The Debate Over Rafah – The New York Times

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At the heart of the dispute between President Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu over invading Rafah is a larger disagreement about what Israel can reasonably hope to accomplish against Hamas.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll lay out the conflicting views of Biden and Netanyahu and summarize The Times’s latest coverage of the war.

To Netanyahu and his aides, the destruction of Hamas is a vital goal. Israel’s military has already made progress, having dismantled at least 18 of Hamas’s 24 battalions since the Oct. 7 attacks. But Hamas’s top leaders and thousands of fighters have survived, many evidently fleeing to tunnels under Rafah.

Allowing a cornered enemy to escape violates basic precepts of military strategy, Israeli officials believe. “Ending the war without clearing out Rafah is like sending a firefighter to extinguish 80 percent of the fire,” Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet and Netanyahu’s chief political opponent, has told U.S. officials. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which tends to support Netanyahu, has called Rafah “the crucial city for the terrorist group’s future.”

Israeli officials also know that many Arab leaders despise Hamas, viewing it as a threat to their own regimes. These leaders would be quietly happy for Israel to crush the group. Some Palestinians are also angry with Hamas (although public opinion in Gaza is difficult to gauge).

As loud as the international warnings about a Rafah invasion may be, Israel’s leaders believe that a successful operation there would change the strategic equation — and that they would then be able to negotiate from a position of strength with both Hamas’s remnants and Arab countries.

To Biden — and many leaders of other countries — the destruction of Hamas is simply not a realistic goal. The group’s fighters are in deep, fortified tunnels that could take months if not years to eliminate, U.S. intelligence officials say. Even if Israel killed most remaining fighters, new ones would emerge.

Not only might the benefits of trying to wipe out Hamas be small, but the costs seem large, U.S. officials believe. The hostages Hamas still holds — who are likely being kept alongside the group’s leaders — could die. And the humanitarian toll in Rafah, where many Gazan refugees have fled, could be horrific. “Smashing into Rafah,” a Biden aide said yesterday, “will not get to that sustainable and enduring defeat of Hamas.”

Already, Israel’s initial operation in Rafah has had costs. After Israeli forces took over one side of a border crossing with Egypt, Egyptian officials temporarily closed the crossing, preventing aid from entering, U.S. officials say. Egypt — which has long blocked Gazans from entering, partly out of fear of Hamas — worries that a battle for Rafah could lead to an unstoppable flow of refugees.

An invasion could cause rifts beyond Egypt, too. Saudi Arabia has previously signaled an interest in a diplomatic deal with Israel, which could solidify Israel’s position as part of an anti-Iran alliance alongside Arab countries and the U.S. But a surge in civilian deaths in Gaza could make it hard for Saudi Arabia to justify any deal. (Thomas Friedman, the Times Opinion columnist, has argued that Israel must choose between Rafah and Riyadh, the Saudi capital.)

Some moderate Israeli officials agree with parts of this critique. “Completely toppling Hamas and bringing the hostages home are two clashing goals,” Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, has said. “We’ve already achieved the most important thing: dismantling Hamas as an organized army capable of an Oct. 7 attack.”

Ultimately, the debate may be less binary than it sometimes seems. There is a third option, and it’s one that the Biden administration seems to prefer, notes my colleague Julian Barnes, who covers intelligence.

In this scenario, Israel would agree to end major military operations — accepting a “sustained calm,” as negotiators call it — and release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. In exchange, Hamas would return all hostages, in phases.

Israel could then pursue a diplomatic deal with Saudi Arabia, in which an Arab coalition would run Gaza, sidelining Hamas. And Israel would retain the right to conduct targeted operations against top Hamas officials, like Yahya Sinwar. U.S. officials doubt the wisdom of a full-scale invasion, but not the strategic value of eliminating the Hamas leaders who planned Oct. 7.

  • Cease-fire negotiations hit a snag yesterday as participants grew angry over Israel’s incursion in Rafah. The C.I.A. director left Cairo, where the talks were taking place, as did delegations from Israel and Hamas.

  • Israel and Hamas seem to be engaged in “dead-cat diplomacy,” Peter Baker writes — with each seeking to ensure the other gets blamed if they fail to reach a deal.

  • Even if the U.S. halts weapon shipments to Israel, as Biden has threatened, Israeli officials say they have enough munitions to fight in Rafah.

  • The World Health Organization warned that hospitals in southern Gaza had only days’ worth of fuel left.

  • Donald Trump accused Biden of abandoning Israel, saying “any Jewish person” who voted for Biden “should be ashamed.”

  • American Muslim and Arab leaders say their communications with the White House have largely broken down. That could pose a problem for Biden’s re-election.

Women in pants: The Mormon Church has made some “big, big changes” for its young missionaries.

The 401(k): How an obscure tax change over 40 years ago transformed retirement.

Real estate: Dallas tops the list of the most dog-friendly U.S. cities for renting a home.

Periodical romance: Mating is delicate for cicadas. Courtships proceed in roughly three phases.

Lives Lived: Barbara Stauffacher Solomon helped pioneer the 1960s design movement known as supergraphics, which aimed, one advocate wrote, to “destroy architectural planes, distort corners and explode the rectangular boxes that we construct as rooms.” She died at 95.

N.B.A.: The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Boston Celtics, 118-94. And the Dallas Mavericks upset the Oklahoma City Thunder, 119-110. That evens both their playoff series at 1-1.

N.H.L.: The New York Rangers took a 3-0 lead over the Carolina Hurricanes with a second straight overtime win, 3-2. And the Dallas Stars defeated the Colorado Avalanche, 5-3, to even their second-round series 1-1.

While the Westminster Kennel Club’s dog show is open only to purebreds, its agility competition — a race over, around and through obstacles — lets any dog compete, whoever its parents are. The Times’s Sarah Lyall met Miles, a rescue mutt (“All-American dog” is the official label) who will run the course on Saturday. “You don’t need a ‘well-bred dog’ to have a best friend to play in dog sports with,” Christine Longnecker, Miles’s owner, said. “You can find one right down the street at your local shelter.”

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