Conditioning aid to Israel not in the cards, says spokesperson

Perplexed by ‘overreaction,’ White House says PM stirring crisis in US-Israel ties

Netanyahu choosing to ‘create perception of daylight,’ Kirby says, when US hasn’t changed position linking truce to hostage deal; US official says PM motivated by domestic politics

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks outside his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks outside his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The White House suggested on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to manufacture a crisis in US-Israel ties after he canceled plans to send an Israeli delegation to Washington over the Biden administration’s decision to allow the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate Gaza ceasefire and hostage release.

Netanyahu said the US abstention marked a divergence from Washington’s policy linking a ceasefire to Hamas releasing the hostages it abducted on October 7, but US officials asserted that this wasn’t their interpretation of the resolution and that their position in favor of that conditionality has not changed.

“It seems like the Prime Minister’s Office is choosing to create a perception of daylight here when they don’t need to do that,” White House National Security Council John Kirby said in a press briefing.

“We’re kind of perplexed by this. It’s a non-binding resolution, so there’s no impact at all on Israel’s ability to continue to go after Hamas,” Kirby said.

A second US official briefing a small group of reporters added that Biden aides had been in touch with their Israeli counterparts in the days and hours leading to the vote, explaining that it would not amount to a change in the US approach. The official said Israeli officials understood this but that Netanyahu decided to present things differently.

The official said that the US worked to ensure that the resolution’s demands for a ceasefire and hostage release would be part of the same paragraph after they initially were separated, to dispel the notion that the two aren’t linked with each other. However, the text does not condition the ceasefire demand on the release of the hostages.

The official added that the Biden administration was perplexed by what it views as a major overreaction by Netanyahu to the US allowing the resolution to pass.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield votes abstain on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, during a United Nations Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York on March 25, 2024. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

“The Prime Minister’s Office seems to be indicating through public statements that we’ve somehow changed here. We haven’t,” Kirby said.

For its part, Netanyahu’s office called the US abstention a “clear retreat” from the position Washington has held since the beginning of the war.

“This hurts both the war effort and the effort to release the hostages because it gives Hamas hope that international pressure will allow them to accept a ceasefire without the release of our hostages,” the premier’s office said.

The statement added that Netanyahu had warned the US ahead of time that he would cancel the Israeli plans for Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi to visit Washington if the US abstained in the vote and that he was merely following through.

After the second US official said Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the delegation was likely motivated by domestic Israeli politics, Kirby was pressed on whether Biden is not influenced by his own domestic politics.

The White House spokesman rejected the idea out-right, saying Biden’s decisions regarding the Israel-Hamas war are based strictly on national security concerns.

Relatives of the hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group lead the Purim parade in Jerusalem alongside mayor Moshe Lion, March 25, 2024 (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Kirby added that Netanyahu is wrong to claim that the US abstention will give Hamas hope that it can secure a ceasefire through means other than a hostage release. The second US official noted that the US looked into whether an adopted Security Council resolution might impact the hostage talks and determined that it would not.

Pressed on whether the US might now begin conditioning aid to Israel, Kirby indicated that this is not in the cards.

“I would take issue with this idea that we’re not leveraging everything we can. [But] it’s not a leveraging exercise. It’s not about trying to use some sort of power dynamics here with our good friend and ally, Israel. It’s about helping them defend themselves,” Kirby said. “We still have Israel’s back. As you and I are speaking, we are still providing tools, capabilities, and weapons systems so that Israel can defend itself against what we agree is still a viable threat [from] Hamas.”

US President Joe Biden has no immediate plans to call Netanyahu about the latter’s decision to cancel his top aides’ visit, nor did Netanyahu call Biden about it in advance, the second US official said.

“We’re very disappointed that [the Israeli delegation] won’t be coming to Washington DC to allow us to have a fulsome conversation on the viable alternatives to going in on the ground in Rafah,” Kirby said.

The Biden administration will still have opportunities to present its alternatives to a major Rafah offensive during meetings with visiting Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, even though those will not be a replacement for the inter-agency gathering it was hoping to hold with some of Netanyahu’s other top aides later this week, Kirby acknowledged.

US President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

He said the US will continue to pursue other avenues to discuss the matter with Israel, even though a Rafah operation does not appear to be imminent after Israel withdrew most of its reservists from the Strip last month.

The second US official noted that Israeli officials have even expressed their interest in receiving Washington’s alternative plans to a Rafah operation. They said the US also wants to see Israel’s plan for how it thinks it could pull off an offensive without significantly endangering civilians — something Jerusalem has yet to present to Washington.

A third US official speaking to The Times of Israel maintained that Netanyahu was looking for an excuse not to send a delegation to Washington because it would force him to grapple with alternatives to a Rafah invasion that would be more realistic, and put him at odds with his far-right coalition partners who don’t want him to compromise on the matter.

The third US official lamented that Netanyahu was trying to pick a fight with the US after the Biden administration “stuck its neck out for Israel for months and continues to provide weapons. Bibi knows that he wouldn’t be able to prosecute this war without us, and is still choosing to go this route.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration sought to publicly present a degree of business-as-usual in its ties with Israel with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeting that he held a “constructive discussion on how best to ensure Hamas’s lasting defeat in Gaza,” earlier Monday with Gallant at the White House.

“I conveyed President Biden’s iron-clad support for Israel’s security and defense against all threats, including Iran,” Sullivan wrote.

White House National Security Council adviser John Kirby answers questions about Israel during a press briefing, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“I welcomed Yoav’s commitment to take additional steps to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Sullivan added, noting that he was pleased to host Gallant.

Monday was the first time that the Security Council passed a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza since the start of the war on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists killed some 1,200 people across southern Israel and took 253 hostages.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant issues a video statement from Washington DC, March 25, 2024. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

However, it does mark a symbolic blow to Israel’s international standing nearly six months since Hamas’s shock onslaught and appeared to highlight a new low in deteriorating ties between the US and Israel.

The resolution passed by the UN Security Council “acknowledge[s]” the ongoing efforts to secure a hostage deal but does not directly link those talks to the Gaza ceasefire it is demanding.

Illustrative: Palestinians inspect the damage of residential buildings after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The US had previously vetoed resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire, which contained no mention or linkage to the hostage talks.

The acknowledgment of those negotiations, while not directly linking them to the demanded ceasefire — along with the inclusion of both the ceasefire and hostage release demands in the very same sentence — appeared to be the compromise struck by Security Council members to pass the resolution on Monday.

The resolution “demands an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan respected by all parties leading to a lasting sustainable ceasefire, and also demands the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages,” referring to the Islamic holy month that ends in roughly two weeks anyway.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she had to suffice with abstaining on the resolution, rather than voting in favor, chiefly because it did not include a condemnation of Hamas.

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