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Politics

White House Defends Harris Meeting with Israeli Cabinet Official Despite Netanyahu’s  Concerns

WASHINGTON  — Vice President Kamala Harris and other top Biden administration officials held talks on Monday with a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet who came to Washington in defiance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

White House officials said Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival of Netanyahu, requested the meeting and the Democratic administration believed it was important to meet 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 suffering of innocent Palestinians as the war nears the five-month mark.

“We’re going to discuss a number of things in terms of the priorities that certainly we have, which includes getting a hostage deal done, getting aid in and then getting that six-week ceasefire,” Harris told reporters shortly before meeting with Gantz.

The U.S. on Saturday carried out the first of what is expected to be ongoing aidrops 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.”

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, speaks during a joint press conference with his Greek counterpart Nikos Panagiotopoulos, at the Greek Ministry of Defence, in Athens, Greece, on Nov. 18, 2022. Benny Gantz, who is in Washington this week for meetings with U.S. leaders, is a crucial member of Israel’s War Cabinet. He is also the top political rival to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz is a centrist politician who joined Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and religious government soon after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. (AP Photo/Michael Varaklas, File)

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 was also scheduled to meet on Monday with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and on Tuesday 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, 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

“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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