Mar 19, 2024 - World

Scoop: White House will propose alternative Rafah options to Israel

People pass by the damaged Burj al-Masri building and the surroundings after Israeli attacks in Rafah City of Gaza on March 18, 2024. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)

People pass by the damaged Burj al-Masri building and the surroundings after Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza on Mar. 18, 2024. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

The Biden administration is weighing several alternatives to an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah, which it will propose to a high-level Israeli delegation set to visit Washington next week, two U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The White House requested the meeting to order to try to avoid an imminent clash between the U.S. and Israel, the officials said. Both Biden and Netanyahu have drawn "red lines" around an Israeli operation in the southern Gaza city, where more than one million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

  • The Biden administration strongly opposes an Israeli operation in Rafah and has said it is concerned Israel doesn't have an implementable plan that will protect Palestinians.
  • Netanyahu has said Israel must go into Rafah to eliminate Hamas.
  • White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday that an operation could prevent entry of desperately needed humanitarian aid from Egypt to Gaza, isolate Israel internationally and harm the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Behind the scenes: Biden caught Netanyahu by surprise when he proposed during their phone call on Monday that the prime minister send a delegation to Washington to talk about the Rafah operation. It was the first time the Israelis have heard about it, U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios.

  • The idea had been discussed inside the administration for several days as a way to move to a more constructive path with the Israelis, two U.S. official said.
  • "The fear was that the negotiations over the hostage deal could collapse and then the Israelis will just go ahead with a Rafah invasion, which would be a breaking point for the U.S.-Israeli relationship," one official said.
  • The White House realized it is not enough to tell the Israelis what not to do but there is also a need to present a U.S. alternative, the U.S. officials said.
  • The White House didn't respond to a request for comment.

In recent days, several alternatives to an immediate Israeli ground invasion of Rafah have been discussed inside the administration.

  • U.S. officials said one idea is to delay a military operation in the city and focus on stabilizing the humanitarian situation in northern Gaza, where famine is "imminent," according to a UN-backed report released Monday. This plan would also involve constructing shelters for civilians evacuated from Rafah.
  • The goal would be to reduce the potential for massive civilian casualties in an invasion, one official said.

Another idea is to focus in the first stage on securing Egypt's side of its border with Gaza as part of a joint U.S.-Egypt-Israel plan to destroy tunnels under the border and create infrastructure to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza, U.S. officials say.

What they're saying: On Tuesday, Netanyahu said during a meeting with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "out of respect for the President" he agreed to send a delegation to Washington so the administration can present Israel with its ideas "especially on the humanitarian side."

  • "We fully share this desire to facilitate an orderly exit of the population and the providing of humanitarian aid to the civilian population. We have been doing this since the beginning of the war," Netanyahu said.
  • The prime minister added he is still determined to complete the elimination of Hamas, which he said "requires the elimination of the remaining battalions in Rafah" and "there is no way to do this without a ground incursion."

State of play: Netanyahu also said he is sending his confidants minister Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi to Washington early next week for the talks.

  • An Israeli Defense Forces official in charge of humanitarian issues will travel with them. The delegation will not include IDF officers in charge of military planning of the operation in Rafah as the U.S. requested.
  • Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is also expected to travel to Washington separately next week for talks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other senior officials about the war in Gaza, Israeli and U.S. officials said.
Go deeper