Gantz asks US to exert pressure on Hamas for hostage deal

Top Biden aide Sullivan to visit Israel for talks on Saudi ties, Rafah — official

Jerusalem has assured Washington that it won’t further expand operations in Gaza’s southernmost city before national security adviser arrives over the weekend

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

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, May 13, 2024. (Susan Walsh/AP)
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, May 13, 2024. (Susan Walsh/AP)

WASHINGTON — US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is set to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel at the end of the week, a senior US official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

In Riyadh, Sullivan will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the long-shot US effort to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the official said, confirming reporting on the Axios news site.

A region-shaking deal normalizing ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh would likely be underpinned by US defense guarantees for Saudi Arabia but will also require Israel agreeing to establish a pathway to a future Palestinian state. Talks have faltered with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen as hamstrung by far-right coalition partners ideologically opposed to a two-state solution.

In Israel, Sullivan will meet with Netanyahu to update him on his talks in Riyadh and also discuss Israel’s planned military operation in Rafah, the US official said.

The US is working to convince Israel not to further expand its offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city. Washington has received assurances from Jerusalem that the IDF won’t widen the campaign before Sullivan’s visit, the official added.

Netanyahu argues a large-scale offensive in the city is essential to the “total victory” over Hamas that he continues to promise. However, there has been widespread concern for the fate of over a million displaced Gazans sheltering in the city.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)

Sullivan will be the most senior US official to visit Israel since US President Joe Biden confirmed last week that he had halted a shipment of thousands of high-payload bombs to Israel in protest amid fears they’d be used in Rafah, where the US is concerned about the possibility of high civilian casualties.

Biden also threatened to prevent the shipment of additional arms to Israel if the IDF goes ahead with a major offensive.

Sullivan discussed both Rafah and Saudi normalization Tuesday with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz by phone.

Gantz, a relative moderate who acts as a check on the far-right within Netanyahu’s government, is often seen as the Biden administration’s preferred conduit to Israel’s halls of power.

On the call, Gantz emphasized the need to exert diplomatic and military pressure on Hamas in order to secure a hostage deal, he tweeted afterward.

He said the pair also discussed the US effort to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, expanding “the regional alliance of moderates” and the post-war management of Gaza.

Post-war planning will also be on the agenda when Sullivan is slated to arrive in Israel after leaving Saudi Arabia early next week, the US official said.

For most of the war, the US has urged Israel to plan ahead of time what body it wants to replace Hamas in Gaza. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned that pulling out of Gaza without a power structure in place would leave the Strip “a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, anarchy, and ultimately by Hamas again.”

In recent days, Netanyahu allowed the war cabinet to hold one of its first discussions regarding post-war planning since October 7. The US and much of the security cabinet are pushing for the Palestinian Authority to replace Hamas while recognizing that it will have to undergo significant reforms.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on December 15, 2023. (Wafa)

But this plan has been largely a non-starter for Netanyahu, who has likened the more moderate PA to Hamas. Israel did propose last week that the PA assist in the management of the Rafah Crossing after the IDF took over the Gaza side of the gate.

However, the US official said the offer was conditioned on the officers hiding their PA affiliation in order not to spark opposition from Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners who oppose granting the PA any levers of control.

Ramallah has rebuffed the Israeli offer thus far, but talks are ongoing, as Israel simultaneously hopes one of the international organizations on the ground could help temporarily manage Rafah while the IDF maintains a security presence there, an Israeli official said.

The top Biden aide last visited Israel and Saudi Arabia in December. He was supposed to make the trip last month but had to postpone after falling off his bicycle and breaking a rib.

Last week, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said US and Saudi Arabia are “very close” to reaching a deal that would provide Riyadh with security assurances from Washington while moving the Gulf kingdom away from US rivals.

Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout photo published May 13, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Three US officials told The Times of Israel last month that the remaining gaps between Washington and Riyadh are bridgeable. But the Biden officials said the administration is more divided on whether Netanyahu would be prepared to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood to get the Saudis on board.

Blinken also discussed the diplomatic initiative with Arab counterparts when he was in Riyadh last week. The secretary has reiterated that a normalization deal is not possible absent the Palestinian component in addition to calm in Gaza.

The US is also working to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas that would see an initial weeks-long truce in Gaza and hostages freed in exchange for prisoners. But the talks hit an impasse earlier this month, and they have yet to pick up since Israel began limited military operations in Rafah.

The IDF has focused on the border crossing and the city’s eastern neighborhoods, but the UN says nearly a third of the 1.4 million people there have already fled, and the US says Israel has not put the humanitarian systems in place to properly care for the repeatedly displaced population.

A UN-run school is deserted in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 12, 2024. (AFP)

The operations risk crossing what Biden has framed as a red line. His threat to withhold certain offensive weapons from Israel would be triggered if the IDF enters the “population centers” of Rafah. Days after that threat, Israel’s cabinet approved a measured expansion of the operation.

The US says the military operations don’t amount to the major offensive it has warned against.

However, the administration has clarified that it is watching the matter closely.

The IDF’s border operation has forced the shuttering of Rafah, one of the main gates used to deliver aid into Gaza — its prolonged closure could re-energize concerns regarding a famine in Gaza.

Those fears have faded somewhat since Israel began bolstering the pace of deliveries last month, after Biden threatened to fundamentally shift his support for Israel if Jerusalem didn’t immediately take steps to ensure sustained improvements to the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

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