Netanyahu makes U-turn and agrees to send delegation to Washington amid Biden row

Israeli Prime Minister's relationship with President Joe Biden plumbed new lows this week

Benjamin Netanyahu's cancellation of the original trip on Monday was viewed as a new low in his relations with Joe Biden. EPA, AP
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to send a high-profile delegation to the US in a dramatic about-turn after he cancelled the trip in an apparent swipe at President Joe Biden.

The delegation's visit will tackle Washington's concerns about Israeli plans to launch an offensive in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where about 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge.

There are fears throughout the international community that an Israeli operation in Rafah would have a catastrophic civilian toll and worsen Gaza’s deepening humanitarian crisis.

Mr Netanyahu is expected to send Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, both confidantes of the prime minister, according to Axios.

“We are now working on a convenient date that will work for both sides,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who described the discussions as “urgent”.

Mr Netanyahu's cancellation of the original trip on Monday was viewed as a new low point in the plummeting relations between him and Mr Biden, who had specifically requested the delegation come to the US.

Washington is Israel's most important ally by far and has supported its war in Gaza despite mounting global opposition.

The Israeli prime minister’s decision came after the US chose not to veto a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza war. This marked a significant break from Washington's policy of blocking any attempts to condemn Israel at the UN.

Mr Netanyahu later said he cancelled the trip to send a message to Hamas. The move was widely interpreted in the Israeli media as an attempt to appeal to his domestic supporters, by casting the prime minister as strong enough to stand up to Mr Biden.

Mr Netanyahu continues to insist that a large-scale operation in Rafah must happen to destroy Hamas and rescue the estimated 130 Israeli hostages who remain in captivity.

Reports emerged on Wednesday that Israeli military officials have told Egyptian counterparts that Israel is preparing to invade Rafah, which borders Egypt, in mid-April or early May.

Egypt, also a close US ally, fears that such an operation could push Gazans into Egyptian territory. President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has repeatedly warned that the expulsion of Palestinians into Egypt was a red line and would not be tolerated.

The chaos over the delegation comes amid mounting domestic political pressure on Mr Netanyahu, as key partners in his coalition are reportedly growing increasingly frustrated with the prime minister’s approach to the war.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz, a former electoral rival of Mr Netanyahu, on Monday reiterated his threat to leave the government if an agreement is not reached to end military service exemptions for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Mr Netanyahu is also juggling an emotional argument over the possible terms of a hostage exchange with Hamas, as negotiations come to a head.

Protests in support of the hostages are gaining momentum in Israel, but far-right sections of the government fear that a release deal could give too many concessions to Hamas and hurt the war effort.

Despite Mr Netanyahu’s anger towards Mr Biden, senior Israeli officials continue to stress the importance of US-Israel relations.

President Isaac Herzog said on Thursday that “the [US] has no greater friend than Israel, and Israel has no greater friend than the United States of America”.

“This unbreakable bond, this alliance, is as strong as ever and is irreplaceable,” he added.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told US officials in Washington on Tuesday that Israel and the US “share 100 per cent of the values and 99 per cent of the interests with the [US]”.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 3:07 PM