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Rift between Biden and Netanyahu widens as Israeli leader vows to press on with Rafah operation

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Divisions between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu burst out into the open again over the weekend as the two traded barbs in interviews over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

In a Saturday interview with MSNBC, Biden said Netanyahu was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel” in his war on Gaza, adding that he wants “to see a ceasefire” in the context of a deal that also brings back Israeli hostages held there by Hamas.

Biden has for months warned that Israel risks losing international support over mounting civilian casualties in Gaza, where the death toll has passed 31,000.

Netanyahu in response said the American president was wrong in his assessment and fiercely defended his policies in Gaza, especially a looming ground operation into the southernmost city of Rafah that Biden and other world leaders have warned against.

“I don’t know exactly what the president meant, but if he meant by that, that I’m pursuing private policies against the wish of the majority of Israelis, and that this is hurting the interests of Israel then he’s wrong on both counts,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Politico and German media outlet Bild, referring to Biden’s remarks about the prime minister hurting Israel.

An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering in Rafah, which has been under Israeli bombardment for weeks. Crammed into a sprawling tent city packed against the Egyptian border, families there are living with severe shortages of food, water, medicine and shelter, and the daily risk of being killed.

In his Saturday interview, Biden said that an Israeli invasion of Rafah would be a red line, before adding in the same breath that crossing it would not result in punitive measures against Israel.

“It is a red line, but I am never going to leave Israel,” Biden said. “The defense of Israel is still critical, so there’s no red line I’m going to cut off all weapons.”

Netanyahu on Sunday said he intends to move forward with the invasion, despite Biden’s warning and regardless of a ceasefire-hostage deal. The operation would not last more than two months, he said, but did not provide specifics on the timeline.

“We’ll go there. We’re not going to leave (Gaza),” Netanyahu said Sunday in an interview with German outlet Axel Springer. “You know, I have a red line. You know what the red line is, that October 7 doesn’t happen again.”

Two US officials however told CNN the Biden administration is not anticipating that Israeli forces will imminently expand their military operations into Rafah.

As of this weekend, the Biden administration has yet to see any kind of humanitarian or evacuation plan from the Israeli government that seeks to ensure the safety of civilians in Rafah before launching a military operation there, the two US officials said Sunday.

The US has strongly supported Israel through its war in Gaza, which has so far killed more than 31,000 people and injured more than 72,000, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

The rising death toll, widespread destruction and unfolding humanitarian crisis have cast a shadow on Biden’s 2024 reelection bid, as anger over his administration’s handling of Israel’s war sparked a campaign to convince Michigan Democratic voters to cast protest ballots.

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for decades and have had disagreements even before October 7, including the president’s unease with the Israeli leader’s far-right government. As the conflict in Gaza has dragged on and pressure has grown from within his party to rein in Israel, Biden’s criticism has become more vocal.

Last month, Biden described the war as “over the top,” one of his sharpest rebukes since the conflict began. Late last year, Biden and Netanyahu publicly sparred with over plans for post-war Gaza.

The rhetoric from the administration has only grown stronger of late. Vice President Kamala Harris last week called for “an immediate ceasefire” and for more humanitarian aid into Gaza, “given the immense scale of suffering” in the enclave.

“It (Israel) cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead,” Biden told MSNBC Saturday. And in a statement marking the start of the Islamic month of Ramadan the same day, the president said that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is “front of mind” for many, including him. “More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, including thousands of children,” he said.

In a candid moment caught on a hot mic, Biden revealed his frustration with Netanyahu after his State of the Union speech last week.

“I told him, Bibi – and don’t repeat this – but you and I are going to have a come to Jesus meeting,” Biden was heard telling Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Senator Michael Bennett.

Asked about the moment, Biden told MSNBC the comment meant he intends to have a serious meeting soon with Netanyahu. “I’ve known Bibi for 50 years, and he knew what I meant by it.”

“What’s happening is that he has a right to defend Israel, a right to continue to pursue Hamas,” Biden said.

“But he must, he must, he must, he must, pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken.”

On Monday, Biden told reporters there are currently no plans for a “come to Jesus” meeting with Netanyahu and no plans for him to address the Israeli parliament “at this moment.”

CNN’s MJ Lee, Alex Marquardt, Sophie Tanno, Mitchell McCluskey and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

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