Gaza cease-fire vote roils US-Israel talks on Rafah

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The already tense relationship between the U.S. and Israel further deteriorated Monday with the passage of the United Nations Security Council cease-fire resolution, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a high-level delegation meant to travel to Washington this week. 

Netanyahu and his radical right-wing coalition were roiled after the U.S. abstained from a vote of the U.N. Security Council proposal calling for a cease-fire in Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, allowing the measure to pass. The Israeli prime minister in recent weeks has also publicly seethed over what he says is a bid by the White House and congressional Democrats to kneecap his political standing inside his own country.  

White House spokesperson John Kirby said the White House was “disappointed” and “perplexed” by Netanyahu’s response but tried to play down the rift, insisting that the countries’ relationship has not hit a new low and that U.S. policy had not changed. 

“These are two leaders who have known each other for going on now four decades, and they haven’t in the past agreed on everything and they don’t agree on everything right now,” Kirby said. 

But Israel’s reaction reflects an ever-growing divide between the two steadfast allies, a relationship that already soured ahead of a planned Israeli offensive into Gaza’s southernmost city Rafah, a military move American officials have warned against.  

The canceled delegation was intended to discuss Israel’s plans for Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering after a brutal Israeli air and ground campaign forced tens of thousands of people to flee northern parts of the enclave. White House officials have said that a ground invasion of the city without an accepted plan would create a humanitarian disaster. 

“We think that a ground invasion, especially without any type of credible plan, is a mistake, given the large number of people, displaced people that are there at the moment,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Monday. “There are ways to go about addressing the threat of Hamas while also taking into account civilian safety.” 

But after the U.S. declined to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution — which also called for the immediate release of all of the more than 130 hostages Hamas had taken — Netanyahu’s office released a statement calling Washington’s abstention “a clear retreat” from its previous position and one that would hurt efforts to fight Hamas in Gaza and free hostages. 

As a consequence, the Israeli delegation meant to discuss Rafah would not go to Washington, he added.  

Far-right elements of Israel’s government also released testy responses, with Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir calling the U.N. vote “proof that President Biden is not prioritizing Israel and the free world’s victory over terrorism, but rather his own political considerations,” as reported by The New York Times.  

But the U.S., which had previously vetoed three other resolutions calling for a cease-fire, rejected those claims. 

“The prime minister’s office seems to be indicating through public statements that we somehow changed here. We haven’t,” Kirby said at the White House daily briefing Monday. “And we get to decide what our policy is. It seems like the prime minister’s office is choosing to create a perception of daylight here when they don’t need to do that.” 

And State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called the withdrawn delegation “surprising and unfortunate,” seeing as the United States had ahead notified Israel’s government they were planning to abstain from voting on the resolution.  

Multiple outlets reported that the White House told Netanyahu’s aides in discussions Sunday that the U.S. abstention wasn’t a change in policy. 

Both Kirby and Miller also repeatedly stressed to reporters that the resolution is “non-binding.”  

Still, Washington’s choice is the most pointed action to date at the U.N. against Israel, which Biden and other top U.S. officials have said needs to do more to prevent civilian casualties and allow more aid into Gaza since the start of the war in October.  

American officials believe Netanyahu’s public displeasure with the U.S. is manufactured for domestic purposes, Axios reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials. 

“All of that is self-defeating. The Prime Minister could have chosen a different course — to align with the U.S. on the meaning of this resolution. He chose not to, apparently for political purposes,” a U.S. official told the outlet. 

Several U.S. lawmakers on Monday also took a dig at Israel’s decision to forego talks, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeting that Netanyahu is “not so upset that he’ll turn down $3.3B in taxpayer dollars to fund his immoral war,” referring to the annual lethal aid the U.S. provides the country. 

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is already in Washington and is still expected to meet with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, according to the White House. 

Ryder also confirmed that Austin and Gallant’s meeting is still on the books. The two are expected to meet at the Pentagon to discuss the release of the hostages, Israeli operations in Gaza and the need to ensure the safety of civilians sheltering in Rafah, he said.  

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