Biden reportedly assures PM he's not trying to push him out

Netanyahu says he made clear to Biden Rafah ground op crucial to destroying Hamas

PM tells MKs of dispute with US, says he and Biden agreed on way to share concerns; on public diplomacy problems, says he can’t find people who can put two words together in English

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on March 19, 2024. At left is National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and at right is committee chairman Yuli Edelstein. (Screenshot/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on March 19, 2024. At left is National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and at right is committee chairman Yuli Edelstein. (Screenshot/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a powerful Knesset committee on Tuesday that the IDF will go ahead with an expected ground operation in Rafah, and that he told US President Joe Biden as much in their phone call yesterday.

“We have a disagreement with the Americans about the need to enter Rafah,” Netanyahu told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “Not about the need to eliminate Hamas — the need to enter Rafah. We do not see a way to eliminate Hamas militarily without destroying these remaining battalions. We are determined to do it. ”

“I made it clear to the president in our conversation, in the clearest way, that we are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah,” said Netanyahu. “There is no way to do it, except by going in on the ground.”

During a phone call with the prime minister on Monday, Biden effectively ruled out any potential support for a major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, which abuts the Egyptian border in Gaza’s southernmost tip.

“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,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, offering a readout on the 45-minute call.

Netanyahu added in his discussion with Israeli legislators on Tuesday that the two leaders agreed on a mechanism for the Americans to share their ideas on humanitarian aid and the evacuation of civilians, a concern that he said Israel shares.

“We need to complete the military elimination of Hamas,” he said. “There is no substitute for that, you can’t go around it, you can’t say, ‘We’ll destroy 80 percent of Hamas, we’ll [leave] 20%,’ because that 20% will reorganize and retake the Strip, and of course they will pose a renewed threat to Israel, and of course it will also be a victory for the broader axis that threatens us — the Iranian axis.”

US President Joe Biden meets with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, March 15, 2024 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Sullivan, speaking to the press on Monday night, clarified that Biden had 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.”

Netanyahu also acknowledged on Tuesday that Israel was locked in a diplomatic struggle alongside its military campaign, and that international pressure on his government was growing.

Monday’s 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 Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a longtime pro-Israel stalwart and the most senior Jewish lawmaker in Congress, calling for early elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu, who he 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.

Palestinians pray in front of a mosque destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, March 8, 2024, ahead of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Biden on Friday hailed Schumer’s speech and said many Americans feel as the senator 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 meddle in Israel’s domestic politics.

According to a report Tuesday from the Axios news site, Biden insisted to Netanyahu during the phone call that he’s not trying to push him out.

The report, citing two people with knowledge of the conversation, said Netanyahu complained about repeated attacks against him by US politicians, singling out Schumer’s speech and Biden’s endorsement of it, which he argued amounted to interference in Israeli politics. The sources told the news site that Biden pushed back and told Netanyahu he was not trying to undermine him politically and has no intention of intervening in Israeli domestic politics.

The report also said the conversation helped clear the air between the two men.

On Monday, Sullivan, the US national security adviser, hit back at Netanyahu, charging that Israel interferes in American politics more than the other way around, during a press conference in which he presented the US’s new, hardened stance regarding a widescale Israeli operation in Rafah.

Netanyahu’s determination to take out Hamas’s remaining battalions seems as strong as ever, even after Biden’s calls to find a new means of destroying the organization’s military capabilities.

“We need control over the Philadelphi Route,” Netanyahu told the Knesset members,  according to Israel National News, referring to a route running along the Egypt-Gaza border.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, March 12, 2024, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

On humanitarian aid, Netanyahu said Israeli officials were looking into the possibility of having outside organizations distribute food, as well as “private companies.”

The prime minister reportedly told the powerful parliamentary body that “from Israel’s standpoint, there is nothing preventing Gazans from leaving, but there aren’t countries in the world that are ready to receive them.”

He added that Israel is building a new border crossing at Kerem Shalom “to replace the Rafah crossing” into Egypt and that Israel will have control over it.

‘Surrounded by people who can’t put two words together’ in English

Netanyahu reportedly said in the meeting that Israel’s international PR suffers because of a lack of personnel who can speak English clearly.

According to quotes from Channel 12 from the closed-door meeting, Netanyahu was asked if Israel’s international hasbara [public diplomacy] problem was due to a lack of funding.

“It’s not just a lack of money. There simply are no people, you are surrounded by people who can’t put two words together [in English]. We need to find them,” he said.

In response to the reports, Netanyahu’s office said that he “deeply values the work of his team and of the Public Diplomacy Directorate that operates under him, and he said this to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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