Harris will meet with Israeli Cabinet official who is in Washington despite Netanyahu's rebuke

1 month ago

WASHINGTON: Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday is hosting a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet who is visiting Washington in defiance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival of Netanyahu, is sitting down with several senior Biden administration officials this week, including Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser. President Joe Biden is at Camp David, the presidential retreat just outside Washington, until Tuesday. Gantz is also scheduled to meet on Monday with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Gantz met on Sunday with the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, and State Department counselor Derek Chollet ahead of his White House meetings, according to administration officials who were not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

Over the weekend, Harris issued a forceful call for a temporary cease-fire deal in Gaza, which administration officials say would halt fighting for at least six weeks, and also increased pressure on Israel not to impede the aid that workers were trying to get into the region. The White House has been advocating for that framework deal for weeks.

“Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate cease-fire for at least the next six weeks, which is what is currently on the table,” Harris said during an appearance in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday. “This will get the hostages out and get a significant amount of aid in.”

Harris continued: “This would allow us to build something more enduring to ensure Israel is secure and to respect the right of the Palestinian people to dignity, freedom and self-determination.”

The White House is hosting Netanyahu’s rival as Biden faces mounting political pressure at home over his administration’s handling of the five-month Israeli-Hamas war, which was triggered after militants in Gaza launched an attack, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 people hostage.

In last week’s Michigan presidential primary, more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters cast ballots for “uncommitted.” Biden still easily won the state’s primary, but the coordinated push by voters on the left who are dissatisfied with the president’s unwavering support for Israel as its military operations in Gaza have left more than 30,000 Palestinians dead. The vote totals raise concerns for Democrats in a state Biden won by only 154,000 votes in 2020.

Harris in her remarks in Selma painted a dire portrait of malnourished and dying children in Gaza. She stressed that the Israeli government “must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid.”

“No excuses,” Harris said. “They must open new border crossings. They must not impose any unnecessary restrictions on the delivery of aid. They must ensure humanitarian personnel, sites and convoys are not targeted. And they must work to restore basic services and promote order in Gaza so more food, water and fuel can reach those in need.”

Israel has essentially agreed to the deal, according to a senior Biden administration official, and the White House has emphasized that the onus is on Hamas to come on board.

An official from Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party said Gantz did not have approval from the prime minister for his meetings in Washington and that Netanyahu gave the Cabinet official a “tough talk” — underscoring the widening crack within Israel’s wartime leadership.

Gantz, who polls show could be a formidable candidate for prime minister if a vote were held today, is viewed as a political moderate. But he has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood — something that Biden sees as essential to forging a lasting peace once the conflict ends but that Netanyahu adamantly opposes.

It is also assumed that when the heavy fighting subsides, Gantz will leave the government, which would increase pressure for early elections.

Since Gantz joined Netanyahu’s three-minister war Cabinet in October, U.S. officials have found him to be easier to deal with than either Netanyahu or Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Although Gantz holds many of the same hardline views as Netanyahu and Gallant, he has been seen as more open to compromise on critical issues, including the increased delivery of humanitarian assistance that will be a prime topic of discussion in the meetings in Washington this week.

Until now, calls for elections have been muted due to the war, but analysts think that when Gantz leaves the government, it will send a signal to the Israeli public that the need for national unity has passed and efforts to oust Netanyahu’s government can begin in earnest.

For his part while in Washington, Gantz aims to strengthen ties with the U.S., bolster support for Israel’s war and push for the release of Israeli hostages, according to a second Israeli official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t allowed to publicly discuss the disputes within the Israeli government. Gantz is scheduled to head to London for meetings after his U.S. visit.

It remains to be seen if Gantz while in Washington will diverge from Netanyahu’s stances on Palestinian statehood or carrying out an expanded operation in the southernmost Gaza city of Rafah. The Biden administration has repeatedly warned Israel against a Rafah operation without a plan to protect civilians.

“I don’t doubt there are some administration officials who believe just by meeting with Gantz they are undermining Netanyahu,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank. “But if Gantz carries the government’s line on key issues of disagreement, these meetings are net-negative for the White House while helpful back home for Gantz.”

The U.S. has begun a series of airdrops of aid into Gaza, just days after dozens of Palestinians were killed as they were trying to get food from an Israel-organized convoy. The first drop on Saturday included about 38,000 meals into southwest Gaza, and White House officials have said those airdrops will continue to supplement truck deliveries, while they also work on sending aid by sea.

Harris previously met Gantz at the Munich Security Conference in 2022.

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Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; Wafaa Shurafa in Rafah, Gaza Strip; and Samy Magdy in Cairo and Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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