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Biden to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah who's pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Israeli military says it's rescued two Israeli hostages amid heavy airstrikes overnight. Hospital officials tell NPR that at least 52 Palestinians were killed in those strikes on Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, where some 1.5 million displaced Palestinians are squeezed into just 25 square miles of land. It's against this backdrop that President Biden meets with King Abdullah of Jordan today. The king is one of many world leaders pressing for a cease-fire to Israel's military operations that Gaza health officials say have killed more than 28,000 people and created a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis. In a rare rebuke last week, Biden criticized Israel's response to the Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people and made dozens of people hostages on October 7.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The conduct of the response in Gaza - in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.

FADEL: He's also warned that any Israeli military operation in Rafah must come with a concrete plan to protect civilians. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel has to go into Rafah to destroy Hamas. To talk about this relationship, Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen joins us now. She heads the Israeli and Palestinian Territories program at the United States Institute of Peace. Welcome to the program.

LUCY KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Thank you. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. I want to start with what seemed to be unusually harsh words from Biden. Are we starting to see daylight between the Biden administration and Israel's hard-line prime minister?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Well, I think we've seen a growing pitch and pace of more vocal criticism and critique of the unfolding war in Gaza. We've heard a lot from voices from the administration over time that there have been plenty of quiet conversations over time, but we are increasingly hearing, again, these more vocal statements for the administration articulating their concern over the way the war is playing out. And, of course, this is particularly the case now as there is news of potential uptick of activity and attack on Rafah.

FADEL: What do you make of that? It's been nearly five months now - the more vocal concern. Why that shift?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Well, I think what you've been hearing from the administration is a sense of the need to understand to what extent the stated objectives can be met, the stated objective by Israel of getting rid of Hamas military presence and control in Gaza. We're now seeing as we're looking at the potential for a significant attack on Rafah, which the Israelis will say is the last stronghold of Hamas. You've heard President Biden, as you mentioned, note that they would like to see - the United States would like to see a credible plan for protecting those civilians, because in addition to being the last stronghold of Hamas, it is also the last refuge, perhaps, of well over, you know, a million displaced - internally displaced Palestinians.

And so this, I think, is the tension that you're seeing between Israel, where you heard the prime minister say that they need to continue to prosecute this war until they have gotten rid of Hamas' ability to perpetrate another attack, as they did on October 7. And the administration stance suggests that it needs to see this winding down and moving on to what they're saying is an enduring end to the conflict.

FADEL: Now, there is a visit from King Abdullah today at the White House. He's been adamant in calls for a cease-fire, very critical of Israel's response. What do you expect from this meeting? And is there any message with this meeting today?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Yeah. So I think King Abdullah - of course, he's the first Arab leader to visit the White House since October 7. As you said, we can expect him to call for a cease-fire, as he has been doing vocally, to call for access to much more humanitarian aid. And what you think - you will hear is another call, as has been mentioned by him and other, actually, Arab countries in the last few days of the summit in Saudi Arabia, that not only does the war need to end, but that needs to be a political horizon to a two-state solution. And I expect we'll hear that quite forcefully during this visit.

FADEL: Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen at the United States Institute of Peace. Thank you so much for your time.

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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