Podcast: Biden Threatens Israel Over Rafah : The NPR Politics Podcast In an interview with CNN, President Biden said he would block further U.S. shipments of weapons to Israel if it launched a ground invasion of Rafah as part of the Israeli war in Gaza. What impact will his statement have both for the U.S.-Israel relationship, and among progressive Democrats who call for a halt to weapon shipments to Israel?

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis, senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and national security correspondent Greg Myre.

This podcast was produced by Kelli Wessinger, and edited & produced by Casey Morell. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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A Change In U.S.-Israel Policy?

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TORI: Hi. This is Tori (ph) from Orange County, Calif. I'm trying to manage our calendar of chaos before the school year ends in a few weeks. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

1:11 p.m. on Thursday, May 9.

TORI: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'll still be juggling concerts, presentations, campouts, team playoffs and more. OK, here's the show.

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DAVIS: Oh, this timestamp hits me where I live right now as my kids were coloring their teacher appreciation cards this morning...

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Oh my gosh, yes.

DAVIS: ...As we're planning for Kidsfest (ph) and an AAPI potluck lunch at school. It is that time of year.

KEITH: The tyranny of kids' sports and activities.

DAVIS: Especially in that last six weeks of school. It is like...

KEITH: Oh, yeah.

DAVIS: It's all, like - just comes at the same time. Hey, there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: And I'm Greg Myre. I cover national security.

DAVIS: And President Biden is now threatening to cut off weapons shipments to Israel if they go forward with a full-scale assault on the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, where over 1 million people are currently sheltering. Here's Biden speaking to CNN last night.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If they go into Rafah - they haven't gone into Rafah yet. If they go into Rafah, I'm not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem.

DAVIS: This comes a week after Biden paused a shipment of bombs to Israel over concerns of how they might be used in Rafah. Tam, why this decision, and why now?

KEITH: The White House was quite concerned about preparations that were being made, rhetoric that was coming out of Israel about plans for a full-scale ground assault on Rafah. And they have been warning Israel, warning Netanyahu, privately saying many of the things that Biden then said publicly last night in this CNN interview, and to little apparent effect. And in terms of the weapons that a shipment of which has been paused - it's some 3,000 bombs - the White House said, and the president said they did not want those weapons used on civilians in Rafah.

DAVIS: I mean, Tam, this also comes as it seems like cease-fire talks are not going well.

KEITH: That's right. Bill Burns, the CIA director, had been in Cairo taking part in talks. I was told that he was the highest-level official there, though, trying to secure this quite elusive temporary cease-fire that would also secure the release of Israeli hostages. And he's now headed back.

A few days ago, White House spokesman John Kirby had been quite optimistic about the ability to bridge the gaps between Israel and Hamas. And today, I said, hey, what happened to your optimism? He's like, well, you know, it could still happen. People are still talking. But the optimism just isn't where it was a few days ago. There have been many cycles of this sort of fits and starts of these talks.

DAVIS: Greg, I want to ask you about the military impact here. But before we get to that, could you paint a picture of what exactly is happening in and around Rafah right now and sort of how this invasion relates to the broader Israel-Hamas war, which is now seven months in?

MYRE: Sure. So Rafah is right on the border, hard on the border with Egypt. It's the one city Israel has not gone into with its military yet. It's basically taken over the rest of Gaza. And Israel had been talking about a Rafah invasion for about three months or more now. On Monday night, Tuesday morning, they did send some tanks to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and quickly took that over. Now, this is on the southeast edge of the city, so it seems like it's a limited operation at this point. Israel is in full control of this border crossing. It's very significant. This is the main place that aid - humanitarian aid, food, medicine, fuel - is coming into Gaza from Egypt.

And as we know, not enough is getting in. And now this Rafah border crossing is closed. So we've got this issue of how this could affect humanitarian aid, but also the prospect that Israel may conduct a larger operation in Rafah itself. This is the last Hamas stronghold. It's believed to have several thousand fighters there.

DAVIS: Greg, is it fair to sort of surmise from Biden's decision-making here that the U.S. just doesn't have confidence that Israel can conduct this invasion without unnecessarily high civilian casualties?

MYRE: That's the main point. Certainly, the Biden administration has said, look, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed. Many of them civilians. This is unacceptable. And now you have more than a million Palestinians squeezed in and around Rafah in the southern edge of Gaza. If you conduct a large ground operation there, in particular, we're looking at some very bloody urban fighting. The civilian casualty toll is likely to be extremely high. And that's why the Biden administration has been stressing this both in public comments and privately to Israel.

KEITH: John Kirby said something today that really stood out to me. He said, our view is that Rafah operations - any kind of major Rafah ground operation - would actually strengthen Hamas' hand at the negotiating table and not Israel's. And I pressed him on what he meant. And he said, you know, if you're the leader of Hamas in a tunnel somewhere under Rafah and you see civilians dying in this major operation, that further turns the international tide against Israel, and you are winning. Hamas is winning.

DAVIS: Greg, if President Biden keeps his word here, if these weapons do not get sent to Israel, if they withhold bomb shipments, from a military standpoint, how does that affect Israel?

MYRE: Well, in the short term, I'd say probably very little, if at all. Now, these are bombs that would be used for airstrikes. And the real issue with Rafah is whether Israel's going to conduct a major ground operation. So Israel has been bombing Rafah from the air in recent weeks. We typically will get reports of 20 or 30 casualties a day, civilians and militants. There's no indication Israel is running short of bombs to hit Rafah in the short term.

But what is new this week is this incursion to the border crossing and the prospect that it could be a much larger operation - heavy urban combat. So Israel could do this with tanks, armored personnel carriers, ground troops. They have all that, and that's not what the U.S. is withholding. So I don't think that's the issue. But in the longer term, this could affect Israel, which is heavily dependent on U.S. weaponry.

