'Rafah or Riyadh, global pariah or a Middle East partner'

NYT’s Friedman: Biden could restrict arms sales if IDF enters Rafah over US objections

Columnist says Israelis need to know there’s a choice: ground op or Saudi normalization; quotes official stressing, ‘We are not saying to Israel just leave Hamas be’

US President Joe Biden steps off of Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, April 26, 2024, as he returns from a trip to New York. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden steps off of Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, April 26, 2024, as he returns from a trip to New York. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US President Joe Biden would consider restricting the sale of certain weapons to Israel if it launches a military operation in Rafah “over the administration’s objections,” The New York Times reported Friday.

Biden on Wednesday signed off on a $17 billion military aid package for Israel. Nonetheless, wrote columnist Thomas Friedman, “US officials tell me that if Israel does mount a major military operation in Rafah, over the administration’s objections, President Biden would consider restricting certain arms sales to Israel.”

Friedman, who is close to Biden and has sometimes conveyed what he regards as its thinking in his column in recent months, also wrote that an operation in Rafah without a proposal for Gaza’s governance or any hope for a two-state solution “will only compound Israel’s global isolation and force a real breach with the Biden administration.”

US officials told Friedman that the potential restriction on arms sales comes amid concerns that Israel may repeat errors made by the US in Iraq if it were to carry out an operation in the southern Gaza city without a credible plan for the day after.

According to the column, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may need to decide whether the operation in Rafah is more important than potential normalization with Saudi Arabia, an Arab-peacekeeping force for Gaza, and the advancement of the US-led alliance against Iran that helped in the shooting down of the over 300 ballistic missiles and drones fired by Tehran at Israel earlier this month.

Friedman said that the need for a decision between “Rafah or Riyadh” must be explained to Israelis so that they understand that it is a choice between being “a global pariah or a Middle East partner.”

The columnist said that from conversations he has held in Riyadh and Washington, he understood Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman believes Israel needs to get out of Gaza as fast as possible, with the continued ground operation turning Saudis against normalization and at the same time empowering Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session on ‘Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment’ as part of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, on September 9, 2023. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)

“If Israel wants to continue to do special operations in Gaza to get the [Hamas] leadership, no problem,” Friedman wrote of what he believed to be the Saudi view. “But no boots permanently on the ground.”

Friedman stated that the route to partnership with Arab nations “starts with Israel forgoing any total military invasion of Rafah.”

The report said that the US wanted to show that there was a choice between a potential Gaza quagmire or Saudi normalization, “so that every Israeli can see it.”

Friedman said that while the US has told Netanyahu publicly that there cannot be a full-scale invasion of Rafah without a plan to evacuate civilians, in private, US officials have told Israel that there should be no massive operation into the Gazan city at all.

“We are not saying to Israel just leave Hamas be,” an unnamed senior US official told the columnist. “We are saying that we believe there is a more targeted way to go after the leadership, without leveling Rafah block by block.”

Israel believes Hamas leaders and many operatives are hiding in Rafah, and also that many of the remaining 129 hostages kidnapped in the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities, are being held in the city.

People attend an event organized by hostage families marking 200 days of captivity in Gaza at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, April 23, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The New York Times piece appeared to confirm a report by Politico last month, in which four US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that though Biden has not yet made a decision on limiting weapons supplies, he may be prompted to do so if a Rafah operation endangers Palestinian civilians.

The US Arms Export Control Act gives Congress the right to stop a foreign major weapons sale by passing a resolution of disapproval. Although no such resolution has both passed Congress and survived a presidential veto, an angry debate on the issue could embarrass the White House.

The New York Times column came after multiple Israeli reports indicated that top Israeli security officials visited Egypt Wednesday to coordinate the planned offensive in Rafah, amid fears in Cairo that an operation could create a humanitarian catastrophe that will drive tens of thousands of Gazans to breach the border and enter Egypt.

A senior Israeli defense official said Wednesday that the Israel Defense Forces has conducted all necessary preparations for a major ground offensive in Rafah, and can launch an operation the moment it gets government approval.

A boy helps a vendor arrange his merchandise as he sets up before the rubble of a collapsed building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel deems Rafah the last Hamas bastion in the Gaza Strip and is poised to evacuate Palestinian civilians from there and assault Hamas holdouts, the unnamed official told the Reuters news agency, which didn’t specify whether the source was connected to the IDF.

The US has said Israel must show it has a plan to protect civilians when it launches a ground offensive in Rafah, the Strip’s southernmost city.

Israel has procured tens of thousands of tents for the Palestinian civilians it intends to evacuate from Rafah, and satellite images appear to show a tent city being set up near Khan Younis.

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows tents being constructed near Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip on April 21, 2024. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

The IDF has so far operated across northern Gaza and Gaza City, in some parts of central Gaza, and in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, saying it has dismantled the 18 Hamas battalions there.

The fighting has pushed an estimated million displaced Gazan civilians into Rafah, with the international community, including the US, warning that an offensive in the city could significantly worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis.

Government sources have said Netanyahu’s war cabinet planned to meet in the coming two weeks to authorize civilian evacuations — expected to take around a month — as the first stage of the Rafah sweep.

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