Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s War Cabinet, talks to the media after a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at the U.S. Capitol on March 04, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — Benny Gantz, a top political rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is meeting with high-level officials in Washington this week, stoking speculation that the Biden administration is trying to distance itself from Israel’s far-right government.

It comes as the U.S. is stepping up pressure for urgent action to pause the fighting and deal with a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Gantz, an influential member of the war Cabinet assembled in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House on Monday as Harris appeared to be taking more a leading role in the administration’s escalating response.

On Sunday, she called on Hamas to agree to an “immediate cease-fire” — saying a deal is on the table — but notably also said — citing what she called the ‘immense scale of suffering” — that Israel “must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.”

Both meetings were closed to members of the press, although Harris posted a photo on X afterward. President Joe Biden was at Camp David preparing for his State of the Union address on Thursday.

Officials say that Gantz is also expected to speak with Secretary of State Antony Blinken behind closed doors on Tuesday, but that a face-to-face with Biden has not been scheduled.

White House spokesperson John Kirby defended the administration’s decision to host the engagements, saying they were planned at Gantz’ request and were not a slight to Netanyahu.

“A member of the war Cabinet from Israel wants to come to United States, wants to talk to us about the progress of that war, giving us an opportunity to talk about the importance of getting humanitarian assistance increased — an opportunity to talk about the importance of this hostage deal,” Kirby said. “We’re not going to turn away that sort of opportunity.”

Later on Monday, as Gantz was leaving Capitol Hill after a meeting with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, he rebuffed questions from reporters on whether the U.S. should deal with him instead of Netanyahu.

“No, no, no. Israel has a prime minister and everything is okay,” he said.

A centrist politician, Gantz’ inclusion in Israel’s war Cabinet was intended to broadcast unity in the face of an unparalleled crisis.

But as the Israeli government has struggled to fulfil its promise to eliminate Hamas and rescue hostages held in Gaza amid growing backlash over its military campaign, polling shows Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted while Gantz’ has soared.

Netanyahu reportedly rebuked Gantz ahead of his trip, which was not authorized by the Israeli prime minister.

Although Biden said his friendship with Netanyahu has endured for more than three decades despite their political differences, opposing beliefs created distance between the two leaders even before the Israel-Hamas war began.

After Netanyahu regained control over Israel’s government, Biden did not formally invite him to visit the White House for nearly a year. Their first in-person meeting as heads of state was held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly rather than in Washington — a move many Israeli officials saw as a snub.

Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz has signaled a willingness to hold talks with Palestinians and previously expressed support for a “two-entity solution” — a framework that mirrors the Biden administration’s aim of creating an independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel.

But Gantz, a retired army general and former Israeli minister of defense, is also a proponent of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, and it was unclear whether he would be receptive to the Biden administration’s intensified push for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

According to the vice president’s office, Harris expressed “deep concern” about humanitarian conditions in Gaza during her conversation with Gantz.

“She urged Israel to take additional measures in cooperation with the United States and international partners to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza and ensure its safe distribution to those in need,” a readout of their meeting said.

“The president and I’ve been very clear that Israel has a right to defend itself, that we have got to make sure that civilians aren’t being killed, and that we’ve got to get these hostages out and that is one of the highest priorities right now,” Harris said earlier on Monday.

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