DAVIS: I mean, Tam, even if it does not have a major impact in the short term, this is a hugely symbolic decision on the part of a president who has very publicly committed ironclad support from the U.S. for Israel.

KEITH: And he is still committing ironclad support, and the White House is trying to dispute claims that this means that Biden is turning his back on Israel - claims that are coming from people inside Israel and also from many Republican politicians here in the U.S. But, you know, this is a huge shift. For months, there have been calls for the White House to condition aid to Israel on, you know, avoiding civilian casualties or otherwise withhold arms.

And the Biden administration and the president said no way, we're not doing that. Now, what the White House would say now is, this is a pause, and also, the U.S. is continuing to supply many defensive weapons to Israel, but weapons shipments writ large have not been cut off, and that the U.S. will still come to Israel's defense, as they did on that night when Iran launched so many drones and missiles towards Israel.

MYRE: And I would just add to Tam's point there - she noted the Iranian strike a while back - Israel's concerned about that and also its northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah has been shooting, and Israel has been responding. So, while we're focused on Gaza here, Hezbollah in the north has a much larger and more powerful arsenal. So Israel may have what it needs in the short or even medium term to carry out any operations it wants to in Gaza. But if Hezbollah were to unleash a full-fledged war in the north, Israel would need a much larger arsenal and a much larger stockpile to wage that conflict at full force.

DAVIS: All right, let's take a quick break and when we get back, we'll talk more on the impact of this decision.

And we're back. And, Greg, how has Israel responded to this decision?

MYRE: Defiance, I think, in a word. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying all along, well before this, that if Israel is forced to stand alone, it will, that he'll stand up to any pressure, even from the United States. And just today, after Biden made these remarks, the national security minister in Israel, Itamar Ben Gvir, tweeted, Hamas, heart emoji, Biden.

DAVIS: Wow.

MYRE: Now, he's one of the most extreme far-right ministers in the cabinet and one of the most outspoken, and his faction wants a major operation in Rafah to fully defeat Hamas, and it's threatening to leave the government and bring down the coalition if Netanyahu doesn't carry out this operation. So in that sense, Netanyahu is facing some pressure from both sides. And others in the government, the Israeli security establishment, are being defiant, saying they'll do what they need to do in Gaza, even if that means increased friction with the United States.

DAVIS: Is there any sense that this might possibly change Israel's direction in this war? As you've stated many times, Netanyahu seems pretty clear on his mission here.

MYRE: Well, you know, we haven't seen that yet. He's certainly gone against Biden's wishes on several instances. The consequences have been pretty minimal to nonexistent, but he's in this very tough spot now. He will alienate the Biden administration and the international community if there is a large ground invasion in Rafah. But if he doesn't push ahead, he's going to face pressure from his own coalition. His own government could be a threat. There are very mixed opinions inside Israel. There's strong support for the war overall, but hostage families want to get the Israeli hostages released and support a cease-fire. So he's taking heat from multiple directions.

KEITH: And the White House seems to be indicating that there is ground between a massive ground operation rolling tanks into Rafah and maybe targeting of Hamas leaders or militants who are hiding behind civilians there. It's not clear to me, though, that Israel sees it the same way and discussions between the U.S. and Israel that were supposed to happen about, you know, Israel's plan and U.S. alternatives, those discussions haven't really been happening in the way that I think the White House wanted.

DAVIS: Tam, this is also not happening in a vacuum. President Biden is running for reelection. The handling of U.S-Israel relations has been central to at least the Democratic primary fight in that there has been a uncommitted movement in some key states and primaries so voters could voice discontent with the president and how he's handled this. I mean, he has some self-interest here in his own political interest in looking like he's taking a stronger line against Israel.

KEITH: Yeah. But pausing a shipment of bombs to Israel is not going to satisfy Biden's critics on the left, and it is causing his supporters who back Israel to question his commitment to Israel. So President Biden is in an impossible position here. He is not in control of what Israel does and hasn't been. You know, the White House had been rooting in a big way for a temporary cease-fire that could lead to a more permanent cease-fire, and it just keeps being out of reach.

DAVIS: It's also created more political division. Speaker Mike Johnson has been very critical of Biden's announcement. He's publicly said that it runs counter to what senior White House officials told him would be the White House policy. And he spoke very critically of the president just this morning on CNBC.

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MIKE JOHNSON: For Joe Biden to do this, he is going against what he told Congress, what his top officials in the White House specifically told me that they would do, and it's just catastrophic policy.

DAVIS: Johnson has extended an invitation from - to Netanyahu to address Congress. Majority leader Chuck Schumer has indicated he might support that effort. So this is - just seems like one of those issues where domestically, politically, it could only get more complicated as we get closer to the election.

KEITH: I was talking to a Democratic congressman about this, and he's like, you know, America is already so divided, and then you add this international crisis, and it is just furthering the divisions.

DAVIS: There also seems to me to be, again, just through the lens of politics here, a risk for President Biden because, what if Israel just ignores him? What if they just move forward and it looks like the position of the American president doesn't carry all that much weight?

KEITH: He's on a high wire, and he has been for months. And I don't know how he gets off that high wire.

MYRE: We've been talking about Rafah, which is sort of the last place where Hamas still has some level of control. But even if Israel were to capture Rafah and effectively have control over all of Gaza, we really haven't breached the topic of what comes next. Who is going to run Gaza in the medium to long term? Israel says it doesn't want to be there, but there's no real alternative at this point.

DAVIS: All right. That is it for us today. We'll be back tomorrow with the weekly roundup. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MYRE: And I'm Greg Myre. I cover national security.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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