US has not yet seen operational plans from Israel on Rafah strategy

The Biden administration has yet to see operational plans from the Israeli government detailing what a major military operation into Rafah would look like, including how Israel would try to protect the more than one million civilians in the Gazan city, a US official told CNN on the heels of a virtual meeting between senior American and Israeli officials Monday.

Senior US officials have been steadfast in their public warnings in recent weeks that Israel must not expand its military operations into southern Gaza without an executable plan to move out of harms’ way the many civilians who are currently sheltering in Rafah.

The fact that the US has yet to be presented with a detailed blueprint on how Israel would do precisely that makes clear that if Israeli forces were to move forward with a ground incursion into Rafah at this time, Israel would be crossing the so-called “red line” that President Joe Biden has recently warned about.

The two delegations discussed the situation in Rafah, and US officials presented to their Israeli counterparts alternatives to a major ground operation into southern Gaza during Monday’s meeting.

After the meeting ended, a US official told CNN that the Biden administration had “no expectation” there would be a breakthrough and the White House saw the meeting as only the latest in a series of discussions that will continue in the coming weeks about a possible Israeli incursion into the southern Gaza city.

Still, officials from both countries described the meeting as “constructive” in a joint statement and said another, in-person meeting could take place as early as next week.

Monday’s meeting lasted for more than two-and-a-half hours, and those participating from the US side included national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and White House Middle East adviser Brett McGurk, and included other officials representing the White House, State Department and Department of Defense. US Ambassador Jack Lew was also a participant.

The Israeli delegation included national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and minister of strategic affairs Ron Dermer, who chaired the meeting.

The Biden administration officials pressed their Israeli counterparts to pursue a “better alternative” to a major ground invasion into Rafah, where more than one million hungry Palestinians are sheltering with nowhere to run, US officials familiar with the conversation tell CNN. Those US officials were also briefed by their counterparts on the situation on the ground in Rafah.

“It’s not the end-all, be-all,” one of the officials said of the meeting, which followed working-level conversations between the two countries and a meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Israeli counterpart, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, last week.

Following that visit, the Pentagon said Austin had stressed that Israel “should not proceed without a credible and implementable plan that ensures the safety of and humanitarian support for civilians sheltering” in Rafah.

“If they’re going to move forward with a military operation, we have to have this conversation. We have to understand how they’re going to move forward,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday while the meeting was still ongoing. “When Jake Sullivan was here at the podium not too long ago, he believed and he said there are alternative ways of doing this, alternative ways of going after Hamas.”

Even though it ended with no promises of a breakthrough or compromise, the fact that a meeting took place at all was seen as a positive sign of the continuing lines of communication between Israel and the United States, as daylight grows brighter between how the countries’ leaders have communicated about Israel’s war in Gaza.

A meeting previously scheduled for last week was called off by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the United States declined to block a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages held captive by Hamas - signs of the ever-simmering tension between Israel and its most powerful ally.

Pentagon officials shared some of their alternatives for Rafah with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant when he was in town last week.

Netanyahu has said he is undeterred by the Biden administration’s opposition to an invasion of Rafah. He told members of Congress last week that Israel has “no choice” but to move into Rafah - saying Israel’s “very existence is on the line.” Netanyahu told the delegation that displaced Palestinians remaining in Rafah could “just move.”

The meeting came as both Israelis and Americans are showing increasing displeasure with how their respective governments are handling the conflict in Gaza.

Thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the weekend calling for Netanyahu’s ouster - the largest protests in the country since the October 7 attacks by Hamas, while recent events held by Biden, including last week’s high-powered fundraiser in New York with former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, have repeatedly been beset by pro-Palestinian protesters.

After his remarks in New York were interrupted, Biden said “there are too many innocent victims - Israeli and Palestinians.” But he added: “you can’t forget that Israel is in a position where its very existence is at stake.”

Still, Biden said, “we must, in fact, stop the effort … that is resulting in significant deaths of innocent civilians, and particularly, children.”

Biden’s advisers have for weeks been weighing various options for what the US response to a Rafah invasion should be. Officials have warned Israel that it risks becoming an international pariah if the invasion, which US officials say would result in a humanitarian catastrophe, commences.

Vice President Kamala Harris left the door open last week for unspecified consequences for Israel if it decides to proceed.

More than 32,000 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, the region’s health ministry reported.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Donald Judd contributed to this report.

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