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Politics

Vice President Harris Hosts Israeli War Cabinet Member as the US Pushes to Get More Aid into Gaza

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris met on Monday with a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet who came to Washington in defiance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Biden administration intensifies its efforts to push more humanitarian aid into war-battered Gaza.

White House officials said Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival of Netanyahu, requested the meeting and that the Democratic administration believed it was important that Harris sit down with the prominent Israeli official despite Netanyahu’s objections.

President Joe Biden, Harris and other senior administration officials have become increasingly blunt about their dissatisfaction with the mounting death toll in Gaza and the suffering of innocent Palestinians as the war nears the five-month mark.

“The president and I have been aligned and consistent from the very beginning,” Harris said in an exchange with reporters shortly before meeting with Gantz. “Israel has a right to defend itself. Far too many Palestinian civilians, innocent civilians have been killed. We need to get more aid in, we need to get hostages out. and that remains our position.”

The White House, in a statement following the meeting, said Harris and Gantz discussed the urgency of completing a hostage deal to free more than 100 people believed still to be in captivity in Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. She also reiterated the administration’s support for a temporary extended cease-fire that would facilitate the release of hostages and allow for a surge of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza.

Benny Gantz, a key member of Israel’s War Cabinet and the top political rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaves a meeting in the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2024. Gantz also met earlier with Vice President Kamala Harris and other top White House officials. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Although Gantz holds many of the same hardline views as Netanyahu, he has been seen as more open to compromise on critical issues, including the increased delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The meeting comes after the U.S. on Saturday carried out the first of what are expected to be ongoing airdrops of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The moment is reflective of the increasingly awkward dynamics in the U.S.-Israel relationship, with the U.S. forced to fly badly needed aid past its close ally as it looks to ramp up assistance for desperate civilians in Gaza. The first airdrop occurred just days after more than 100 Palestinians were killed as they were trying to get food from an Israel-organized convoy.

The White House agreed to the meeting with Gantz even as an official from Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud party said Gantz did not have approval from the prime minister for his meetings in Washington. Netanyahu gave Gantz a “tough talk” about the visit — underscoring a widening crack within Israel’s wartime leadership.

“We have been dealing with all members of the war Cabinet, including Mr. Gantz,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. “We see this as a natural outgrowth of those discussions. We’re not going to turn away that sort of opportunity.”

In addition to his talks with Harris, Gantz met with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk. Gantz also met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and on Tuesday will sit down with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Gantz ,just before the start of his White House meetings, told a reporter with Israel’s public broadcaster Kan: “There will be an open and honest conversation between two friendly and important countries and partners.”

Biden is at Camp David, the presidential retreat just outside Washington, until Tuesday as he prepares to deliver the annual State of the Union address later this week.

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. She also increased pressure on Israel not to impede the aid that workers are trying to get into the region. The White House has been advocating for that framework deal for weeks.

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.

Biden faces mounting political pressure at home over his administration’s handling of the Israeli-Hamas war, which was triggered when 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 “uncommitted” vote reflected a coordinated push by voters on the left to register their dissatisfaction 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.

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.

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, Gantz was aiming 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 was unclear if Gantz during his White House talks diverged 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, and the White House said Harris reiterated that position in her meeting with Gantz.

“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.”

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By AAMER MADHANI and SEUNG MIN KIM Associated Press

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

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