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Analysis: Biden faces questions about Netanyahu influence

John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — The White House has been peppered with questions and criticisms for months about whether President Joe Biden has lost the ability to influence Benjamin Netanyahu as the wartime Israeli prime minister oversees a brutal war with Hamas.

The prime example is Rafah, an area in southern Gaza to which Netanyahu’s government instructed Palestinian civilians to flee at the conflict’s start. The prime minister’s war cabinet insists up to four Hamas brigades are holed up there, and has vowed for weeks to launch a major military operation in Rafah.

Yet, as pro-Palestinian protesters shout down Biden at public events and cast protest votes in Democratic presidential primaries, and a growing list of Democratic lawmakers have called for Biden to overhaul the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the Israeli threats about a Rafah invasion remain just that.

Biden and some of his aides suggest he and Netanyahu have the same dynamic they have had for decades: a relationship that often includes deep disagreements but also an agreement on Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Still, questions about an unhinged Netanyahu ignoring what should be his top ally continue to dog the White House.

John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, was asked during a March 21 briefing about Netanyahu telling Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken that he would welcome U.S. support and assistance for a Rafah operation, but without it, he would “do it alone.”

A reporter asked Kirby: “So, are we to understand that President Biden has just lost all of his sway here?”

 

“I would also note that Prime Minister Netanyahu said he recognizes there’s a debate about Rafah,” Kirby responded. “I would also note that the Israeli government will be sending a delegation here in coming days to talk to us … in an interagency perspective about some viable options and alternatives to a major ground operation.”

When that meeting was temporarily canceled over Netanyahu’s anger about the Biden administration allowing a United Nations resolution to pass that called for a temporary cease-fire, there were new murmurs about Biden’s ability to restrain Netanyahu. The meeting was eventually rescheduled, though held virtually on Monday.

U.S. officials on Monday presented Israeli officials with alternative options for a possible military operation in Rafah at that virtual meeting, according to a National Security Council official.

Those alternatives included ways to target Hamas operatives inside Rafah with more precision, another White House official said. Biden and his security team are worried Netanyahu will go in with the full force of his American-equipped military, putting over 1 million Palestinian civilians in grave danger.

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