullivan said.

Rafah is also the primary entry point for humanitarian assistance to Gaza from Egypt and Israel, Sullivan noted, lamenting that it would be shut down or severely hampered “at the moment when it is most sorely needed” if an IDF offensive moved forward.

“Third, Rafah is on the border with Egypt, which has voiced its deep alarm over a major military operation there and has even raised questions about its future relationship with Israel as a result of any impending military operation,” the US national security adviser said.

‘How to ensure a sustainable campaign’

Sullivan went on to argue that Israel’s latest military operation against Hamas in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital highlights Washington’s concern that Jerusalem lacks a sustainable strategy in targeting the terror group.

“Israel cleared Shifa once. Hamas came back into Shifa, which raises questions about how to ensure a sustainable campaign against Hamas so that it cannot regenerate, cannot retake territory,” Sullivan said.

Weapons found at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, March 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Washington has long accused Israel of failing to advance a viable alternative to Hamas rule, by rejecting efforts to promote local Palestinians linked to the Palestinian Authority with support from Arab allies to fill the vacuum created by the terror group’s initial dismantlement by Israel.

Instead, Netanyahu has sought to empower local clan leaders with no ties to the PA or Hamas to facilitate the distribution of aid and eventually govern the Strip, though, there are no indications this strategy has worked.

Various spots in northern Gaza have seen a resurgence of Hamas activity in recent weeks, with the IDF reportedly pleading with the political leadership to make more clear-cut, realistic decisions regarding the post-war management of Gaza or risk wasting the military’s gains.

“From our perspective, it is connecting Israel’s objective to a sustainable strategy. That is the final thing we need to focus on right now, rather than have Israel go smash into Rafah. That is what the president talked to the prime minister about today,” Sullivan said.

Still, he defended the aim of the latest Israeli operation in Shifa, noting the IDF is pursuing senior Hamas commanders and that “it is clear that Hamas fired back at Israel from that hospital.”

Sullivan also reiterated that Hamas continues to use civilian infrastructure “to store weapons, for command and control and to house fighters.”

“That places an added burden on Israel that very few militaries have to deal with.”

File: Israeli soldiers stand outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, November 22, 2023. (Victor R. Caivano/AP)

Sullivan became the first official from any government to publicly confirm reports that Israel killed Hamas’s number three military official, Marwan Issa, in a strike last week.

“The rest of the top leaders are in hiding, likely deep in the Hamas tunnel network, and justice will come for them too. We are helping to ensure that,” Sullivan said.

“Israel has made significant progress against Hamas. They’ve broken a significant number of Hamas battalions and killed thousands of Hamas fighters including senior commanders,” he noted.

He also clarified Biden did not threaten Netanyahu with repercussions if Israel moves forward with a major ground invasion in Rafah.

“What the president said today was, ‘I want you to understand, Mr. Prime Minister, exactly where I am on this. I am for the defeat of Hamas. I believe that they are an evil terrorist group with not just Israeli, but American blood on their hands,” Sullivan explained.

“‘At the same time. I believe that to get to that (defeat), you need a strategy that works, and that strategy should not involve a major military operation that puts thousands and thousands of civilian, innocent lives at risk in Rafah. There is a better way. Send your team to Washington, and let’s talk about it. We’ll lay out for you what we believe is a better way,’” Sullivan said.

The national security adviser added the US has “every expectation” that Israel will not proceed with a Rafah offensive before the sides discuss the matter in Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress, Washington DC, March 3, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/File)

What interference?

Sullivan was asked during the press briefing whether the US could do more to speak directly to the Israeli people regarding its concerns over an offensive in Rafah. He argued that it was ironic that the press was asking this question given Netanyahu’s recent appearances in American media, in which he has blasted Washington for interfering in Israeli politics.

“In fact, we don’t do nearly as much as they speak into ours,” Sullivan said without elaborating.

Netanyahu has long been criticized by Democrats over what they saw was his support for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, but more notably the 2015 speech that the Israeli premier organized in Congress behind then-president Barack Obama’s back to lobby lawmakers against the Iran nuclear deal.

Sullivan seemed to try and soften his criticism, saying it was not “a constructive answer to your question, just an observation.”

He revealed that Netanyahu on the call raised his concern regarding “a variety of things that have come out in the American press,” but avoided detailing them further.

“From President Biden’s perspective, this is not a question of politics, it’s not a question of public statements, it’s a question of policy and strategy. That’s what he’s focused on, that’s what he was focused on in the call,” Sullivan said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) departs from the Senate Chambers in the US Capitol Building on March 14, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP)

Hamas added further conditions to hostage deal

Biden was vocally supportive of Israel in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught, becoming the first US president to visit Israel during wartime and funneling daily weapons and ammunitions shipments to Israel in addition to dispatching a pair of military aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean in an effort to deter adversaries from joining in the war against the Jewish state. But the rhetorical backing has waned as the fighting has dragged on and as the humanitarian situation in Gaza has turned into a full-blown crisis.

Washington has avoided turning the rhetoric against Jerusalem regarding its prosecution of the war into action, though, and has refrained from conditioning military aid, cutting it off entirely or demanding an immediate ceasefire.

