Defense minister and IDF chief lay out Rafah evacuation plan to senior Biden aide

National security adviser Sullivan meets with Gantz, Gallant, Eisenkot and Halevi, as Israel prepares to expand incursion into last Hamas stronghold

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (third from left) and senior defense officials meet in Tel Aviv with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (second from right), May 20, 2024 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (third from left) and senior defense officials meet in Tel Aviv with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (second from right), May 20, 2024 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant presented to US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday an update on the evacuation of Palestinian civilians from the Rafah area and on the provision of humanitarian assistance to Gazans, according to the Israeli readout of the Tel Aviv meeting.

Gallant, with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi by his side, told Sullivan that expanding the operation in Hamas’s last Gaza stronghold is a component of Israel’s efforts to dismantle the terror group and bring back the hostages it is holding.

IDF troops have been slowly expanding their limited operation in Rafah, a move Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists is the only way to pressure Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar to agree to a hostage release deal.

Sullivan also convened a modified meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group, which had met several times virtually to discuss Israel’s offensive in the southern Gaza city.

Sullivan met separately on Monday with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and war cabinet observer Gadi Eisenkot. Both Gantz and Gallant publicly criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the war over the past week.

In his meeting with Sullivan, Gallant also warned that the continued lack of a solution to attacks by the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah could “lead to a significant escalation.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meets war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and fellow war cabinet and National Unity party member Gadi Eizenkot in Tel Aviv on May 20, 2024 (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

According to Gallant’s office, the two discussed the need to publicly show the strength of the countries’ bilateral relationship in the face of Iranian designs in the region.

The seven months of war in Gaza since October 7 have been marked by often-open disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem, including an announcement earlier this month by US President Joe Biden that certain munition shipments were being held up over concerns about their use in Rafah.

Gallant and Sullivan discussed how to maintain Israel’s “qualitative edge,” a catchphrase referring to advanced military technology and platforms provided by the US.

In addition to Halevi, Gallant was joined by Defense Ministry Director-General Eyal Zamir, IDF Operations Directorate chief Oded Basiuk, Israel’s US Ambassador Michael Herzog, and other top Defense Ministry officials.

Meeting Sunday with Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials, Sullivan was briefed on the IDF’s latest operations in Gaza.

Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image published May 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The two sides discussed methods to ensure the defeat of Hamas while minimizing harm to civilians,” the US readout said, highlighting a sticking point in ties, as Washington feels Israel has not done nearly enough on this issue.

During the meeting, Sullivan reiterated the US opposition to a major military offensive in Rafah due to fears that it would cause further harm to the civilians sheltering there, while risking irreparable damage to ties with fellow ally Egypt, which shares a border with Rafah.

“Sullivan proposed a series of concrete measures to ensure more aid surges into Gaza, including through all available crossings, and through the multinational humanitarian maritime corridor,” the US readout said.

“Sullivan briefed on US support for Israeli efforts to find and bring to justice Hamas’s leaders in Gaza,” the readout added, highlighting that Washington still supports targeted operations against Hamas’s leaders, including in Rafah.

The top Biden aide briefed Israeli counterparts on talks the US has held with Egypt “to fully secure its border with Rafah and to secure the continued flow of humanitarian assistance through Kerem Shalom, even as talks proceed on reopening the Rafah Crossing.”

In his meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday, Sullivan also laid out the opportunity currently available for Israel to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia if Jerusalem agrees to a pathway to a future Palestinian state.

US President Joe Biden delivers a commencement address during Morehouse College’s graduation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

Sullivan arrived in Israel after holding “constructive” talks on the Biden administration’s “comprehensive vision for an integrated Middle East region” with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, the White House said.

The kingdom said the two discussed a “semi-final” version of a wide-ranging security agreement between the countries. The agreements are considered a major part of Washington’s efforts to bring Riyadh around to recognizing the State of Israel for the first time — efforts complicated by the ongoing war in Gaza.

But the effort appears to be a nonstarter in Israel, with Netanyahu reiterating again Sunday that he would not accept a Palestinian state. Riyadh and Washington have been clear that movement toward statehood is needed to reach an agreement.

That did not stop Sullivan from again pitching the idea to Netanyahu, as he briefed him on his meetings in Saudi Arabia and on “the potential that may now be available for Israel, as well as the Palestinian people,” said the White House readout.

Saudi Arabia has long called for an independent Palestinian state to be created along Israel’s 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. However, that is seemingly untenable for Netanyahu, whose government hinges on support from hardliners who oppose a two-state solution and support Israeli settlements on lands Palestinians want for their state.

(L) Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP) (R)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)

Sullivan also met with President Isaac Herzog, National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, discussing with them the ongoing efforts to secure the release of the hostages in Gaza and “the enduring defeat of Hamas,” according to the White House.

The two goals appear at odds, given that the US is aiming to turn the hostage deal it is currently brokering into a permanent ceasefire that would likely leave Hamas in Gaza in some form.

But US officials told The Times of Israel last week that the diplomatic initiative it is advancing with international partners will marginalize the terror group and that it is the only alternative to Israel permanently occupying Gaza without assistance from its Arab allies in stabilizing the enclave.

Jacob Magid and agencies contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: