Official: US unfazed that Gantz visit seen as snub of PM

Hosting Gantz, Harris balances praise of Israel with criticism over Gaza aid crisis

VP stresses US alarm over humanitarian situation in Strip, urges boosted aid, notes Jerusalem’s ‘constructive approach’ in hostage talks; Gantz backs international aid mechanism

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

US Vice President Kamala Harris (2nd right) hosts war cabinet minister Benny Gantz (2nd left) at the White House on March 4, 2024 (Office of VP Kamala Harris)
US Vice President Kamala Harris (2nd right) hosts war cabinet minister Benny Gantz (2nd left) at the White House on March 4, 2024 (Office of VP Kamala Harris)

US Vice President Kamala Harris “expressed her deep concern about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza” during her Monday meeting with visiting war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, according to a White House readout, but also credited Israel’s “constructive approach” in the ongoing hostage negotiations.

Harris was one of several top US officials meeting with Gantz, who arrived in DC on Sunday for a visit seen as partially aimed at smoothing over bubbling Israel-US tensions, as Washington increasingly loses patience with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war in Gaza.

Netanyahu refused to sign off on Gantz’s visit, which he views as part of an effort to undermine his authority, and the premier ordered the Israeli embassy in Washington not to provide the war cabinet minister with any assistance while he is in town, an Israeli official said.

The US readout of Harris’s meeting with Gantz was largely a collection of Biden administration talking points about the war, including a condemnation of Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught; support for Israel’s right to defend itself; the need for Israel to present a “credible and implementable humanitarian plan” for how it will protect civilians if it chooses to expand its ground incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah; the need for Israel to take additional measures to increase the flow of aid into Gaza; and the need for a six-week ceasefire that would allow for the release of the hostages and the entry of aid into and throughout Gaza.

Harris “expressed her deep concern about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the recent horrific tragedy around an aid convoy in northern Gaza,” the US readout said.

The vice president also “discussed the urgency of achieving a hostage deal and welcomed Israel’s constructive approach to the hostage talks,” it added.

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz (L) departs the White House after meeting with US Vice President Kamala Harris on March 4, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

In a statement issued a few hours after the meeting, Gantz’s office said he had conveyed to Harris his appreciation for the administration’s support for Israel and stressed “the imperative of completing the mission of removing the threat Hamas poses to Israel, finding a sustainable solution to ensuring humanitarian aid reaches civilians and not terrorist Hamas, and the importance of completing all of the operation’s military objectives in Gaza in a manner that enables stability and prosperity for the region entirely.”

He also called for the urgent establishment of “an international mechanism to oversee the humanitarian effort [in Gaza] in coordination with countries of the region and as part of the wider normalization efforts,” the statement said.

Finally, he highlighted Israel’s “supreme commitment to secure the return of the hostages” and thanked the US for applying “significant pressure” to advance this goal, especially in the last few days.

Protesters gather outside of a gate at the White House in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2024, while US Vice President Kamala Harris is meeting with Chairman of The National Unity Party Benny Gantz. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Upon entering the White House for his first meetings on Monday morning, he told reporters, “You should always speak openly with your friends, and that is what we will do.”

Earlier Monday, Gantz met with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Mideast czar Brett McGurk. He was seen entering Senate Majority Mitch McConnell’s office later in the day, and he will meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday.

Harris on Sunday offered what appeared to be the Biden administration’s harshest critique of Israel since the outbreak of the war in a speech she gave in Selma, Alabama commemorating the 59th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”

The vice president bluntly called out Israel for not doing enough to ease a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza and called for an extended pause in hostilities to be implemented immediately.

Her call for an “immediate ceasefire” won loud cheers from the crowd, even as she clarified that she was referring to a cessation of hostilities as part of a deal that would free hostages kidnapped from southern Israel by the Hamas terror group some five months ago.

Harris’s remarks were consistent with US policy over the past several months that the best way to secure a truce is through a hostage deal, but reflected the White House’s increasing willingness to support rhetoric backing a halt to Israel’s offensive, even if Jerusalem’s goal of eliminating the Hamas terror group remains unrealized.

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s War Cabinet, arrives for a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at the U.S. Capitol on March 04, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)

The White House on Monday reiterated its call on Hamas to accept the terms currently on the table, as talks to secure a truce proceeded in Cairo.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the United States still hopes to conclude a temporary ceasefire-for-hostages deal by the start of Ramadan around March 10.

He said Hamas has yet to agree to the terms of a proposed deal that would include a six-week ceasefire in exchange for the release of some of the sick, elderly, and wounded hostages kidnapped by the Palestinian terrorists in their October 7 massacres in southern Israel.

Harris separately told reporters ahead of her meeting with Gantz, “We’re in a window of time right now where we can actually get a hostage deal done. We all want this conflict to end as soon as possible, and how it does matters.”

Also Monday, Blinken spoke on the phone with Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, pressing the Netanyahu confidant for Israel to do more to expand the amount of aid entering Gaza, due to the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Strip, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

Benny Gantz, a member of Israels War Cabinet, talks to the media after a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol on March 4, 2024 in Washington. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP)

The US is pushing Israel to open additional crossings into Gaza, though Jerusalem has long resisted the step, warning that it could lead to a resurgence of Hamas activity in northern Gaza, where aid has been very limited. Israel also says it will only allow a minimal amount of aid into Gaza, where Hamas continues to hold 130 hostages.

Notably, Blinken’s call came a day before his scheduled meeting with Gantz, when the issue of humanitarian aid will be at the top of his agenda.

