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Rafah offensive threatens to break fragile Biden-Netanyahu ties

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 18, 2023. (Reuters)
Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 18, 2023. (Reuters)
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14 Feb 2024 01:02:28 GMT9
14 Feb 2024 01:02:28 GMT9

Israel’s plan to launch a ground offensive into the heavily populated enclave of Rafah, nestled close to the Egyptian border in the Gaza Strip, could bring relations between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a tipping point. Netanyahu has angered the White House by ignoring US warnings regarding the planned incursion into Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge and are living under horrendous conditions.

Already, Biden has changed his tone on Israel’s four-month war on Gaza by calling the Israeli response “over the top,” in reference to the killing of more than 28,000 Palestinians so far and the vast destruction of at least 60 percent of civilian infrastructure, rendering more than 1.8 million people homeless and displaced. Privately, Biden is reported to have used foul language to describe Netanyahu’s rebuff of US attempts to conclude a negotiated, lengthy truce coupled with the release of captives. Instead, Netanyahu rejected what he called Hamas’ “delusional demands,” which included a conditional ceasefire and an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and vowed to push into Rafah to secure a decisive victory.

Israel’s announcement that it plans to launch a ground operation in Rafah has been rejected by the EU, the UK and the UN, as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. All have warned that such an incursion will result in a horrific human toll. Rafah has become a tent city, where tens of thousands of Gazans have fled from Gaza City, Jabalia, Bureij and other refugee camps, as well as Khan Younis, where Israel has said it dismantled Hamas’ main operational headquarters and killed thousands of its fighters. It now says it needs to enter and clear Rafah of the last four battalions belonging to Hamas. It also believes most of the Israeli captives are being held there.

In response to the fact that Rafah is now home to over a million Gazans, Netanyahu has ordered his army to prepare an evacuation plan, without offering much detail. He suggested that Rafah residents head to the northern part of the Strip, but the UN and other aid agencies warned that much of the north has become a wasteland with no access to humanitarian aid. The logistics of moving such vast numbers of civilians, already suffering from malnutrition and disease, debunks Netanyahu’s suggestion that his army has the safety of civilians as a priority.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military as they fled to so-called safe areas in the recent past.

But it is not only the fear of a bloodbath straining Biden’s relationship with Netanyahu. To balance his unequivocal support of Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Biden has promised to open a clear path toward the fulfillment of a two-state solution, i.e., the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has flatly rejected Biden’s premise and vowed that Israel will have absolute control over all the territories west of the River Jordan.

Added to this, he has also brushed off Biden’s suggestion that Gaza is part of the future Palestinian state and that the Palestinian Authority must take over once Hamas is defeated. Netanyahu has affirmed that Israel will have complete and indefinite security control over Gaza. His far-right coalition government has also been carrying out security operations in the West Bank, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians and destroying infrastructure and allowing Jewish settlers to go on the rampage, terrorizing Arab residents.

Extremist ministers in his Cabinet have been taking steps to weaken and defund the PA. At the same time, Netanyahu himself has said that he will not repeat the historical mistake of Oslo that created the PA.

Biden faces pressure from America’s Arab allies. For Egypt, a Rafah offensive will almost certainly push tens of thousands of fleeing Palestinians across the border and into Sinai. So worried is Cairo that it has deployed tanks and air defense systems close to the border. Egypt has also told Israel that it taking control of the so-called Philadelphi Corridor will not be tolerated. Its most recent warning to Israel hinted that any breach could lead to the suspension of the peace treaty between the two.

The Biden administration had hoped to entice Netanyahu by reviving normalization talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel. But Riyadh dampened Washington’s hopes by stressing that Israel must first end the war in Gaza and commit to a clear path toward a Palestinian state before such talks can commence.

America’s Arab allies now believe that the Biden administration has no leverage over Netanyahu, whose defiance has humiliated and frustrated the US administration. They want to see regional de-escalation taking place, especially as Israeli crimes in Gaza have inflamed popular sentiments and heightened tensions in south Lebanon, the Red Sea, Iraq and Syria.

But for Biden, Israel’s war has also become a domestic issue in a decisive election year. Polls show that young Democratic voters are overwhelmingly opposed to his support of Israel and are in favor of an immediate ceasefire.

Polls also show that Biden is at risk of losing the Arab American and Muslim American votes in November because of the war in Gaza.

On another front, the International Court of Justice’s initial ruling last month has dealt a heavy blow to Israel’s closest allies, especially the US. The court concluded that at least some of the acts Israel is alleged by South Africa to have committed could fall within the provisions of the Genocide Convention. The court asked Israel to take measures to protect civilians in Gaza and adhere to international law. It also called on Israel to present a report by Feb. 23 showing that such measures have been taken.

But Israel’s conduct in Gaza has not changed since the court’s ruling. Thousands of civilians have since been killed due to indiscriminate bombing, snipers targeting civilians and the blowing up of residential buildings, as well as schools, mosques, shelters and hospitals. The delivery of life-saving aid has also been hindered.

Netanyahu has flatly rejected Biden’s premise and vowed that Israel will have absolute control over all the territories.

Osama Al-Sharif

In an attempt to put pressure on Netanyahu, the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on radical Jewish settlers in the West Bank. And it last week issued a directive attaching human rights conditions to the use of US military aid. The directive authorizes a swift cutoff of military assistance to countries that violate international protections of civilians.

But despite all this, Netanyahu remains defiant and indifferent to Biden’s qualms, with his eyes focused solely on the local Israeli scene, where his political survival is now tethered to the outcome of the war on Gaza. A total victory, regardless of the political and economic cost, is his only concern, even if that means a breach with the Biden White House and severe damage to Israel’s ties with its Western allies, not to mention a possible indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Netanyahu is betting that a vulnerable Biden will blink first and that Israel’s allies in Congress will come to his rescue, even if the US president takes off the gloves and challenges the rogue Israeli premier. His gambit appears to be working.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. X: @plato010
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