US pushes alternatives to Rafah invasion in Hamas war talks with Israel

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top American and Israeli officials held virtual talks Monday as the U.S. pushed alternatives to the ground assault against Hamas under consideration by Israelis in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, a move the U.S. opposes on humanitarian grounds and that has frayed relations between the two allies.

President Joe Biden and his administration have publicly and privately urged Israel for months to refrain from a large-scale incursion into Rafah without a credible plan to relocate and safeguard noncombatants. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israeli forces, which are trying to eradicate Hamas after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, must be able to enter the city to root out the group’s remaining battalions.

The more than two-and-a-half-hour meeting by secure video conference was described by both sides as constructive and productive, as Washington encourages the Israelis to avoid an all-out assault on the city, where an estimated four battalions of Hamas fighters are dispersed among more than 1.3 million civilians. The White House has instead pushed Israel to take more targeted actions to kill or capture Hamas leaders while limiting civilian impacts.

The potential operation in the city has exposed one of the deepest rifts between Israel and its closest ally, funder and arms supplier. The U.S. has already openly said Israel must do more to allow food and other goods through its blockade of Gaza to avert famine.

“They agreed that they share the objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah,” the U.S. and Israeli teams known as the Strategic Consultative Group said in a joint statement released by the White House. “The U.S. side expressed its concerns with various courses of action in Rafah. The Israeli side agreed to take these concerns into account and to have follow up discussions between experts overseen by the SCG. The follow-up discussions would include in person SCG meeting as early as next week.”

The virtual meeting came a week after planned in-person talks were nixed by Netanyahu when the U.S. didn’t veto a U.N. resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken chaired the meeting for the U.S. side. The Israeli side was led by Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Minister for Strategic Affairs and Netanyahu confidant Ron Dermer.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is weighing selling Israel up to 50 new F-15 fighter jets, according to two congressional aides. The sale was informally notified to the relevant foreign affairs committees in the House and Senate on Jan. 30, according to the aides, who were granted anonymity to discuss details of a potential sale that have not yet been made public.

The initial notification indicates the administration is likely moving forward with the sale, although it is unclear if it has gotten the final nod of approval from Congress’ national security leadership.

Separately Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to encourage reforms in the group that oversees part of the West Bank and which the U.S. is hopeful can play a role in governing post-war Gaza.

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AP writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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