Inside Biden’s decision to go public with his ultimatum to Israel over Rafah


President Joe Biden’s decision this week to make public his ultimatum that a major Israeli offensive in the city of Rafah would result in a shut-off of some US weapons did not come easily or lightly.

It came after multiple rounds of phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, starting in mid-February, urging him to reconsider his plans to invade the densely populated city in southern Gaza that has been a critical conduit for humanitarian aid.

Hours and hours of virtual and in-person meetings between Biden’s top national security lieutenants and their Israeli counterparts were intended to send the same message, according to officials: There are other ways to go after Hamas, Biden’s aides laid out, that stop short of invading a city where more than a million Palestinians have gone to seek safety, officials said.

At multiple levels, the president and his team warned Netanyahu that a major invasion of Rafah wouldn’t be aided by American weapons. It was a message the White House believed was well understood by the government in Israel, White House officials said Thursday.

Still, making those warnings public was a step Biden had long been wary of taking. Doing so would amount to a turning point, and the biggest break in US-Israel ties since the start of the war in Gaza following the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas. Even under pressure from progressives in his own party to take steps to limit humanitarian suffering in Gaza, Biden has been careful to avoid an open rift with Netanyahu.

Still, in Netanyahu’s war cabinet meetings, a decision to go into Rafah appeared imminent. The Israel Defense Forces have now established a presence in Rafah and along its border, choking off two aid entry points and warning of a larger offensive to come.

Ultimately, officials said, Biden came to believe his warnings were going unheeded and so he changed course.

Last week, Biden signed off on a pause of 3,500 bombs to Israel that administration officials feared would be dropped on Rafah. And on Wednesday, sitting at a community college in Wisconsin for an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Biden made explicit to the world what he said he’d already made obvious to Netanyahu in private.

“If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities – that deal with that problem,” Biden told Burnett.

The president’s aides said the message shouldn’t have been a surprise to their intended recipients in Israel.

“I can assure you the direct and forthright nature with which he expressed himself and his concerns in that interview with Erin Burnett is consistent with how he has expressed himself to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to Israeli officials,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday.

The Israeli government, Kirby said, “has understood … for some time now” the implications a major Rafah offensive would have on the future of American arms shipments.

Aware or not of the president’s views, Israeli officials reacted with shock to the public announcement. Netanyahu was defiant.

“If we need to stand alone, we will stand alone. I have said that, if necessary, we will fight with our fingernails,” he said Thursday. Israeli officials also sought to downplay the significance of Biden’s announcement. A spokesman for the IDF, Daniel Hagari, said Israel already has the weapons it needs for the missions it is planning.

In addition to 2,000-pound bombs, Biden told CNN that artillery could be held up in the event of a Rafah invasion. Despite being smaller in size than the bombs, the Biden administration views artillery as indiscriminate and imprecise weapons that can exact a dangerous toll in urban areas.

Israel has claimed its current campaign in Rafah is “limited,” a description US officials have echoed. But behind the scenes, doubts linger about Israel’s intentions, CNN has learned, with limited clarity provided to the US on how it plans to proceed.

Throughout the course of the conflict, Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu has grown, even as the US president maintained publicly that his support for the state of Israel was unwavering.

Biden has made clear that no matter what course the Israel-Hamas war takes, the US would remain Israel’s most stalwart ally so long as he is president. That conviction, advisers said, was separate and apart from the evolution of the president’s relationship with Netanyahu.

“Israel is not the same thing as Netanyahu,” a senior Biden adviser told CNN.

Rafah has hardly been the only irritant in the relationship. In the telling of Biden’s close advisers, the IDF’s accidental killing in early April of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza – one of them an American citizen – broke the president’s already strained patience.

Upon learning the news, Biden expressed fury, advisers said. He made clear to advisers that he saw the deaths of the aid workers as an unacceptable “breakdown” in some of the most fundamental ways in which he expected Israel to conduct its war, and that the moment required a new response. His team quickly arranged a phone call with Netanyahu.

Several weeks prior, Biden had shared with friends on Capitol Hill – in comments that were caught on a hot mic – that he and the prime minister were likely headed towards some kind of rupture. He predicted the two leaders were due for a “come to Jesus” moment.

Multiple advisers did not deny that Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu in April was, at the very least, as close to such a “come to Jesus” moment as the two leaders had had up until that point. In the brief call, Biden issued a new warning to Netanyahu: If Israel did not course-correct, the US would reconsider how it supports its ally in the conflict.

It marked the clearest signal yet that six months into the war, Biden was starting to seriously consider conditioning US support for Israel. But even then, it was not known what exactly those consequences might look like, and what actions from Israel would ultimately push Biden over the edge.

Since their call, the White House has praised Israel for taking steps to increase humanitarian aid, including opening additional crossings. Yet Rafah continued to shadow the relationship, as Israeli officials insisted on the necessity of going after Hamas in the city, even as Biden aides said they hadn’t seen a plan to protect civilians there.

Meetings between the two sides failed to yield consensus on the issue, according to people familiar with the matter. White House officials were unconvinced by Israel’s plans to protect civilians and made clear in public statements that an invasion of the city would amount to a humanitarian disaster.

“The president and his team have been clear for several weeks that we do not support a major ground operation in Rafah, where more than a million people are sheltering with nowhere safe to go,” Kirby said on Thursday. “The president has said that publicly and he has communicated that repeatedly and straightforwardly to Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

After Biden’s CNN interview, officials stressed the White House position on conditioning aid is a hypothetical one: The US would only pare back the equipment and weaponry provided to its longstanding ally if it launches the invasion of Rafah.

That didn’t stop the president’s critics from accusing him of renouncing Israel, despite his clear statement that he wasn’t “walking away from Israel’s security.” Across the GOP spectrum, from former President Donald Trump to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, Biden’s political opponents likened the announcement to a message of an abandonment amid an ongoing war with terrorists.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, who’d just survived an ouster attempt, even suggested in an interview with Politico that Biden had a “senior moment” when he made the remark.

Some Democrats also voiced criticism. Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, a staunch supporter of Israel, said that he disagreed with Biden’s plan to withhold some weapons shipments to Israel, warning the move “demonstrates to Hamas that they’re winning the PR war.”

“I am concerned about that, and I don’t agree with the president,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju.

Sen. Jon Tester, a vulnerable Democrat from Montana, said, “I think he should release it” when asked about Biden’s handling of the weapons shipments. And Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin said he was planning to speak with administration officials about the details of their plan later Thursday.

“I’m trying to find out legally what they’re doing and the reasons for it,” he said. “So, until I’ve had a chance to talk to the administration, I’m going to defer making any specific comments.”

Even though the president’s position amounted to his toughest public stance on Israel since the start of the war, it also appeared to do little to satisfy those in his own party who have agitated for an end to US support.

“I think it’s a good step forward. I think we’ve got to do even more,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont democratic socialist, said on CNN, adding Biden’s warning about conditioning weapons “should have come a lot earlier.”


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