Given Netanyahu’s disapproval of Gantz’s visit to Washington, the decision to relay the message through Dermer pointed to a possible US effort to ensure that it is heard clearly by all decision-makers in Jerusalem.

Kirby was asked during a press briefing to weigh in on the controversy in Israel that Gantz is meeting with top US officials in Washington against Netanyahu’s wishes.

“This was a request by Minister Gantz to come to the United States and have meetings. He’s a member of the war cabinet. There is a war going on between Israel and Hamas. We have been dealing with all members of the war cabinet, including Minister Gantz since… he joined the war cabinet… We see this as a natural outgrowth of those discussions,” Kirby said.

“A member of the war cabinet from Israel wants to come to the United States, wants to talk to us about the progress of that war, giving us an opportunity to talk about the importance of getting humanitarian assistance increased, an opportunity to talk about the importance of this hostage deal. We’re not going to turn away that sort of opportunity,” he adds, not revealing whether the US would respond in the same way if Netanyahu made an identical request.

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at an event in Selma, Alabama, on March 3, 2024. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

After meeting McConnell, Gantz was asked by a reporter if the US should be “dealing with” him instead of Netanyahu.

“No, no, no. Israel has a prime minister and everything is okay,” he said while leaving the Capitol.

Gantz also said he had a “good discussion” with McConnell and that his visit to Washington was “going well.”

Publicly, the US has not framed the meetings with Gantz as a slight at Netanyahu, who has not visited the White House since returning to the Prime Minister’s Office in December 2022. But a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said the administration is not bothered by the perception that the meetings with Gantz send a message of its displeasure over Netanyahu’s approach to the war.

Gantz, who polls show could be a formidable candidate for prime minister if a vote were held today, is viewed as a political moderate. But he has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood — something that Biden sees as essential to forging a lasting peace once the conflict ends but that Netanyahu adamantly opposes.

It is also assumed that when the heavy fighting subsides, Gantz will leave the government, which would increase pressure for early elections.

Since Gantz joined Netanyahu’s three-minister war cabinet in October, US officials have found him to be easier to deal with than either Netanyahu or Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Although Gantz holds many of the same views as Netanyahu and Gallant, he has been seen as more open to compromise on critical issues, including the increased delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Until now, calls for elections have been muted due to the war, but analysts think that when Gantz leaves the government, it will send a signal to the Israeli public that the need for national unity has passed and efforts to oust Netanyahu’s government can begin in earnest.

For his part, Gantz was aiming to strengthen ties with the US, bolster support for Israel’s war and push for the release of Israeli hostages, according to a second Israeli official. Gantz is scheduled to head to London for meetings after his US visit.

As was the case in Washington, the Israeli Embassy in London has been instructed not to assist Gantz on his visit to the UK, where he is headed after his US talks. In London, he is slated to meet with British Foreign Minister David Cameron to discuss — among other issues — efforts to block a far-left effort in the country to impose a weapons embargo on Israel, Channel 12 news reported.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

In his remarks Monday, Kirby also accused some Israeli cabinet members of blocking efforts to get more aid into Gaza.

“There have been some obstacles to getting the aid in that are organic to the fact that we’re talking about a war zone, but also inorganic obstacles [have been] thrown up in some cases by some members of the Israeli cabinet that have made it hard to get that aid in,” he said.

Kirby did not name the cabinet members he was referring to, though hardline ministers from several coalition parties have pushed back on US calls to expand aid into Gaza.

“That’s why you heard the president so very clearly make certain on Friday when he was meeting [Italian] Prime Minister [Giorgia] Meloni that this is not a time for excuses. We’ve got to get more aid in,” Kirby said.

He reiterated that the US will carry out additional airdrops of aid into Gaza after an inaugural operation on Saturday and that it is pursuing the establishment of a maritime corridor in order to deliver aid into the Strip by sea.

Palestinians gather in a street as humanitarian aid is airdropped in Gaza City on March 1, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group. (AFP)

Earlier Monday, The New Yorker published an interview it conducted with Biden in January during which the president said critics of his support for Israel during the Gaza war should better internalize what Hamas perpetrated on October 7.

“I don’t want to see any Palestinians killed. I think that it’s contrary to what we believe as Americans,” he said then. “[But] I think they have to give this just a little bit of time, understanding what would happen if they came into their state or their neighborhood and saw what happened with Hamas.”

“The pressure on the [Israeli] leadership to move with every ounce of capacity against Hamas is real. But it doesn’t mean it should be continued. It doesn’t mean it’s right. And so, I think you’re going to see—I’m praying you’re going to see—a significant downturn in the use of force.”

That downturn doesn’t seem to have come in the weeks since the interview, during which Biden also recalled how he urged Israel not to be guided by rage in its response to the October 7 attacks.

US President Joe Biden walks toward members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, March 1, 2024, to travel to Camp David, Maryland., for the weekend. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“I understand the anger and the rage… But you can’t let the rage consume you to the point where you lose the moral high ground,” he tells The New Yorker, echoing comments he made in a speech while visiting Israel less than two weeks after October 7.

During that visit, Biden told The New Yorker, he preached caution to Israel’s war cabinet, whose members responded by pointing to how the US carpet-bombed Germany during World War II.

“That’s why we ended up with the United Nations and all these rules about not doing that again,” Biden says he told the war cabinet in response.

Biden then turned to his effort to advance a massive regional initiative that would see an end to the war, a Saudi normalization deal with Israel and Jerusalem agreeing to create a pathway for a future Palestinian state.

The New Yorker said Biden is “not counting on an epiphany from Netanyahu, [but]… is betting that an offer of Saudi normalization would be so popular with Israeli leaders that Netanyahu would have no choice but to engage it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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