'We will find a way to have dialogue on this issue,' PM says

Netanyahu top aides reportedly to hold video meeting with US officials on Rafah op

Virtual summit set up as alternative to Israeli delegation trip to Washington that was called off by PM amid spat over UN ceasefire resolution

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi at a press conference after the US allowed Israel into its visa-waiver program, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on September 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi at a press conference after the US allowed Israel into its visa-waiver program, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on September 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israeli and US officials will reportedly hold a video conference to discuss plans for an Israeli military offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, as an alternative to the face-to-face meeting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled in a rebuke to Washington for not vetoing a UN Security Council resolution about the ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The Axios website on Monday cited four US and Israeli officials who said the gathering will take place via a secure video conference call later in the day.

Senior Israeli officials told the outlet that the virtual meeting was seen as a way for Netanyahu to “save face” by having talks about Rafah without actually sending the delegation.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was to lead the US team that will include officials from the Pentagon, US State Department, and US intelligence agencies, the report said.

On the Israeli side will be Netanyahu’s close confidant Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and Israel’s national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi along with other senior defense and security officials. Dermer and Hanegbi were supposed to have led the original delegation to Washington.

An in-person follow-up meeting is planned for next week, the report said.

Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the White House would comment on the report, Axios said.

File: From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)

According to the report, Dermer has been pressing the prime minister in recent days to quickly send the delegation in order to prevent widening a public rift with Washington over the war.

Axios said that the day after the planned delegation was canceled Netanyahu already began asking for to reschedule, though the Prime Minister’s Office later denied approving an alternative trip even as the White House announced the development.

War erupted on October 7 when Palestinian terror group Hamas led a massive cross-border attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, amid horrific atrocities. The thousands of attackers who burst through the boundary into southern Israel also abducted 253 people of all ages who were taken as hostages in Gaza.

Israel responded with a military campaign to topple the Hamas regime, destroy the terror group, and free the hostages of whom 130 remain in captivity. Some hostages were released during a negotiated week-long lull in November.

The fighting has caused a major humanitarian crisis in Gaza as aid deliveries have wilted, with the UN warning of imminent famine.

Netanyahu has defended canceling the delegation to Washington as a protest of the Biden administration’s decision to refrain from using its veto power to stop a UN Security Council resolution last week calling for an immediate Gaza ceasefire and hostage release, but without directly linking the two. He has said that the move would encourage Hamas to take a harder line in talks for a temporary ceasefire and release of hostages.

Palestinian children sit on a hill next to tents housing the displaced in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

US President Joe Biden has said he would oppose any major ground operation in the Rafah, where around 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering unless Israel has a viable plan to evacuate non-combatants. Netanyahu insists the operation is needed to achieve the war goal of destroying Hamas.

At a press conference Sunday Netanyahu said “I have approved the IDF operational plan for Rafah. The IDF is prepared for the evacuation of the civilian population and for the provision of humanitarian assistance.”

“This will take time but it will be done,” he said. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there for one simple reason: There is no victory without entering Rafah and there is no victory without eliminating the Hamas battalions there.”

According to Axios, it was the fourth time in the past two months that Netanyahu has publicly declared that a Rafah plan was approved even though the operation has yet to go ahead.

Netanyahu insisted to reporters that the final stage of the war was drawing close. The IDF was ready to operate in Rafah, he said, after it would evacuate the civilian population and distribute humanitarian aid.

“It’s the right thing to do operationally and internationally,” he said.

Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated image released by the military for publication on March 31, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Netanyahu again defended canceling the original delegation and his stiff opposition to Washington allowing the UN resolution to pass.

“We will find a way to have dialogue on this issue,” he said of US input regarding Rafah. “But I thought it was important to send the message on that very day to the entire international community, and also to Hamas. And that was an important message that I stand behind.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 31, 2024. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

“We are still and always interested in hearing from our American friends, even when we have disagreements with them,” Netanyahu said. “They have things to say on the humanitarian issue and on the evacuation of the population. We hear it, we will hear it in the future.”

Ceasefire talks via international mediators have been ongoing with another round of negotiations set for Cairo this week.

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