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Amid deepening tensions, White House weighs how to respond if Israel defies Biden with Rafah invasion

The Biden administration wants to see an Israeli plan for protecting Palestinian civilians in the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip.
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WASHINGTON — The White House is considering options for how to respond if Israel defies President Joe Biden’s repeated warnings against launching a military invasion of Rafah without a credible plan to protect Palestinian civilians, according to one former and three current U.S. officials.

The discussions are taking place amid growing concern in the administration and frustration among congressional Democrats that the president’s pleas will simply be ignored. Israel this week inched closer to initiating an incursion into the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip.

“Time and again, President Biden calls upon the Netanyahu government to take certain actions, and for the most part, time and again, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu ignores the president of the United States. And so I think that makes the United States look ineffective,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., in an interview.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in 2023.Evan Vucci / AP file

“The president has issued increasingly strong words and strong warnings, but I believe that to effectively enforce those warnings the administration has to use these other tools at its disposal,” said Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is among those pushing the White House to take a harder line on conditioning U.S. military sales to Israel.

The U.S. has not conditioned any military support for Israel, though Biden administration officials have considered withholding or delaying the sale of some weaponry.

The Biden administration set a March 24 deadline for Israel to provide written assurance, followed by U.S. government review, that its use of American weapons is in accordance with international law. Failing to comply could force the issue of military support and potentially push the longtime alliance into new territory.

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President Joe Biden walks to the Oval Office after attending a Friends of Ireland luncheon Friday on Capitol Hill.Andrew Harnik / AP

Top administration officials indicated Friday they had not seen any plans for the military operation in Rafah that Israel said Netanyahu had approved, nor had they seen a proposal for the evacuation of Palestinian civilians. For weeks, administration officials have privately expressed skepticism that Israel had developed a thorough plan for a military offensive in Rafah, saying that the threat of an invasion was to maintain leverage with Hamas during negotiations for a cease-fire in exchange for releasing hostages held in Gaza.

Administration officials also have advised the Israeli government to avoid a large military operation in Rafah, and instead launch smaller, targeted counterterrorism missions, according to an administration official.

“We have been clear about the need to prioritize civilian protection,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council said.

The level of distrust and tension between the U.S. and Israeli governments marks an extraordinary shift from the bear hug Biden and Netanyahu shared five months ago shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel.

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Palestinian children perform the first Friday noon prayer of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan over the ruins of Al-Farouq Mosque in Rafah, Gaza, on Friday.Mohammed Abed / AFP - Getty Images

The White House effectively embraced remarks from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday that called for new elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu, described by the New York Democrat as “a major obstacle to peace.”

Biden said Friday that Schumer delivered a “good speech.”

Asked about the president’s praise, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” that Biden “knows that the sentiments that Leader Schumer expressed in that very passionate speech yesterday are shared by many, many Americans.”

Privately, White House officials expressed a similar sentiment. “We are not exercised over it. There is no hand-wringing,” one White House official said of the speech.

Schumer’s remarks on the Senate floor highlighted divisions within the Democratic Party that will be difficult for the president to navigate as he campaigns for a second term. His position is likely to embolden progressives who want to see it backed up by a meaningful shift in U.S. policy toward Israel, specifically using leverage by withholding aid and weapons transfers unless the Netanyahu government changes course.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., praised Schumer’s speech but said it’s not enough.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. And the people of Israel have got to understand that they are increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. There’s global outrage at the Netanyahu right-wing extremist government literally causing starvation of hundreds of thousands of children in Gaza,” Sanders told NBC News. “We cannot continue to fund Netanyahu’s war machine.”

But other Democrats, including Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., disagreed with Schumer’s calls for replacing Netanyahu.

“Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East, and as a democracy, it is up to the Israeli people to determine their political future,” said Rosen, who faces a competitive re-election bid this fall.

The dynamic could further complicate the path to passing a package combining aid for Ukraine and Israel, with progressives like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., opposed to an effort to provide funding for the two U.S. allies unless there are conditions for Israel.

Biden embraced the bear hug approach to Israel immediately after Oct. 7 because he believed it was the most effective way to have influence on Israel as it carried out its military assault on Hamas. But that strategy quickly began to reveal its flaws, with Israel ignoring Biden’s pleas for doing more to protect Palestinian civilians and increase the amount of humanitarian aid getting into Gaza.

Now, Biden and Netanyahu have not spoken in a month. Their last call was on Feb. 15 and focused largely on Rafah, according to the White House.

White House officials said Biden was told in advance of Schumer’s speech but that no one in the administration coordinated with the senator on them. Yet Biden’s own comments last weekend may have laid the groundwork for Schumer’s public statement.

When Biden said Netanyahu is “hurting Israel more than helping Israel,” that signaled a significant break in the relationship. The president said Netanyahu is not paying enough “attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken.”

“It’s contrary to what Israel stands for,” Biden told MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart last week. “And I think it’s a big mistake.”