Feb 19, 2024 - World

Top Biden adviser to visit Egypt, Israel as fears over Bibi's Rafah threats grow

Palestinians inspect the rubble of buildings damaged during Israeli bombardment in Rafah. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinians inspect the rubble of buildings damaged during Israeli bombardment in Rafah. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

Brett McGurk, President Biden's top Middle East adviser, is expected to visit Israel and Egypt this week for talks on the possible Israeli military operation in Rafah and efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, three Israeli and U.S. officials said.

Why it matters: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday vowed to push forward with a ground operation in Rafah, despite global outcry and warnings from the Biden administration.

  • The White House is highly concerned that a possible Israeli military operation in Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians — many displaced from elsewhere in Gaza — are concentrated, will lead to mass casualties.
  • Biden told Netanyahu in phone calls last week that he opposes such an operation without a "credible and executable plan" for evacuating Palestinian civilians from the city.
  • The U.S. and Egypt also fear that such an operation could push tens of thousands of Palestinians across the Egyptian border into the Sinai Peninsula. Cairo has already warned the displacement of Palestinians to Egypt would lead to a rupture in its relations with Israel.

Driving the news: McGurk is expected to meet Abbas Kamel, the director of the Egyptian intelligence service, and other Egyptian officials in Cairo on Wednesday, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • He is then expected to meet with Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other Israeli officials in Israel on Thursday, the sources said.
  • McGurk's conversations in both Egypt and Israel will focus on Rafah and the hostage negotiations, according to the officials.
  • The White House didn't immediately respond to questions about the trip.

State of play: Israeli officials said they need to go forward with such an operation in order to dismantle four Hamas battalions in the city but stressed they won't do it without coordinating with the U.S. and Egypt.

  • The U.S. wants to hear from Israel about its operational plan for Rafah, especially about how it could evacuate civilians from the area.
  • The Israel Defense Forces has prepared such a plan and is expected to present it to the security cabinet this week, Israeli officials said.
  • Netanyahu said in a press conference on Saturday that the plan includes evacuating Palestinian civilians to areas north of Rafah but south of Gaza City.
  • U.S. officials doubt such a plan is doable, mainly because there is no sufficient electricity, sewage and water infrastructure in these areas that could support such a large number of people.

The big picture: Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have publicly and privately warned Hamas through mediators that if hostage talks continue to stall, Israel will move ahead with an operation in Rafah.

  • The current hostage deal proposal would lead to at least six weeks of a pause in fighting and could significantly delay such an operation.
  • Egypt, which is highly concerned about an operation in Rafah, is also a key mediator in the hostage negotiations between Hamas and Israel.

Between the lines: Israeli and U.S. officials have admitted that regardless of the public threats by the Israeli government, it would take many weeks before an operation in Rafah could go forward — possibly only in mid-April after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is over.

Go deeper: Bibi declines to send Israeli delegation to Egypt for more hostage talks

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