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Could a Rafah offensive be a breaking point in Biden's support of Israel?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We begin this hour, though, with the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The question looming over the war in Gaza right now is this. What will happen to the southern city of Rafah? More than half of Gaza's population has sought refuge there, an estimated 1.5 million people. Israel says that in order to defeat Hamas, it needs to bring the war to Rafah. The Biden administration says that would be a disaster.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have been absolutely clear that, under the current circumstances in Rafah, a military operation now in that area cannot proceed.

KELLY: That is Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaking on NPR on Friday. On Sunday the White House says Biden reiterated that position in a phone call with Netanyahu. So is this a hairline crack or the beginning of a larger rift between the U.S. and Israel? And how might it reverberate across the region? Well, to answer those questions, I'm joined by Ambassador Dennis Ross. He spent more than a decade as the Mideast special envoy for both the George H.W. Bush administration and the Clinton administration. Ambassador, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DENNIS ROSS: Good to be with you. Thank you.

KELLY: So start right with this current moment. We have President Biden warning Prime Minister Netanyahu, do not invade Rafah. That would be a disaster. We have Netanyahu saying Hamas cannot be destroyed unless they invade Rafah. Do you see any middle ground between those two positions?

ROSS: Well, I do see a middle ground. I think the Prime Minister is probably right, that you can't succeed in demilitarizing Gaza and, in effect, demilitarizing Hamas unless, in fact, you're able to deal with Rafah, both from the standpoint that there are probably four battalions of Hamas fighters there, on the one hand. But also, that border of Egypt and Jordan - I'm sorry, Egypt and Gaza - has been kind of a sieve. So you really need to - you need to be there to prevent that or at least work out something between Egypt and Israel. So I think...

KELLY: But then again, this million-and-a-half people who are there, who have been told to go there 'cause they'll be safe...

ROSS: Well, I was going to say there's sort of two ways that you bridge these differences. The first way is that the people who are there are going to have to be evacuated. But you can't simply evacuate them unless you have someplace else for them to go within Gaza. And that someplace else for them to go within Gaza also has to be able to receive them, you know, meaning you have to have humanitarian assistance that can go to them. You have to create shelter for them. So if, in fact, the Israelis are going to go to Rafah - into Rafah to deal with that military dimension of Hamas...

KELLY: Right.

ROSS: ...They have to come up with a plan that is workable for evacuating people, and there has to be some place in Gaza for them to go. The ground has to be prepared from a humanitarian standpoint to be able to absorb them. The second area where you have to work something out is between Egypt and Israel...

KELLY: Sure.

ROSS: ...Because because Egypt made it very clear it's not in favor of Israel doing this unless this is understood between the two of them.

KELLY: Ambassador, setting aside the specifics of how they may or may not work that out, to the question of the U.S.-Israel relationship and these increasingly stern warnings we are hearing from the Biden administration, I posed the question as, is this a hairline crack in the relationship or a deeper rift? What do you think?

ROSS: Well, I don't think it's fundamental to the relationship, but I do think it relates to the relationship between the president and the prime minister. Look. You have President Biden, who is the only American president who ever went to Israel during a war, who immediately comes to the defense of Israel in international form, who has taken on some, you know, political water here for doing what he's done, stood up in many respects to a lot of international pressure to stand by Israel. So I think he feels that he has really put himself on the line. I think he's built a lot of political credit in Israel, and I think what he's seeking is a little bit more responsiveness from Prime Minister Netanyahu to the things that he's asking.

KELLY: Right. And that was widely seen as part of the initial calculation, that the U.S. would not sternly lecture Israel in any way in the hopes of being able to privately wield some influence behind the scenes. Has that worked? What leverage does the U.S. have here?

ROSS: Well, I think to some extent, it has worked because there is - I think it needs to be understood within Israel, because the hostages have been held, because of the trauma of October 7, because there's been no access for the Red Cross to the hostages, there is a powerful sentiment, not just in the right wing but across the whole body politic, that Israel shouldn't be providing humanitarian assistance at all until, in fact, the hostages are released or at least the access is given to the hostages. That hasn't happened. And yet, because of the present, Israel did create humanitarian corridors. It has allowed humanitarian assistance to go in. Given the politics of Israel right now, you wouldn't have seen that at all had it not been for the pressure from the United States and from President Biden. So it has worked. Obviously it hasn't worked well enough, but I think to somehow argue that it hasn't worked at all is to ignore what the realities are.

KELLY: We have about a minute left. Let's apply everything you've just said, again, back to this current moment. If Israel does go ahead and send ground forces in in a major invasion of Rafah, as they have said they will do, should the Biden administration continue to stand as strongly as it has with Israel?

ROSS: Well, I think it can stand strongly with Israel by making itself very clear in that Israel shouldn't do this. I would be very surprised if Israel will go ahead and do this without an evacuation plan. And here I think the U.S. can work closely with them to help make that evacuation plan workable from a humanitarian standpoint.

KELLY: OK. We have been speaking with ambassador Dennis Ross, who spent more than a decade as the U.S. envoy to the Middle East for both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton. He's now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ambassador, thanks as always.

ROSS: A pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Connor Donevan
Brianna Scott
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.