Biden, Netanyahu speak after president criticizes Israel's campaign in Gaza

Two-thirds of the conversation was about hostage negotiations, an official said.

February 11, 2024, 6:08 PM

President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday had a "pretty detailed back-and-forth" about a looming military operation in the Gaza city of Rafah as another potential hostage deal with Hamas makes "significant progress," a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

The official added that the U.S. has heard from Israeli leaders that they have a "clear precondition" for any military operations in the southern Gaza city that "the population would have to move, would have to be moved safely and everything else." But the senior official said it's "a huge question" how that can be accomplished.

Rafah is estimated to now be sheltering some 1.4 million Palestinians.

Irsael's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, separately insisted on Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that while Israeli forces fight with Hamas in Rafah, civilians would be able to flee back to the north, where much of the infrastructure has already been destroyed in the war, sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack.

"They're living in tents. Where are these people supposed to go?" co-anchor Jonathan Karl asked.

"The areas that we've cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there. But we are working out a detailed plan to do so. And that's what we've done up to now. We're not, we're not cavalier about this, this is part of our war effort to get civilians out of harm's way," said Netanyahu, brushing aside Biden's recent criticism that Israel's bombardment of Gaza in pursuit of Hamas is "over the top."

"I don't know exactly what he [Biden] meant by that, but put yourself in Israel's shoes. We were attacked. Unprovoked attack, murderous attack on Oct. 7," Netanyahu said on "This Week," adding, "I think we've responded in a way that goes after the terrorists and tries to minimize the civilian population in which the terrorists embed themselves and use them as human shields."

International criticism of Israel has mounted since October -- amid the dire conditions and high death toll in Gaza. More than 28,000 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health.

The senior administration official said later Sunday that Biden's "over the top" comment was "not specifically addressed" in the two leaders' call. The official said that Biden instead reiterated he wants to see Hamas defeated while it "must be done while ensuring that operations are targeted, conducted in a way that ensures innocents are protected to the extent possible."

PHOTO: This handout picture released by the Israeli army on Jan. 12, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
This handout picture released by the Israeli army on Jan. 12, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Israeli Army via AFP via Getty Images

The official emphasized U.S. opposition to operations in Rafah if civilians' safety is not considered, adding that "they would obviously have to move and be sustained and be supported."

Pressed on whether Israel has indicated moving more than a million civilians out of harm's way is feasible, the senior official said Israel has "made clear they would not contemplate an operation without it."

Of the potential fighting in Rafah, the senior official said, "it's not being driven just by the prime minister," pointing to Israeli society and Netanyahu's wartime Cabinet.

Netanyahu said on "This Week" that Israel had no other choice: "Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there."

"So, what we are working through when we're working with the Israelis on all of these issues is not just one person or one adviser or one minister," the administration official said. "It is the main decision-makers from top to bottom, including the security establishment, who have objectives to dismantle Hamas, and how that can be done and expressing our concerns about various options as they're pursued and really emphasizing the importance of this added burden that Israel has."

The official said that Israel must contend with the "incredibly difficult, excruciating, horrific and awful situation that is ongoing inside Gaza."

In Biden's nearly 45-minute phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday, the two spent about two-thirds of the conversation discussing ongoing negotiations for a deal to free the remaining hostages thought to be held by Hamas, the senior administration official told reporters.

The official said that a framework for an agreement, which has been "a primary focus" for Biden over the last month, is now in place, though there are gaps that need to be worked through. Later, the official conceded that some of those differences are "significant" but said progress has been made in the last three weeks.

Additionally, the senior official told reporters that plans to get enough U.S.-procured flour to feed nearly 1.5 million Gazans over six months are "coming along," but that logistical issues need to be worked out.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

Before the talk with Netanyahu, Biden convened a call with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CIA Director Bill Burns and others from his national security team, the administration official said.

The official was also asked about special counsel Robert Hur's report that outlined instances of apparent memory lapses during the president's hourslong interview with Hur's team last year.

Although Hur's report said Biden "willfully retained" classified documents while out office -- which Biden disputes -- Hur could not recommend bringing charges because, he wrote, the "evidence does not establish Mr. Biden's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

"At trial, Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory," Hur wrote.

The official on Sunday slammed the report as "completely ridiculous" and "ludicrous," saying it does not reflect what they've witnessed after being with Biden regularly since Hamas' terror attack.

ABC News' Tal Axelrod, Lucien Bruggeman and Alexander Mallin contributed to this report.