Major Rafah operation would be ‘mistake,’ Biden told Netanyahu

Biden and Netanyahu spoke on the phone for the first time since Feb. 15.

President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Monday for the first time in a month, during which Biden seemingly offered his strongest warnings against an all-out Israeli attack on Rafah.

The prospect of fighting in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, was the main focus of the conversation. National security adviser Jake Sullivan, briefing reporters at the White House after the call, said Biden requested Israel send a team to hear the administration’s concerns about Rafah and brief his aides on their planning. Netanyahu agreed, and that discussion is scheduled to happen in the coming days.

Paraphrasing what Biden told Netanyahu over the phone, Sullivan said, “I want you to understand, Mr. Prime Minister, exactly where I am on this. I am for the defeat of Hamas. I believe that they are an evil terrorist group with not just Israeli, but American blood on their hands. At the same time, I believe that to get to that you need a strategy that works, and that strategy should not involve a major military operation that puts thousands and thousands of innocent civilian lives at risk in Rafah. There is a better way.”

Speaking as himself, Sullivan noted “the president explained why he is so deeply concerned about the prospect of Israel conducting major military operations in Rafah,” adding that “a major ground operation there would be a mistake.”

Asked if this was the “come to Jesus meeting” the world heard Biden promise to have with Netanyahu in a hot mic moment following his State of the Union address, Sullivan told reporters: “I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.”

The call between Biden and Netanyahu came at a crucial moment in the Gaza war. It is the first time the leaders spoke since Biden complimented a speech given by Chuck Schumer, in which the Senate Majority Leader said Netahyahu was hurting Israel’s standing in the world and called for new elections in Tel Aviv. Though Biden did not explicitly echo that sentiment, his praise of it underscored the growing White House frustration with Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war.

That frustration extends to some former senior officials in Israel. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wrote a letter to Schumer commending him for the speech. “I thank you on behalf of myself and many others in Israel, for the courage that you have showed in saying what so many of us Jews across the world and traditional supporters of Israel feel today,” he said in a letter obtained by POLITICO. “The prime minister of Israel is not worthy of the responsibilities bestowed upon him.”

Netanyahu denounced Schumer’s speech and has shown no signs of moderating his approach. He and members of Israel’s War Cabinet say an invasion of Rafah will launch within weeks. Israel estimates that about four Hamas battalions — roughly 3,000 militants, the same number of fighters Hamas used to perpetrate the Oct. 7 attack — are in and underneath Rafah.

A parade of U.S. officials have said an operation leading to many civilian deaths would be unacceptable to the administration, capped by Biden telling MSNBC earlier this month that such an event would cross his “red line.” The White House’s preference would be a smaller, more precise campaign to strike high-value Hamas targets.

The U.S., alongside Qatar and Egypt, is looking to broker a six-week cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that would see prisoners and hostages released and more aid distributed throughout Gaza.

Biden is upset that Netanyahu won’t allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza by land, leading the U.S. to work with allies to drop assistance from the air and ship it via sea. His private complaints about Netanyahu have grown in recent weeks and he has told close advisers he believes that the prime minister was primarily concerned about hanging onto power — and was willing to extend the war to do so, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking though not authorized to speak publicly about it.

Netanyahu, for his part, has been enraged that Biden keeps painting him as a far-right radical, unfeeling toward the enclave’s suffering Palestinians. And he was livid at what he deemed to be Schumer’s efforts to interfere with a sovereign nation’s political future, two Israeli officials said.

Monday’s phone call was a chance to close the yawning gap between them. Sullivan said the discussion was “businesslike” and did not end abruptly. Both leaders gave each other the time to make their points, the national security adviser asserted.

Axios first reported that the Biden-Netanyahu call would take place Monday, their first since Feb. 15.

The call came amid a rapidly deteriorating situation in the area. The United Nations’ food agency reported Monday that famine in northern Gaza was “imminent,” noting continued fighting might push the whole territory’s 2.2 million people to the brink of starvation.

Last week, the Israeli military permitted a small convoy of aid trucks to enter northern Gaza, an area still ravaged by the war that began in October, leading residents to eat grass and animal feed. Then on Saturday, the first aid to reach Gaza’s shores by sea in two decades arrived and was fully unloaded on a makeshift jetty.