White House ‘disappointed’ Israel canceled delegation to discuss Rafah after UN cease-fire vote

Written by on March 25, 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — The White House is “disappointed” and “kind of perplexed” that Israel canceled a delegation’s planned visit to the U.S. to discuss the expected military invasion of Rafah, in southern Gaza, amid ongoing concerns from President Joe Biden, an administration spokesman said Monday.

Israel pulled its delegation after the U.S. allowed, through abstention, for the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza for the remaining days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — and potentially longer.

The resolution called for the unconditional release of hostages being held by Hamas terrorists, though it did not explicitly tie that with a temporary cease-fire. The resolution further urged that the humanitarian pause should then lead “to a lasting sustainable ceasefire.”

The proposal passed the council in a 14-0 vote on Monday, with the U.S. abstaining due to the lack of condemnation of Hamas, officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, in announcing the delegation would no longer be visiting, called the U.S. abstention a change in position — something the Biden administration rejected.

“We’re very disappointed that they won’t be coming to Washington, D.C., to allow us to have a fulsome conversation with them about viable alternatives to going in on the ground in Rafah,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in a gaggle as news broke of Israel’s decision.

Netanyahu’s office also contended that the U.S. declining to block the cease-fire resolution “hurts both the war effort and the effort to release the abductees, because it gives Hamas hope that international pressure will allow them to accept a ceasefire without the release of our abductees.”

But Kirby maintained that the U.S. abstaining from the U.N. vote was not a shift in policy, saying the U.S. has been “clear and consistent” about support for a cease-fire and hostage deal and that it still had “Israel’s back.”

“The prime minister’s office seems to be indicating through public statements that we somehow changed here. We haven’t,” Kirby said later on Monday at the White House daily briefing. “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.”

Kirby also expanded on why the U.S. was willing to abstain now rather than veto the resolution, as it has done to previous such proposals in the past.

“The ones we vetoed didn’t condemn Hamas,” he said from the podium. “This one didn’t condemn Hamas, which is why we couldn’t support it. But we didn’t veto it because, in general, unlike previous iterations, this one did fairly capture what has been our consistent policy which is linking a hostage deal in the release of those men and women, with of course, a temporary cease-fire.”

According to an administration official, the resolution’s wording evolved in a way that made the U.S. comfortable with abstaining.

Among the tweaks, this official said, mentions of the hostages and the cease-fire were combined while the word “permanent” was removed while describing a pause in the conflict, though other language about building a longer end to the fighting remained.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, like Kirby, also called the resolution consistent with the administration’s long-term position. He described Israel’s withdrawal of the delegation as “surprising” given the U.S. had been in contact with Israel’s government on this resolution.

Both Miller and Kirby repeatedly told reporters that the resolution is “non-binding” though António Guterres, the secretary-general of the U.N., wrote on X that “this resolution must be implemented. Failure would be unforgivable.”

Netanyahu didn’t call Biden about his decision to cancel the delegation’s trip, for which the U.S. was already preparing, the administration official said, and Biden has not reciprocated.

Still, Kirby at the White House briefing defended the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu amid America’s vocal position on Rafah.

“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 when responding to a reporter’s question about whether this represented a “new low” for them.

“They both agree on one really important thing and that is the importance of the state of Israel, the importance of the security of the Israeli people and the importance of making sure an attack like the 7th of October doesn’t happen again,” Kirby said.

Biden had requested the Israeli delegation in a call last week with Netanyahu in light of what the White House called his “deep concerns” for civilians should Israel launch a large-scale incursion into Rafah, a city bordering Egypt, where more than 1 million civilians are thought to be sheltering as Israel continues to go after Hamas fighters in Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Kirby on Monday would not give insight into who would have taken part in the canceled talks between the White House and the Israelis, which the administration official said were set for Wednesday.

Kirby also noted administration officials are still meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday and Tuesday.

Those discussions will include “ample” discussion of Israel’s plan for Rafah, he said.

The administration has said a major ground operation in Rafah would be a “mistake” and worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where more than 31,000 people have died since the war began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

Vice President Kamala Harris, in an interview with ABC News, didn’t rule out consequences if Israel were to invade Rafah.

Netanyahu insists that going into Rafah is crucial for dismantling Hamas’ fighting capabilities to prevent future terror attacks.

“We are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion,” he said last week.

The Israelis have also said they could move civilians from the city to “humanitarian islands,” though the U.S. remains publicly skeptical.

When pressed on Monday by ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Selina Wang about how the U.S. can convince Israeli officials to change their stance on Rafah without meeting with the delegation, Kirby replied, “We’ll have to see, won’t we?”

“It’s certainly not ideal they won’t be coming to D.C. … that doesn’t mean our ability to talk to them and have conversations have been eliminated,” he said.

ABC News’ Will Gretsky contributed to this report.

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