US envoy to Jerusalem downplays rift with Israel

Only one weapons shipment has been delayed, said Ambassador Jack Lew, and the president made clear that Israel has not crossed any red lines so far in Rafah.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The American Ambassador to Israel played down the perceived rift between his country and Israel in an interview with Channel 12 that was aired Sunday.

On the issue of American threats to withhold weapons supplies to the Jewish state because the White House strenuously objects to the IDF incursion into Hamas’ last stronghold of Rafah, Yonit Levi asked what had changed since then-presidential candidate Joe Biden said in 2020 that the idea of some Democrats to cut off military aid to “our only true ally” in the Middle East was “absolutely preposterous.”

Ambassador Jack Lew answered, “I think fundamentally, nothing has changed in the basic relationship,” and that it is a “mistake” to think that the current spat marks a major shift in the Israel-American relationship.

The “broader context” must be taken into account, he said more than once in the interview.

The U.S. is providing Israel with “a huge amount of aid,” he noted. “Even this week, when everyone is focusing on the decision to just delay, to hold, one set of munitions, everything else keeps flowing.”

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Asked in response about Biden’s statement to CNN that he won’t supply Israel with offensive weapons if Israel launches a military operation in populated areas of Rafah, the envoy backtracked it somewhat.

“What the president said was that he doesn’t think that it’s a good idea to have a massive ground campaign in a heavily populated area, but he specifically said that 2,000-pound bombs shouldn’t be used in that setting,” he said.

It is this kind of heavy bomb that was being withheld, he noted.

Lew added that the president had made clear in the same interview that “what Israel has done so far hasn’t crossed over into the area where our disagreements lie.”

He also pointed out that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had concluded from last week’s presidentially-mandated review of Israel’s compliance with U.S. and international humanitarian law in its use of American military supplies “that there would be no interruption in U.S. aid for Israel. That’s of huge consequence.”

Levi remarked that Israelis see the president’s recent statements as telling them “Stop the war and don’t topple Hamas,” which has officially been one of Israel’s two major goals since the October 7 invasion.

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The other one is the return of the 133 hostages Hamas kidnapped during its murderous spree, as many as 70 of whom could already be dead.

Lew essentially confirmed that Israeli public opinion was correct.

“We would never use that language” of destroying Hamas, because America’s “experience in difficult wars” has taught them that “eliminating something is different than making it no longer be a threat,” he said.

However, the Biden administration does believe that Hamas “should not be a political or governing body” in Gaza after the war, which does conform to the Israeli position.

One of the main American concerns is that seven months into the war “there have been very serious consequences in Gaza,” the ambassador noted, referring to civilians’ lack of food, water, shelter and medicine.

Therefore, the White House thinks that the “better way” to destroy Hamas’ last four full divisions in Rafah – which it agrees is necessary – is by “doing targeted operations, by closing the border, by not having [military] supplies come in. And we’re doing a lot of things to help achieve that,” Lew stated.

The first move Israel made into Rafah was to seize the crossing area into Egypt. It is widely believed that Hamas has managed to arm itself with tens of thousands of weapons through this border, whether by bribing Egyptian guards to turn a blind eye to shipments or by smuggling them in through tunnels underneath the border.

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Lew did not disclose details of what the Americans have done to help shut down this vital lifeline for Hamas.