In the meantime, it is working to secure a temporary ceasefire of at least six weeks through a hostage deal, which it hopes to use to negotiate a more enduring truce and advance a regional initiative that would see Arab allies participating in the reconstruction of Gaza, a reformed PA returning to govern the Strip, Saudi Arabi normalizing ties with Israel and Jerusalem agreeing to create a pathway to an eventual Palestinian state.

While the US in recent weeks insisted that Israel was cooperating with the hostage deal and has said it is Hamas that is dragging its feet, Netanyahu has all but rejected the idea of such an agreement to secure a broader regional alignment, as he and the vast majority of his coalition are against a two-state solution.

Israel sent a team of negotiators led by Mossad chief David Barnea to Doha earlier Monday to continue indirect talks on a temporary truce.

Sullivan acknowledged that the effort to secure an extended truce between Israel and Hamas through a hostage deal “has been more elusive than we would have hoped,” but insisted that the Biden administration “will keep pressing because we regard this as an urgent priority.”

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2024. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)

“Far too little of the energy and the pressure to end this conflict has been applied to Hamas. We will keep pointing that out,” he added.

Hamas in its response last week to the latest hostage deal framework added new conditions that Israel says it cannot accept, Sullivan said, offering the most detailed response from a US official regarding the terror group’s reply last week.

“Hamas has put a proposal on the table — this is after Israel, working with Qatar, Egypt and the United States, had indicated a willingness to move forward on a six-week ceasefire in return for the release of a number of hostages, leading to further phases from there, and Hamas had given us nothing for quite some time,” Sullivan said, reiterating that there could be a deal immediately if Hamas would just agree to release roughly 40 Israeli female, elderly, and wounded hostages.

Instead, Hamas “put a proposal on the table where they’ve added a series of other conditions… The Israeli government has responded by saying they can’t just accept that. They regard some of those conditions as going too far, but that’s what a negotiation is about,” the US national security adviser continued, noting that negotiating teams are currently in Qatar trying to secure a deal.

“We believe that those discussions are very alive, that a deal is possible,” Sullivan said.

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip and activists protest calling for the for their release outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 17, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

Actions speak louder than words on aid

Sullivan said Netanyahu indicated during his call with Biden that he would push his government to ensure that more aid enters Gaza, before clarifying that Washington is more interested in seeing results than pledges. It took over two months for Israel to transfer a US shipment of flour into Gaza after agreeing to do so in January.

The national security adviser acknowledged that Israel has taken several steps in recent days to facilitate the entry of more aid into Gaza, including opening a new gate to allow trucks to directly enter northern Gaza from Israel, allowing additional convoys to reach northern Gaza from the southern Strip and expanding the number of trucks entering the enclave from the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings.

However, he noted that the amount of aid has dipped in the past, after initial bursts of improvement, partially due to the breakdown of law and order along with Israeli restrictions that prevent the proper distribution of assistance throughout the Strip once it enters Gaza.

Sullivan said the US will keep working to “flood” the Strip with aid by land, air and sea, adding that Israel is primarily responsible for facilitating the assistance followed by the international community.

He branded as “alarming” a UN-backed report warning that Gaza faces impending famine if steps are not taken to address the crisis.

While Netanyahu’s office did not issue its own readout on the call, the premier did publish a video saying that the two leaders discussed “Israel’s commitment to achieving all the goals of the war: the elimination of Hamas, the release of all our hostages and the promise that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel.”

Aid boat carrying supplies from World Central Kitchen approaches Gaza on March 15, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Netanyahu stressed that Israel will provide to Gazans “the necessary humanitarian aid that helps achieve these goals.”

The premier has long acknowledged that a humanitarian crisis would force Israel to halt its fighting in Gaza, and pressure on Jerusalem has indeed intensified significantly after dozens of Palestinians were killed swarming an aid convoy as it arrived in the largely cut-off northern Gaza Strip. Israel insists there is no limit to the amount of aid deliveries it is prepared to facilitate, but aid groups blame Israeli restrictions for the slowdown, particularly in northern Gaza where Hamas’s civilian infrastructure has been replaced by a vacuum of lawlessness, which critics say could have been avoided had Netanyahu’s government been advancing a viable alternative to Hamas rule.

Waiting for written assurance

Sullivan said Israel has yet to provide the US with a written assurance that it will use American military aid in line with international law, with only five more days to do so.

“What they have to do by Sunday is just provide credible and reliable assurances that they will abide by their international obligations — not obligations we have imposed upon them, but obligations they have freely accepted with respect to international humanitarian law, which includes not arbitrarily impeding the flow of humanitarian assistance where they can control that,” Sullivan said.

In this December 12, 2016, file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaches to one of the first two next-generation F-35 fighter jets after it landed during an unveiling ceremony upon arrival in Nevatim Air Force Base near Beersheba, Southern Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

The written assurance is a new condition that the US placed on all aid recipients, laid out in a memo signed by Biden on February 8. The directive does not single out Israel, but came at a time of increasing calls from progressive lawmakers for conditions on US aid to the Jewish state, amid concerns that Jerusalem was not doing enough to protect civilians in Gaza.

US security aid recipients were already required to use it in line with international law, though the request for written assurances was new.

“I cannot tell you today that they have provided that… They have several more days before they have to do so, and we anticipate that they will,” Sullivan clarified.

The Walla news site reported last Thursday that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant had signed off on the written assurance, though Israel has yet to publicly confirm as much.

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