“The major military operation in Rafah should not take place without a credible plan to ensure the safety and support of the more than a million people sheltering there,” Biden said, referring to invasion plans of the city publicly announced by Israel. “Many people have been displaced, several times, fleeing the violence to the north. And now they are crowded together in Rafah, exposed and vulnerable. They must be protected.
Abdullah was more direct. “We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah. This will certainly create another humanitarian catastrophe,” the king said. Referring to the war more generally, he added: “We cannot stand by and let this continue. We need a lasting ceasefire now. This war must end. »
Biden himself has not publicly called for a ceasefire, saying Israel must be allowed to defend itself by extirpating and destroying Hamas’ base of operations in Gaza. But his willingness to stand with an Arab leader who actually made such a call was remarkable.
U.S. officials have privately told members of Congress that Israel is no closer to eliminating Hamas, the stated goal of its military campaign, more than 100 days after the war began, according to officials close to the briefing, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private exchange.
The president and king’s joint comments Monday came after Biden met privately with Abdullah at the White House, the first face-to-face discussion the president has had with an Arab leader since Israel’s war began. and Gaza in October. The meeting came as U.S. officials expressed deep concern over Israeli plans to target the small town of Rafah, which borders Egypt and where an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians live in decrepit conditions after fleeing under Israeli orders.
Despite Biden’s growing willingness to publicly challenge Israel’s conduct of the war, he and his top aides have not publicly supported restricting aid to Israel or imposing conditions on it, as many of the president’s liberal critics demand. And while National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week that an Israeli operation in Rafah “would be a disaster for these people, and we would not support it,” the White House has not not threatened with specific consequences if Israel continued with its plans.
An Israeli operation carried out Sunday night in Rafah managed to rescue two hostages, but it also killed at least 67 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry, raising fears among Arab leaders that a sustained Israeli operation there- low could kill and injure thousands more. The planned operation in Rafah has also heightened fears of a forced displacement of tens of thousands of Palestinians, with Arab leaders fearing they will be pushed toward Egypt – a goal that far-right members of Prime Minister’s government Israeli Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have openly adopted.
Israeli operation rescues two hostages
Biden reiterated Monday that he and his top aides are urgently working to negotiate a six-week pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas in exchange for the release of remaining Israeli hostages held by Hamas, saying it could lay the groundwork of a definitive end. at war.
At a time when Biden faces growing criticism from Arab-American and Muslim voters angry over his unwavering support for Israel and what they describe as a lack of empathy toward the Palestinians, Biden has found a welcome ally in the person of Abdallah. The president took the opportunity to highlight the suffering of the Palestinians, saying they were facing “unimaginable pain” and adding: “It’s heartbreaking.” Every innocent life [lost] in Gaza is a tragedy, just as every innocent life lost in Israel is also a tragedy.
Jordan, whose population includes a large proportion of ethnic Palestinians, will almost certainly be key to any long-term U.S. vision for the Middle East. Biden has said the war in Gaza must be followed by planning for a Palestinian state – a notion forcefully rejected by Netanyahu – and the United States says that will require extensive reform of the Palestinian Authority, which governs a part of the West Bank. Jordan, which borders both Israel and the West Bank, would be at the heart of such an effort.
In recent days, Biden has been more willing to take aim at Israel’s military operation in Gaza, last week calling it “overblown,” his strongest rebuke yet. But for months, Arab leaders in the United States and the Middle East have felt that Biden’s public comments left little room for criticism of the hard-hitting military campaign.
Biden: Israeli attacks in Gaza are ‘exaggerated’
The conflict began on October 7 last year, when Hamas militants crossed the border from Gaza into Israel and killed around 1,200 people, largely civilians, who lived in towns and kibbutzim neighbors. They also took some 250 hostages.
Since then, Israel has launched a violent campaign of retaliation in Gaza, killing more than 28,000 Palestinians so far, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Additionally, more than 80 percent of the territory’s residents have been displaced, and the Israeli siege has put hundreds of thousands of residents at risk of famine and disease.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials have resisted repeated U.S. calls to allow more humanitarian aid into the enclave. Adding to the challenges are Israeli protesters who blocked the entry of aid trucks into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing into the enclave.
Abdullah, whose wife, Queen Rania, is Palestinian, is one of the few people who can speak to Biden in detail about the suffering in Gaza, said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has worked on the issues. from the Middle East in several United States. administrations.
Biden and Abdullah have known each other for more than 20 years and have deep affection for each other, according to aides to both men. As vice president, Biden oversaw the Iraq portfolio for the Obama administration and made more than a dozen trips to the country. On each of those trips — whether outbound or back — Biden stopped in Amman to visit Abdullah, Riedel said.
In the first months of his presidency, Biden showed support for the king of Jordan after his half-brother threatened to destabilize the monarchy. Biden called the king immediately after the incident and expressed his full support, a move that earned him deep gratitude, experts say.
This long-standing relationship gives Abdullah the rare ability to speak in detail to Biden about the immense suffering in Gaza and appeal to his compassion, Riedel said.
“Abdullah can talk about all these issues with a level of candor that few other Arab leaders can, because he knows Biden – they have been together for a long time,” Riedel said. “I think he can be much more direct and frank. Part of King’s goal here is to appeal to Joe Biden and get him to show some empathy toward the Palestinian people, which Biden must do for his own domestic political reasons .”
The Middle East conflagration, which has already spread and involved several Iranian-backed militias in the region, carries the risk of significant political consequences for Biden. Arab Americans in Michigan and elsewhere are organizing to defeat him, and polls suggest that young voters and people of color are deeply unhappy with his handling of the war.
Michigan Muslims and Arab Americans work to defeat Biden
Abdullah’s visit to Washington comes at a precarious moment in the conflict, with Biden closer than ever to a break with Netanyahu over the heavy civilian toll, disagreements over humanitarian aid and Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state. More immediately, US officials are very concerned about Netanyahu’s announcement of the upcoming military operation in Rafah.
Biden, while standing outside the White House awaiting Abdullah’s arrival, was asked if Netanyahu was listening to his advice.
He smiled broadly and said, “Everyone does it.” »
Abdullah’s trip to Washington is part of a tour of the United States, Canada, France and Germany, as part of his efforts to mobilize international support for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, as well as protection of civilians and increased humanitarian aid. Abdullah is also expected to meet with senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as members of Congress on Tuesday.
Abdullah spoke to Biden about rising violence in the West Bank, as U.S. and Arab leaders fear another war front could open as tension rises in that territory. More than 370 Palestinians – including around 100 children – have been killed in violent clashes in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The vast majority of them were killed by Israeli military forces, but some were killed by violent settlers. Biden issued an executive order earlier this month sanctioning four West Bank settlers for violence against Palestinians.
Monday’s meeting was also the first visit since three U.S. service members were killed last month in an attack on an outpost in northeastern Jordan. Biden blamed the killings on Iran-backed militias, prompting a series of retaliatory strikes.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Abdullah reiterated his position that violence in the Middle East will not end without a two-state solution, calling for “an independent, sovereign and vital Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” .. alongside Israel.