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Middle East Crisis: After Biden Call to End War, Netanyahu Insists on ‘Destruction’ of Hamas

A day after President Biden called on Israel and Hamas to reach a truce, declaring that it was “time for this war to end,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday reiterated that Israel would not agree to a permanent cease-fire in Gaza as long as Hamas still retained governing and military power.

In his statement, Mr. Netanyahu did not explicitly endorse or reject a proposed cease-fire plan that Mr. Biden had laid out on Friday, which would lead to a permanent truce. Two Israeli officials confirmed that Mr. Biden’s proposal matched an Israeli cease-fire proposal that had been greenlit by Israel’s war cabinet. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.

But the timing of Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks, coming first thing the next morning, seemed to put the brakes on Mr. Biden’s hopes for a speedy resolution to the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 36,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

“Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in the statement released on Saturday morning.

As outlined by Mr. Biden, the proposal did not mention who would rule the Gaza Strip after the war. Unless other arrangements are reached, that could leave Hamas de facto in charge of the territory, which the Palestinian armed group would consider a major strategic victory after nearly eight months of an Israeli military offensive.

On Saturday night, two of Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners — Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir — threatened to quit his government should he move forward with the proposal. Mr. Ben-Gvir labeled the terms of the agreement a “total defeat” and a “victory for terrorism.” If both of their parties left his coalition, it could mark the end of Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

For months, Mr. Netanyahu has promised his people “absolute victory” against Hamas in Gaza, but its leaders have largely managed to evade Israeli attempts to take them out. He has pledged to bring home the remaining 125 living and dead hostages, but would most likely have to accede to Hamas’s demand for a permanent truce to do so. And if he does agree to such a deal, his far-right coalition allies could pull out, threatening his hold on power.

Analysts in Israel said Mr. Netanyahu’s carefully worded statement reflected those tensions. He has sought to buy time, balancing competing demands at home and abroad while avoiding tough decisions that would jeopardize his political standing, they said.

Mr. Biden’s speech, however, may indicate that the clock is beginning to run out.

“Biden is challenging Israel, saying: ‘I am expecting you to allow this arrangement to go forward. Do not sabotage it. Do not drag the rug out from underneath it for political reasons,” said Uzi Arad, a former Israeli national security adviser under Mr. Netanyahu. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

But at home, Mr. Netanyahu faces a host of competing pressures.

President Biden outlined a cease-fire proposal at the White House on Friday.Credit…Cheriss May for The New York Times

The families of hostages held in Gaza have rallied public support for their call for a cease-fire deal amid rising fears over their loved ones’ fates, and large crowds regularly attend solidarity demonstrations in Tel Aviv. About 125 of the roughly 250 hostages taken captive by Hamas and other Palestinian militants are still in Gaza, and more than 30 of those are presumed dead, according to the Israeli authorities.

Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat was abducted from Kibbutz Be’eri during the Hamas-led massacre there on Oct. 7, conceded that the deal would be difficult to swallow for parts of the Israeli public. But he said reaching an agreement was critical, and not just for the remaining hostages.

“If this deal doesn’t go through, because of either Hamas or Israel, we are heading toward a forever war, where we sink deeper and deeper into the mud, dragging down Israelis, Palestinians and certainly the hostages,” said Mr. Dickmann.

Even before Saturday night, Mr. Netanyahu’s emergency unity government was already under threat. Benny Gantz, a rival who united with Mr. Netanyahu as a wartime measure, has threatened to leave unless the premier articulates a plan for postwar Gaza and bringing home hostages by June 8. If Mr. Gantz left, it would deprive Mr. Netanyahu of his most moderate partners, further damaging the Israeli government’s image abroad.

On Saturday, Mr. Gantz said the latest Israeli proposal had been approved unanimously in the war cabinet. He added that he would seek to advance the deal, saying that bringing home the hostages was an urgent national priority.

Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s parliamentary opposition, also urged Mr. Netanyahu to take the deal as outlined by Mr. Biden. He repeated that his party would back Mr. Netanyahu’s government if hard-liners like Mr. Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, left over a hostage release deal.

Political analysts said Mr. Netanyahu has tried to avoid that scenario, as it would make him dependent on some of his harshest critics.

Israel and Hamas first observed a weeklong truce in late November, during which 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners were released. Since then, both sides have dug in to seemingly intractable positions: Hamas conditioned any further hostage releases on Israel’s ending the war, while Israel vowed there would be no truce until it destroyed Hamas and brought home its hostages.

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Last modified: 2 June 2024
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