In rare criticism, US accuses Egypt of withholding Gaza aid

US indicates initial satisfaction with changes to Israeli military plans for Rafah

Senior Biden official suggests updated IDF operations add pressure on Hamas, may help revive hostage talks, says nuclear piece of near-final Saudi deal ‘very much in our interests’

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

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)
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)

Israel has been updating its plans for a military offensive in Rafah in a manner that has been initially satisfactory to the US, a senior Biden administration official said Tuesday.

“It’s fair to say that the Israelis have updated their plans. They’ve incorporated many of the concerns that we have expressed,” the official said, while stopping short of fully green-lighting the IDF offensive during a briefing with reporters.

The US has for months come out against a major military offensive in Rafah, warning that there was no way to pull one off in a manner that accounted for the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering there.

But earlier this month, Israel launched targeted operations in the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah and at the city’s border crossing — activity that the US says has not crossed its red line for what would warrant a withholding of weapons transfers.

Ahead of those operations, Israel began issuing evacuation orders for large parts of Gaza’s southernmost city, leading nearly two-thirds of the population to flee to humanitarian zones to the south and west. While the US remains concerned that Israel doesn’t have the humanitarian systems in place to care for so many people who are now sheltering in areas flattened by bombings, as opposed to the slightly more infrastructurally sound Rafah, the senior Biden official was less critical of the latest Israeli efforts.

Asked whether Israel could carry out an offensive in Rafah that is kept in line with the concerns of the Biden administration, the senior official said that Jerusalem is on the right path for doing so.

Displaced Palestinians line up to receive food in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on May 19, 2024 (Photo by AFP)

“I have to say after coming out of Israel these past couple of days… it is pretty clear that the Israelis are taking those concerns seriously,” the senior US official said.

The official also noted that the situation in Rafah has changed dramatically over the past several weeks, given the mass evacuation of Palestinians.

Hostage deal opening?

Israel’s tailored operations in Rafah and the military pressure that the IDF has been exerting on Hamas in the southern Gaza city might lead to “some opportunities for getting the hostage deal back on track,” the senior US official claimed.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly maintained that military pressure, particularly in Hamas’s last main stronghold of Rafah, is essential in coaxing Hamas to agree to a hostage deal. The US has not refuted that stance outright but has said that a major military operation in Rafah would actually embolden Hamas in the hostage talks.

But taking some of the administration’s recommendations regarding Rafah planning into account allowed Israel to potentially improve its standing in the negotiations, rather than harm the effort, the US official suggested.

Breaking the current impasse in the hostage negotiations was a topic of conversation that came up in every one of US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s meetings in Saudi Arabia and Israel over the weekend, the official said.

“We think we might have some openings to do that. We have a decent plan,” the official added, without elaborating.

The senior Biden official noted that much of Washington’s broader regional agenda hinges on first securing a hostage deal that would produce an initial weeks-long pause in the fighting that the US aims to turn into something more enduring.

Rachel Goldberg-Polin, mother of Hamas captive Hersh Goldberg-Polin, speaks to hostage rally in Tel Aviv on May 18, 2024. (Hostages and Missing Families Forum/Paulina Patimer)

Green light in Riyadh, red light in Jerusalem

Turning to the US effort to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the senior US official reiterated that the other parts of the broader deal that Washington is trying to broker are all but final.

“There is a civil nuclear cooperation element, which we believe is very much in our interests [due to] the way this has been structured. It has been done by our non-proliferation experts… in a very rigorous way,” the senior official said.

The civil nuclear cooperation is one of several bilateral elements, along with a security component and an economic component to the broader diplomatic initiative that the US is looking to sign with Saudi Arabia, the official explained.

The bilateral package is “very focused on a convergence of the interests that we want to see secured for a very long-term basis,” the official says, noting that the Defense, Energy and State Departments were closely involved in crafting those agreements.

While the bilateral agreements were largely finalized during Sullivan’s visit to Saudi Arabia over the weekend, the entire deal hinges on a Palestinian component — the establishment of a pathway to a two-state solution, the official acknowledges.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly made clear that he is not interested in making such concessions to the Palestinians, even if it is in exchange for Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (R) in Jerusalem, May 19, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

But this has not stopped the US from trying to advance the initiative. It was a top agenda item during Sullivan’s nearly four-hour meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday. Afterward, Riyadh issued a statement saying a near-final set of bilateral arrangements had been reached with Washington.

Sullivan briefed Netanyahu on those developments when he arrived in Israel on Sunday. “The Israeli officials took that on board, and we’ll continue to consult with them,” the senior US official said.

Some Biden officials have suggested that the US is running out of time to secure a deal before the 2024 presidential election and that the administration is nearing a point where it will simply choose to publicly present the diplomatic initiative and force Netanyahu to make a decision.

