White House says major Rafah op would be a ‘mistake,’ Netanyahu agrees to send interagency team to US to discuss alternative

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

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)
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)

US President Joe Biden all but shut the door for any potential support for a major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah during his call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier today, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reveals.

“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 says, offering a readout on the call in his opening remarks at a White House press briefing.

“More importantly, the key goals Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be done by other means,” Sullivan adds, 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.”

“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 adds.

Sullivan clarifies that Biden again rejected during the call “the strawman (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.”

The US has indicated that it could support an operation in Rafah if Israel presents a credible plan for how it will protect the over one million civilians who are sheltering in the southern Gaza city. Netanyahu says 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.

Washington 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.”

Regardless, no operation is seen to be imminent, given that Israel has withdrawn most of its reservists from Gaza after over 100 days, and thousands would likely need to be called up again before any 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 of an imminent operation in Rafah appears to be part of an Israeli 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.

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