Biden meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah as Rafah offensive looms

President Biden and Jordan’s King Abdullah II jointly warned at the White House on Monday of an indiscriminate Israeli invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, creating an event not seen since the war between Israel and Hamas more than four months ago began – the president standing next to an Arab leader to express reservations about the Israeli attack on the Palestinian enclave.

“The major military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible plan to ensure the safety and support of the more than 1 million people sheltering there,” Biden said, referring to Israeli plans to invade the city. “Many people there are displaced – displaced several times, fleeing violence in the north. And now they are crammed into Rafah, exposed and vulnerable. They must be protected.”

Abdullah was more direct. “We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah. It is certain that this will cause a new humanitarian catastrophe,” the king said. Referring to the wider war, he added: “We cannot stand by and allow this to continue. We need a lasting ceasefire now. This war must end.”

U.S. officials have privately told members of Congress that Israel is not about to wipe out Hamas, more than 100 days into its campaign, according to officials familiar with the briefing who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private matter. describe exchange.

Yet Biden himself has not publicly called for a ceasefire. He says Israel must be given the opportunity to defend itself by rooting out and destroying Hamas’s base of operations in Gaza. But his willingness to stand with an Arab leader who made such a call was remarkable.

On February 12, President Biden said the United States was continuing its work on a hostage agreement between Israel and Hamas, although “gaps remain.” (Video: The Washington Post)

The joint comments came after Biden met Abdullah privately at the White House, the first in-person meeting the president has had with an Arab leader since the war between Israel and Gaza began in October. The meeting took place after US officials expressed deep concern over Israel’s plans to target the small town of Rafah, which borders Egypt and where some 1.3 million Palestinians live in dire conditions after fleeing there under Israeli command.

Still, Biden and his top aides have made clear they are not in favor of limiting or conditioning any aid to Israel — and have not warned of taking action to hold them accountable if the military offensive goes against their warnings to kill civilians to protect those seeking refuge in Rafah.

Israeli airstrikes during a nighttime operation in Rafah to rescue two hostages killed at least 67 Palestinians, including women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. This raises fears that a sustained Israeli operation there could kill and injure thousands of others with nowhere to go. in Gaza. The planned Rafah operation has also escalated fears of the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Palestinians as Arab leaders fear they will be pushed into Egypt’s Sinai – a move openly denounced by far-right ministers in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have insisted.

Biden reiterated Monday that he and his top aides are working urgently to negotiate a six-week pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas in exchange for the release of the remaining Israeli hostages. He said this could lay the groundwork for a permanent end to the war. .

At a time when Biden has faced increasing criticism from Arab-American and Muslim voters angry about his staunch support for Israel and what they describe as a lack of empathy for the Palestinians affected by the war, Biden found in Abdullah a welcome ally. He took the opportunity to highlight the suffering of Palestinians, saying they are facing “unimaginable pain” and adding: “It is 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 is made up of ethnic Palestinians, will be crucial to any long-term US diplomatic ambitions in the Middle East. Biden has said the war in Gaza should be followed by plans for a Palestinian state, an idea strongly rejected by Netanyahu. The US believes this will require reform of the Palestinian Authority, which governs part of the West Bank, and Jordan is likely to play a central role in such efforts.

In recent days, Biden has shown more willingness to focus on Israel’s military operation in Gaza, but for months Arab leaders in the US and the Middle East have felt that his public comments have allowed little criticism of the heavy military campaign .

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 issues in multiple U.S. states. Middle East worked. administrations.

More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes and attacks, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. In addition, more than 80 percent of the area’s residents have been displaced, and an Israeli siege has put hundreds of thousands of residents at risk of famine and disease. Israeli officials have resisted repeated U.S. calls to allow more humanitarian aid into the enclave. Adding to the challenges, Israeli protesters have prevented aid trucks from entering Gaza through the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the enclave.

Biden and Abdullah have known each other for more than two decades and have a deep affection for each other, aides to both men said. As vice president, Biden oversaw the Iraq portfolio and made more than a dozen trips to the country. On each of those trips — both on the way there and on the way back — Biden stopped in Amman to visit Abdullah, Riedel said.

In the first months of his presidency, Biden expressed support for Abdullah after his half-brother threatened to destabilize the monarchy. Biden called the king immediately after the incident and expressed his full support for Abdullah – a move the monarchy was very grateful for, experts said.

That long relationship gave Abdullah a rare opportunity to speak in detail with Biden about the immense suffering in Gaza and appeal to his compassionate side, 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 candid. Part of the king’s goal here is to appeal to the empathetic part of Joe Biden and get him to show some empathy with the Palestinian people, which Biden needs to do for his own domestic political reasons.”

Abdullah’s visit to Washington comes at a precarious moment in the war, when Biden is closer than ever to a rift with Netanyahu over high civilian tolls, disagreements over humanitarian aid and Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state. More immediately, US officials are deeply concerned by Netanyahu’s announcement of the upcoming military operation in Rafah.

As Biden stood outside the White House awaiting Abduallah’s arrival, he was asked whether Netanyahu listened to his advice.

He smiled broadly and said, “Everyone does that.”

Abdullah’s visit to Washington is part of his tour of the United States, Canada, France and Germany, and part of his efforts to mobilize international support for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, for the protection of civilians and for more humanitarian aid. Abdullah is also expected to meet with senior government officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and members of Congress on Tuesday.

Abdullah also spoke to Biden about rising violence in the West Bank, as US and Arab leaders fear a new front in the war could emerge as tensions boil. More than 370 Palestinians – including around 100 children – have been killed in violent clashes with Israelis in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The vast majority were killed by Israeli 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 since three U.S. service members were killed in an attack on an outpost in northeastern Jordan last month. Biden blamed Iranian-backed militias for the killings, which sparked a series of retaliatory attacks.

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