But the senior official briefing reporters said that wasn’t Sullivan’s approach during his meeting with Netanyahu. “There was no ultimatum or ‘last chance or it can’t be done.’”

As for Saudi Arabia, the official suggested that Riyadh is just as interested in a deal as Washington is.

“We are very realistic about this. In fact, we are not pushing it. We are basically facilitating it. The Saudis… remain very interested in this possibility, but with the emphasis that there has to be a credible pathway for the Palestinians. That is a fundamental component of the deal,” the senior official says.

Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

The official asserted that Riyadh is “prepared to do an awful lot with tremendous benefit for the Palestinians,” including assistance in the post-war stabilization of Gaza.

Stressing that a deal with Saudi Arabia requires the war in Gaza to wind down, the senior US official said Sullivan during his meetings in Israel discussed the need to pursue interim political arrangements that transition to a “stabilization phase” in the Strip.

“That conversation is very much ongoing. There are disagreements within the Israeli system on this, which I think are very natural,” the senior US official said, apparently referring to criticism of Netanyahu by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz over the premier’s refusal to advance a viable alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza.

Rare criticism of Egypt

The senior Biden administration went on to offer very rare criticism of Egypt over what they said was Cairo’s withholding of UN humanitarian assistance from Gaza.

“What should be going into Kerem Shalom is the UN assistance, which is now in Egypt. Egypt is holding that back until the Rafah crossing situation settles out,” the senior administration official lamented.

Until Tuesday, the US has done nothing but praise Egypt for its role in the hostage talks and in facilitating aid into Gaza, despite reports that the government has also been seeking to profit off the dire situation.

Two officials told The Times of Israel last week that Egypt also mishandled the latest round of hostage talks, contributing to their collapse.

Egyptian army soldiers man an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) deployed near the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on March 23, 2024 (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

During the Tuesday briefing, the senior US official said, “We do not believe that aid should be held back for any reason whatsoever. Kerem Shalom is open. The Israelis have it open. And that aid should be going through Kerem Shalom.”

Aid has piled up on the Egyptian side of the Rafah Crossing after it was shuttered earlier this month due to Israel’s operation to take over the Gaza side of the crossing from Hamas

Egypt and Israel have traded blame for why Rafah has remained closed.

A second US official speaking to The Times of Israel earlier Tuesday said that Egypt warned Israel it would close the crossing if Israel did not fully coordinate its military operations at the gate with Cairo, which Jerusalem failed to do.

The US official said that Egypt is unwilling to reopen the crossing so long as it is the IDF that is the IDF that is securing the other side, not wanting to be seen as complicit with Israel’s occupation of the gate.

Egypt could be willing to reopen the Rafah Crossing if the Palestinian Authority or an international organization replaced the IDF there, the official said, adding that the PA rejected an Israeli offer to manage the gate.

Illustrative: Palestinians queue to get water during a distribution organized by the ‘Doctors Without Borders’ NGO at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, near the Gaza-Egypt border, January 21, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel conditioned PA involvement on its officers not identifying themselves as being from the PA due to fears of pushback from Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners. Ramallah also demanded that its involvement at Rafah be part of a broader diplomatic initiative aimed at an eventual two-state solution — a non-starter for Israel.

In the meantime, the US has sought to convince Cairo to at least allow the aid that is building up in Egypt to be transferred to Gaza through Israel’s Kerem Shalom Crossing.

But this effort has been rejected by Cairo, which still views such a move as cooperation with Israel’s takeover of the Rafah Crossing, the second US official said.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the UN said that it was no longer able to distribute food aid in the southern Gaza city of Rafah due to lack of supplies and insecurity.

The senior US official briefing reporters noted that Israel has agreed to implement a series of requests made by the US in recent days to improve the amount of aid getting into Gaza.

One of those steps is allowing aid scanned in Cyprus to be sent directly to Israel’s Ashdod Port where it can then be transferred to Gaza without having to undergo an additional security step, the US official said.

Palestinians walk in a camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip by the border with Egypt on April 28, 2024. (AFP)

Praise for Oman

Also during the briefing, the senior US official confirmed the indirect negotiations White House Mideast czar Brett McGurk held with Iranian counterparts in Oman last week.

“The Omanis recommend their facilitation for an exchange between senior officials with Iran and the United States,” the official said.

“It’s a forum for us to make very clear some of the consequences of various courses of action of Iranian behavior and policies. We’ve done it a number of times through this forum quite effectively, managing escalations, particularly since October 7,” the official says, adding that the US uses the channel to raise its concerns regarding Tehran’s regional proxies and its nuclear weapons program.

“It’s a useful forum because without being able to have some exchange, the risk of miscalculation, misunderstanding can be quite high,” the official added.

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