Biden, Netanyahu hold first call in more than a month
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during a Feb. 14, 2024 press briefing at the White House.
Photo: Oliver Contreras/White House

Jake Sullivan, The White House national security advisor, said that Israel agreed on Monday to send a “senior interagency team” to Washington to review a potential operation in Rafah.

By Andrew Bernard
March 18, 2024

(JNS) — In his first call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in more than a month, U.S. President Joe Biden expressed skepticism on Monday about Israel’s military plans in Gaza, according to Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security advisor.

In a readout of the call during the White House daily press briefing, Sullivan said that Biden questioned whether Israel’s military plans were “sustainable” given the scale of Palestinian civilian casualties since Oct. 7.

“A humanitarian crisis has descended across Gaza, and anarchy reigns in areas that Israel’s military has cleared but not stabilized,” Sullivan said. 

“Instead of a pause to reevaluate where things stand in the campaign and what adjustments are needed to achieve long-term success, instead of a focus on stabilizing the areas of Gaza that Israel has cleared so that Hamas does not regenerate and retake territory that Israel has already cleared,” he added, “the Israeli government is now talking about launching a major military operation in Rafah.”

The Israel Defense Forces raid on Monday that cleared out Hamas terrorists from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City was an example of Israel’s failure to secure territory already under its control, underlining why Jerusalem should reconsider the Rafah operation, Sullivan said.

“Israel cleared Shifa once,” he said. “Hamas came back into Shifa, which raises questions about how to ensure a sustainable campaign against Hamas so that it cannot regenerate, cannot retake territory and, from our perspective.”

“That is the vital thing we need to focus on right now, rather than have Israel go smash into Rafah,” he added.

Despite Biden’s opposition to a military operation in Rafah, the U.S. president did not threaten to cut off military aid to Israel during the call, and U.S. “red lines” reported in the news are a media construction that does not reflect administration policy, Sullivan said.

The senior U.S. official added that Biden’s concerns about Rafah should not be understood as a lack of U.S. commitment to root out Hamas.

“The president has rejected, and did again today, the strawman that raising questions about Rafah is the same as raising questions about defeating Hamas,” he said. “That’s just nonsense.”

Jake Sullivan
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during a Feb. 14, 2024 press briefing at the White House. Credit: Oliver Contreras/White House.

“But a major ground operation there would be a mistake,” he added. “It would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza and further isolate Israel internationally.”

Sullivan said that Netanyahu agreed to send an Israeli “senior interagency team” of military, intelligence and humanitarian officials to Washington to review Israel’s plans for Rafah with U.S. counterparts. 

Without saying that a hard-and-fast commitment had been made, Sullivan said the Biden administration has an “expectation” that the IDF won’t launch a “major military operation” in Rafah until the completion of those talks, and that the Israeli delegation could arrive in Washington as soon as the end of this week or early next week.

The Israeli readout of the call was more limited. Netanyahu stated that the two sides discussed eliminating Hamas, freeing hostages, ensuring that Gazans can’t threaten Israel again and providing humanitarian aid.

Biden and Netanyahu have a long and frequently testy political relationship. Biden was caught on a hot mic after the State of the Union address earlier this month telling Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) that he and Netanyahu needed to have a “come to Jesus” meeting over Gaza. 

“It’s an expression used in the southern part of my state meaning a serious meeting,” Biden said in an interview with MSNBC. “I’ve known Bibi for 50 years. He knew what I meant by it.”

Sullivan said that Monday’s call was “businesslike,” with each side addressing his agenda items in turn. In response to a question from a reporter, Sullivan denied that the call ended abruptly.

Sullivan was also asked about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) speech on Thursday on the Senate floor, in which he called for new Israeli elections to bring down Netanyahu’s coalition. The national security advisor declined to get into specifics but said that Netanyahu “did raise his concerns about a variety of things that have come out in the American press.”

Citing Netanyahu’s interview with CNN on Sunday, Sullivan rejected claims from some Israeli political figures, in the wake of Schumer’s comments, that American politicians are unduly interfering in Israeli domestic politics.

“Inherent in the question is kind of an interesting irony, which is you have the prime minister speaking on American television about his concerns about Americans interfering in Israeli politics,” Sullivan said. “Then your question is, should Americans be speaking into Israeli politics, which, in fact, we don’t do nearly as much as they speak into ours.”

“Just an observation,” he added.

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