Mar 12, 2024 - World

Biden and Bibi "red lines" for Rafah put them on a collision course

US President Joe Biden leaves the room at the end of a press conference following a solidarity visit to Israel, on October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv,

President Biden leaves a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out contradictory "red lines" about the war in Gaza in recent days that could put them on a collision course if Israel invades Rafah in southern Gaza in the next few weeks, three U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: U.S. officials say an Israeli military operation in Rafah would likely lead to a significant shift in U.S. policy — including an end to the defense of Israel at the United Nations and restrictions on the use of U.S. weapons by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza.

  • Netanyahu has effectively said his red line is that Israel must go into Rafah.
  • More than one million Palestinian civilians, many of them displaced by the war, are sheltering in Rafah.

Driving the news: In an interview on Saturday, Biden was asked whether an Israeli military operation in Rafah was a red line for the administration. "Yes it is," Biden replied.

  • Biden had earlier raised concerns about an Israeli operation in the city and demanded Netanyahu present a credible and implementable plan for protecting civilians there, but this was the first time he referred to an invasion as a red line.
  • A day later, Netanyahu pushed back in an interview. "We'll go there [to Rafah]. I have a red line," he said. "You know what the red line is? That October 7 doesn't happen again. Never happens again."'

Behind the scenes: Biden and Netanyahu haven't spoken since Feb. 15. In their last call, Biden expressed concern about a possible Israeli operation in Rafah, the White House said.

  • There have been several discussions inside the administration in recent weeks about a possible Israeli military operation in Rafah and the bottom line was that the Biden administration can't allow it to happen, U.S. officials told Axios.
  • The administration doesn't believe Israel can implement an evacuation plan for Palestinians from Rafah in a way that will prevent mass civilian casualties.

No decisions have been made about how the U.S. would respond to an Israeli operation in Rafah, but two U.S. officials said one of the options discussed internally between the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon is to impose restrictions on the use of U.S.-made offensive weapons by the IDF in Gaza.

  • A third U.S. official said it is likely that an Israeli operation in Rafah will lead to the U.S. allowing a UN security council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire to pass. The U.S. has vetoed resolutions brought to the security council three times since the beginning of the war.
  • "If Netanyahu decides to defy Biden and go for such an operation it will be a showdown," a senior U.S. official said.
  • A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told Axios: "This is speculation by anonymous sources and we are not going to entertain hypotheticals."

Reality check: There is no imminent Israeli military operation in Rafah and U.S. and Israeli officials say it is highly unlikely such an operation will take place before the end of Ramadan in mid-April.

  • The Israeli war cabinet hasn't given an order to the IDF to start evacuating Palestinian civilians from Rafah. If and when an order is given, it would take another two to three weeks to implement.

What they're saying: Netanyahu claimed on Fox News on Monday that one-quarter of the Hamas' army is in Rafah and therefore Israel needs to enter the city and destroy the Hamas' battalions there.

  • Not going into Rafah would be equivalent to the Allied Forces in World War II not going into Berlin, the last Nazi stronghold in Germany, and leaving a quarter of the Nazi army in place, Netanyahu said.
  • White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton told reporters on Air Force 1 on Monday that Biden was clear in his MSNBC interview that no military operation should take place in Rafah "if there is not a credible and implementable plan to take care of the safety and security needs of the more than a million civilians who are sheltering there. And we've seen no such plan."
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