May 9, 2024 - World

Netanyahu fires back over Biden's Rafah "red line"


Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded Thursday to President Biden's threat to suspend military aid if Israel invades Rafah, declaring in a video: "If Israel needs to stand alone, it will stand alone."

Why it matters: Netanyahu's defiance in the face of Biden's "red line" will further exacerbate tensions between the Israeli government and the White House over the war in Gaza.

Driving the news: Biden warned in an interview with CNN Wednesday that if Israel proceeds with an invasion of Rafah, the U.S. will stop supplying it with artillery shells, bombs for fighter jets and other offensive weapons.

  • Biden's ultimatum was the first time that the president or any other official in his administration has said publicly that an Israeli ground operation in Rafah will result in a halt to the supply of offensive weapons.
  • Biden's comments came a few days after Axios first reported that the White House had put a weapons shipment to Israel on hold as a signal of its concern about Israel's plans for Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering.

What they are saying: In another video in Hebrew released on Thursday, Netanyahu compared the war in Gaza to Israel's war of independence in 1948.

  • "Back then, there was also an arms embargo on Israel — but we won. Today, we are much stronger.… If we need to, we will fight with our fingernails," he said.
  • In an interview with Dr. Phil released Thursday, Netanyahu said he hopes that he and Biden can overcome the current disagreement — but stressed that Israel will do what it must to defeat Hamas, including in Rafah.
  • Benny Gantz, a member of the war Cabinet and one of Netanyahu's chief rivals, said in a statement that he is sure that the "important U.S. weapons shipments" will be transferred.

The intrigue: Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's ultranationalist security minister, posted a tweet — which was widely condemned — saying that Hamas "loves" Biden.

  • "The U.S. stood by Israel in its most difficult hour and the attacks against it by irresponsible ministers are ungrateful and motivated by domestic politics," Gantz said.

Behind the scenes: Biden's statement shocked many in the Israeli government, especially inside the Israel Defense Forces and the security services, a former Israeli official said.

  • The former official said there is great concern inside the IDF about the escalating crisis with the Biden administration.
  • IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a press conference that Israel has enough weapons for an operation in Rafah and that differences with the Biden administration will be solved in "closed rooms."

State of play: White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Thursday that Biden will continue giving Israel the military capabilities it needs to defend itself, but stressed that the president doesn't want Israel to use specific U.S.-made weapons in Rafah.

  • Kirby said the Biden administration supports defeating Hamas, but thinks that "smashing into Rafah" — a dense population center — won't achieve that.
  • Kirby said the Israeli government has known Biden's position for some time and has been presented with U.S. alternatives to a major ground operation in Rafah.
  • One such alternative is securing the Egypt-Gaza border so that Hamas can't smuggle in weapons, Kirby said. Another alternative, he said, is focusing on targeting Hamas leaders like Yahya Sinwar.
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