Thu 07 Mar 2024 8:03 am - Jerusalem Time

The White House tries to steer Israel back onto a two-way street

By David Ignatius

The Biden administration, worried about a new humanitarian catastrophe, appears to be considering ways to prevent Israel from using U.S. weapons if it attacks the densely populated area around the city of Rafah.

President Biden and senior advisers haven’t made any decision about imposing “conditionality” on U.S. weapons. But the very fact that officials seem to be debating this extreme step shows the administration’s growing concern about the crisis in Gaza — and its sharp disagreement with Israeli leaders over a Rafah assault.

“Israel should understand that the Biden administration’s level of frustration about mishandling of the humanitarian situation in Gaza has reached the limit,” said Martin Indyk, a two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel. “If Israel launches an offensive in Rafah without adequately protecting the displaced civilian population, it may precipitate an unprecedented crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, even involving arms supplies.”

Vice President Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan sharply questioned the Rafah attack plan in separate meetings Monday with Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet who was visiting Washington, according to an Axios report. Although Gantz is seen as the chief political rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the two leaders are said to agree on assaulting Rafah to destroy four Hamas battalions there.


The Biden administration fears that the Rafah plan is half-baked — and will worsen the disastrous situation in Gaza without ending the war. Administration officials say they’ve seen no clear plan for how to protect the more than 1 million Palestinians who have been driven toward the Rafah area along the Egyptian border by the fighting farther north.

Biden said in a February call with Netanyahu that the Rafah attack “should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there,” according to a White House readout. Events since have only deepened the administration’s worries that Israel doesn’t have such a plan for safely moving all these refugees and isn’t dealing adequately with the plight of Palestinian civilians overall.

Any limit on U.S. arms supplies to Israel would mark a sharp break in the relationship — and cause a political furor. A somewhat comparable situation was the 1975 move by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to “reassess” the U.S.-Israeli relationship and propose a cut in military aid to pressure Israel to agree to a troop-withdrawal deal in Sinai after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Ford and Kissinger persisted in the face of intense criticism from Israel supporters; Israel eventually made concessions, and the dispute was resolved after several months.

In banning use of U.S. military aid for a Rafah assault, the administration could argue that it was taking a step similar to its understanding with Ukraine that long-range U.S. missiles can’t be used to target Russian territory.

The administration’s concern that Israel hasn’t planned adequately for Palestinian civilians in Gaza sharpened after more than 100 died and 700 were wounded last week in a pre-dawn rush of an aid convoy in northern Gaza. Some of the Palestinians were killed in a stampede for food; others were crushed by aid trucks; some were shot by Israeli soldiers. Israel had commissioned the convoy of Palestinian trucks but hadn’t provided the security necessary to prevent the disaster, U.S. officials said.

The Biden administration, after hoping for months for better outcomes in Gaza, is beginning to plan for the worst, or at least the most likely. The attempt to head off a Rafah catastrophe is one example of that, but there are others.

The administration has centered its hopes for de-escalation on a hostage release plan before Ramadan, expected to begin around March 10, that would bring a pause in fighting of at least six weeks and an easier path for humanitarian assistance. But Hamas has so far refused to accept the cease-fire that’s on the table, so the administration is weighing what to do if there’s no pact as Ramadan begins.


Among the options: The administration might try to further pressure Hamas through its interlocutors, Egypt and Qatar, perhaps squeezing Qatar to expel Hamas representatives from Doha if they can’t persuade their Gaza colleagues to release hostages.

The administration is also planning a unilateral move to flood Gaza with humanitarian assistance, by airdrops, land convoys and a new floating sea terminal to unload cargo ships offshore. Another sign of realism is the administration’s recognition that its complex “day after” plans — for Saudi normalization with Israel, accompanied by a pathway toward a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank — might not be achievable this year, even if the war ended tomorrow.

Behind the growing tension with Netanyahu is Biden’s feeling that Israel hasn’t been listening to U.S. warnings and advice, and that the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been a one-way street. The administration feels it supports Israeli interests, at considerable political cost at home and abroad, while Netanyahu isn’t responsive to American requests. Israel argues that any space between U.S. and Israeli policy only benefits Hamas. But Israel doesn’t make compromises to narrow that gap.

Simply put: Biden wants Israel to be a good ally and protect American interests — and the lives of Palestinian civilians — as it seeks an endgame in the terrible war that began with Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 attack. A break in the arms-supply relationship would once have been unthinkable. But as U.S. patience ebbs, it’s something that administration officials seem to have begun considering.


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The White House tries to steer Israel back onto a two-way street


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