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Unlike Netanyahu, Israel's Gantz gets White House reception, talks hostage deal, Gaza cease-fire

Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz is meeting with high-level Biden administration officials in the latest sign of Prime Minister Netanyahu's diminishing acclaim in the White House.
Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz departs the White House after meeting with US Vice President Kamala Harris on March 4, 2024.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz met Monday in Washington with Vice President Kamala Harris and Jake Sullivan, US national security advisor, in separate meetings and is also set to meet with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On Tuesday, Gantz will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken before traveling to London.

The distribution of humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip will "be at the top of the agenda" during Gantz's meeting with Blinken, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller told reporters on Monday. Blinken also raised the issue of aid access to Gaza in a call with Ron Dermer, Israel's strategic affairs minister, on Monday, per Miller.

After meeting with Gantz Monday afternoon, Harris issued a statement saying she "expressed her deep concern about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the recent horrific tragedy around an aid convoy in northern Gaza.”

The statement said that the two "discussed the urgency of achieving a hostage deal and welcomed Israel’s constructive approach to the hostage talks,” adding that they also “discussed the situation in Rafah and the need for a credible and implementable humanitarian plan prior to contemplating any major military operation there given the risks to civilians."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly furious that Gantz, who sat in the opposition prior to Hamas Oct. 7 attack and only joined Israel's war cabinet due to the wartime emergency, flew to Washington without his approval or consent.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed on Monday that Gantz was the one who requested the meetings with US officials in Washington. "A member of the war cabinet from Israel wants to come to the United States, wants to talk to us about the progress of that war. ... We're not going to turn away that sort of opportunity," he told reporters.

Gantz's visit comes against the backdrop of enhanced efforts by the White House to reach a hostage release and cease-fire deal before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, which starts around March 10. A Hamas delegation reportedly arrived to Cairo on Sunday to deliver its response on a proposal formulated in Paris some ten days ago by American, Qatari and Egyptian mediators. American and Qatari representatives were also in Cairo this past weekend, but Israel did not send representatives to the Egyptian capital. According to Haaretz, Israel asked for confirmation on the number of Israeli hostages still alive out of the 134 abductees, but Hamas has refused to communicate a number. It is not clear yet whether Hamas would agree to a six-week cease-fire without guarantees to end the fighting in Gaza after the truce is over.

The deal on the table includes a six-week cease-fire in exchange for the release of 35-40 hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza. In addition, Israel would release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel, including those convicted of terrorist acts. Hamas is also demanding an increase in aid to the Strip as well as guarantees that displaced Gazans can return to the northern part of the enclave.

The White House is becoming increasingly impatient with the disbursement of aid in the Gaza Strip. President Joe Biden posted on Monday on X that ‘’in addition to the United States' expansion of aid deliveries by air, land and sea, we're continuing to push hard for more trucks and routes to get more aid to people. There are no excuses. The aid flowing into Gaza is nowhere near enough — and nowhere fast enough.’’ This comes days after the United States began airdropping aid to the enclave, where the UN says many of the 2.3 million residents are facing starvation.

At an event in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday, Harris called on Hamas to agree to an immediate six-week cease-fire while urging Israel to do more to boost humanitarian aid deliveries to the Gaza Strip. “Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate cease-fire,” she said. 

Netanyahu peeved 

Netanyahu ordered the Israeli embassy in Washington not to handle the visit after having slammed Gantz during a tense telephone exchange, saying, "Israel has only one prime minister," Israel's Ynet reported Friday. Gantz's office said he informed the premier of his scheduled visit to Washington.

Indeed, Gantz’s Washington visit reflects the White House's preference to deal with him, instead of dialoguing with Netanyahu, whose relationship with the White House has become increasingly strained in recent months. NBC News reported in early February that Biden has been expressing his exasperation with Netanyahu in private conversations. The report said that Biden said he was frustrated over his “inability to persuade Israel to change its military tactics in Gaza.”

‘’The Biden administration believes that Gantz, together with [other war cabinet minister Gadi] Eisenkot, can foil dangerous initiatives by Netanyahu," Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations from Bar-Ilan University, told Al-Monitor. He added that Gantz's visit to the US capital sends "a message to Netanyahu that he is a persona non grata." The White House is likely also hedging its bets "that Gantz, popular in the current polls, will become Israel’s next prime minister,’’ Gilboa said. 

Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and head of the opposition praised Gantz's trip to Washington, saying, ‘’It is important that the Americans see that there are sane voices in Israeli society.’’ Addressing the issue of Netanyahu not approving the trip, Lapid said, ‘’This would not have happened with us [the previous government]. We ran a normal government and not a government of disasters."

In contrast, far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said that ‘’the American administration seeks to drive a wedge inside the Israeli government and inside the Israeli society, advancing its plan via Gantz. He [Gantz] is playing into the hands of the Biden administration, de facto advancing its plan for the establishment of a Palestinian state.’’