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Biden meets Jordan’s King Abdullah as Rafah offensive looms

President Biden and King Abdullah II of Jordan, speaking jointly at the White House on Monday, warned of an indiscriminate Israeli invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, creating an event that has not occurred since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas more than four months ago: The president stands alongside an Arab leader to express reservations about the Israeli attack in the Palestinian enclave.

“The major military operation in Rafah should not take place without a credible plan to ensure the safety and support of the more than a million people sheltering there,” Biden said, referring to stated plans to Israel to invade the city. “Many people have been repeatedly displaced, fleeing the violence to the north. And now they are crowded together in Rafah, exposed and vulnerable. They must be protected.

Abdullah was more direct. “We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah. This will certainly create another humanitarian catastrophe,” the king said. Referring to the war more generally, he added: “We cannot stand by and let this continue. We need a lasting ceasefire now. This war must end. »

U.S. officials privately told members of Congress that Israel was no closer to exterminating Hamas more than 100 days into its campaign, according to officials familiar with the briefing, who spoke on condition of anonymity. to describe a private exchange.

Yet Biden himself has not publicly called for a ceasefire, saying Israel must be allowed to defend itself by extirpating and destroying Hamas’ base of operations in Gaza. But his willingness to stand with an Arab leader who actually made such a call was remarkable.

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

The joint comments come after Biden met privately with Abdullah at the White House, the first face-to-face meeting the president has held with an Arab leader since the start of the war between Israel and Gaza in October. The meeting came as U.S. officials expressed deep concern over Israeli plans to target the small town of Rafah, which borders Egypt and where an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians live in decrepit conditions after fleeing under Israeli orders.

Yet Biden and his top aides have made clear that they do not support restriction or conditionality on any Israeli aid – and have not warned that they will take steps to hold them accountable if the military offensive goes to war. against their warnings to protect civilian refugees in Rafah.

Israeli airstrikes during an overnight operation in Rafah to rescue two hostages killed at least 67 Palestinians, including women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry, raising fears that a sustained Israeli operation there could kill and injure thousands more who have nowhere to go. in Gaza. The planned operation in Rafah has also increased fears of forced displacement of tens of thousands of Palestinians, with Arab leaders fearing they will be pushed towards Egypt’s Sinai – a move that far-right ministers in the Israeli prime minister’s government Benjamin Netanyahu openly demanded.

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

At a time when Biden faces growing criticism from Arab-American and Muslim voters angry over his unwavering support for Israel and what they describe as a lack of empathy for war-affected Palestinians, Biden found a welcome ally in Abdullah. He took the opportunity to highlight the suffering of Palestinians, saying they are facing “unimaginable pain” and adding: “It’s 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 key to any long-term U.S. diplomatic ambitions in the Middle East. Biden has said the war in Gaza must be followed by planning for a Palestinian state, a notion Netanyahu forcefully rejects. The United States believes this will require reform of the Palestinian Authority, which governs part of the West Bank, and that Jordan will likely play a central role in such an effort.

In recent days, Biden has been more willing to take aim at Israel’s military operation in Gaza, but for months, Arab leaders in the United States and the Middle East have said his public comments allowed little criticism of the impactful 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 the issues. from the Middle East in several United States. administrations.

More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes and raids, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Additionally, more than 80 percent of the territory’s residents have been displaced, and the 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 are Israeli protesters who have prevented aid trucks from entering Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing with the enclave.

Biden and Abdullah have known each other for more than 20 years and have deep affection for each other, according to aides to both men. As vice president, Biden oversaw the Iraq portfolio and made more than a dozen trips to the country. On each of those trips — whether outbound or back — Biden stopped in Amman to visit Abdullah, Riedel said.

In the first months of his presidency, Biden demonstrated 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 decision for which the monarchy was deeply grateful, according to experts.

That long-standing relationship gave Abdullah a rare opportunity to speak in detail to Biden about the immense suffering in Gaza and appeal to his compassion, 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 frank. Part of King’s goal here is to appeal to Joe Biden and get him to show some empathy toward the Palestinian people, which Biden must do for his own domestic political reasons .”

Abdullah’s visit to Washington comes at a precarious moment in the war, with Biden closer than ever to a break with Netanyahu over the heavy civilian toll, disagreements over humanitarian aid and Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state. More immediately, US officials are very concerned about Netanyahu’s announcement of the upcoming military operation in Rafah.

Biden, while standing outside the White House awaiting Abdullah’s arrival, was asked if Netanyahu was listening to his advice.

He smiled broadly and said, “Everyone does it.” »

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

Abdullah also spoke to Biden about rising violence in the West Bank, as U.S. and Arab leaders fear a new war front could open as tensions rise. 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 of them 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 visit since three U.S. service members were killed last month in an attack on an outpost in northeastern Jordan. Biden blamed the killings on Iran-backed militias, prompting a series of retaliatory strikes.

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