Skip to main content

Biden Plans To Halt Rafah Operation and Remind Netanyahu: Israel Needs America

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to talk about 'total victory,' despite tensions with the United States – but the fact that he's sending a delegation to Washington highlights the balance of power between the two countries

IDF soldiers operating in Gaza. (Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit / Haaretz),

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to send a delegation to Washington to present to the American administration the IDF's operational plan in Rafah reflects the true status of Israel-United States relations in the middle of the sixth month of the war. Netanyahu threatens, on a daily basis, an invasion near Rafah, promises the public a total victory over Hamas, and is proud of Israel's independence to decide, despite tensions with President Joe Biden.

But in practice, any idea that Israel will also defend itself with its own forces (with a little help from friends) has been under a big question mark since the terrorist attack of October 7. Biden has lately been challenging it from every side – the decision to airdrop aid into Gaza and build a floating pier, some slowness in the supply of U.S. arms to Israel and growing and increasingly public objections to a campaign in Rafah.

The message was initially sent via Minister Benny Gantz, who visited Washington early this month: the administration would not allow Israeli entry into Rafah during Ramadan. That hasn't bothered Netanyahu from declaring an invasion soon and at every subsequent opportunity, but to tell the truth, the preparations are moving slowly (even though operational plans have been presented to the prime minister). In the phone call between Biden and Netanyahu early this week, the president demanded that an Israeli delegation be sent to Washington to discuss the planned operation. The prime minister decided to send Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi next week. Defense establishment chiefs only learned about this from a White House announcement. Netanyahu neglected to inform them.


U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October last year.  (Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/ Reuters  //  Haaretz)

The fundamental change in the administration's policy toward Israel occurred in late February, following the incident in which more than 100 Palestinian civilians were killed when a truck convoy reached Gaza City. The president, who until then had demonstrated stoicism, lost his patience in an instant. Since then, the bad news and insults from the U.S. have been coming at the rate of one a day. But the most noteworthy expression of this was issued in Washington, not Gaza, was Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's speech last week. He described Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace and called for new elections in Israel. Biden described his remarks as a "good speech."

The practical significance of the latest measures and declarations is that the U.S. has assumed growing authority over Israel's security and is applying a quasi-veto over IDF actions. Signs of this were already seen at the start of the war – the president's speech in which he warned Iran and Israel against opening a front between them, with the participation of Hezbollah – and in the frequent meetings between senior administration officials and the Israeli war cabinet, which discussed operational plans in detail. Since then, Israel's dependence on the U.S. has only deepened to a worrying degree.

The U.S. and European Union's public statements against an operation in Rafah greatly restrict the scope of Israel's options. It's possible that Netanyahu will try to shift the responsibility for this onto the difficulties that Biden has raised (and, as usual, on the generals and the left) to explain why the operation in Rafah is delayed. Were it not for the wish to advance a hostage deal, the administration might also reconsider its insistence on continuing to veto proposed anti-Israeli resolutions in the UN Security Council.

Waiting for Sinwar

The international community expresses concern about an operation in Rafah because of the 1.5 million Palestinian civilians crowded there. But an operation's progress is also delayed because the army has not allocated forces for it at this time. In fact, the army is currently operating in the Gaza Strip with the smallest force since the outbreak of the war – only about three and a half brigades. The operation in Khan Younis was very limited, and most of the forces that fought there have been sent out of the Strip for rest.

At the same time, the Nahal Brigade is holding the corridor that cuts the Gaza Strip in two along the Gaza River, while the 401st Brigade combat team is leading the raid on Shifa Hospital. A fairly intensive operation is underway there, in which the IDF says more than 100 terrorists have been killed and hundreds of suspects arrested, including quite important Hamas activists. It seems that at least some of the Israeli effort is being invested in damaging Hamas' efforts to restore its governance in the northern Gaza Strip and attacking people involved in taking control of the humanitarian aid.


If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Humanitarian aid parcels attached to parachutes are airdropped from a military aircraft over Gaza City on March 20, 2024.  (Photo credit: Agence France-Presse (AFP)  //  Haaretz)

The humanitarian situation, especially in the northern Gaza Strip, continued to be very severe. The Israeli public is barely aware of it, because most of the country's media have downplayed Palestinian suffering since the war began with the massacre in the Gaza border communities. Obviously, Hamas propaganda invents and inflates stories, but the crisis – which is described as verging on starvation in some areas – is real and affects the reactions of the international community and the growing demands to declare an immediate cease-fire.

Israel and the U.S. want to include this in reaching an agreement for the release of the hostages, which would include a six-week cease-fire and the release of almost 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for about 40 Israeli hostages (women, elderly, sick and wounded). Reports out of the Qatari capital, Doha, are numerous and contradictory. However, the fact that some members of the Israeli negotiation delegation are still there and that close talks are taking place - that is, frequent messages are sent from the mediators to the Hamas overseas leadership, which permanently resides there - indicates that there is some chance of progress in the talks. That was a format absent in the previous rounds in Paris and Cairo, where the delegation quickly returned to Israel, usually without any real achievements.


Hamas political leader Yahya Sinwar in 2022.  (Photo credit: Hatem Rawagh / Agence France-Presse (AFP)  //  Haaretz)

The final decider on the Hamas side, and possibly in general, will be Yahya Sinwar, its leader in Gaza. It has already been reported that communication with him is interrupted because he is in hiding for fear of being captured by the IDF and Shin Bet security service. It turns out that in the first deal, in late November, Sinwar had, at some point, lost patience for dealing with the fine print of the negotiations and simply decided in favor of the deal without listening any more to his colleagues living in luxury in Qatar hotels. That could happen this time, too.

Hopes have been periodically raised through the war that a settlement to end the fighting would somehow include the consent of Sinwar and Hamas military leaders to go into exile outside Gaza in exchange for a promise not to harm them. A senior IDF officer who recently visited Military Intelligence's Unit 8200 asked the veteran NCOs, who have specialized for years in collecting intelligence on Sinwar (the men whom the army didn't really bother listening to before the October 7 massacre), whether such a compromise was possible. The intelligence men answered with a sweeping no: they assess that Sinwar will prefer staying in Gaza, even if that means gambling with his personal fate.