After Biden's push for truce, Netanyahu believes Israel's war plans are unchanged

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

In his statement, Netanyahu did not explicitly endorse or reject the proposed ceasefire plan that Biden laid out in an unusually detailed speech on Friday. Two Israeli officials confirmed that Biden's proposal corresponded to an Israeli ceasefire proposal that had been given the green light by Israel's war cabinet. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.

But the timing of Netanyahu's remarks, which came first thing the next morning, appeared to put a damper on Biden's hopes for a quick 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 governance capabilities, the release of all hostages and the guarantee that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel,” he said. Netanyahu's office in the statement released Saturday morning. .

Biden administration officials and some Israeli analysts said they believe Israel continues to support the proposal Biden described on Friday, and that Netanyahu's statement on Saturday was more tailored to his domestic audience and intended to manage members of his Cabinet of far right, rather than rejecting the White House. Biden is eager for the war to end, with the US presidential election just five months away.

But Netanyahu's domestic political concerns could prove key. On Saturday evening, two of Netanyahu's far-right coalition partners – Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir – threatened to leave his government if he went ahead with the proposal. Ben-Gvir called the terms of the agreement a “total defeat” and a “victory for terrorism.” If both parties leave the coalition, it could spell the end of Netanyahu's government.

Hamas immediately welcomed Biden's speech on Friday and said it was willing to “positively and constructively” address any agreement that meets its demands, including a complete Israeli withdrawal, a permanent ceasefire, the reconstruction of Gaza, return of displaced Palestinians to their homes and a “serious prisoner exchange.”

As Biden pointed out, the plan did not specify who would govern the Gaza Strip after the war. Unless other agreements are reached, this could leave Hamas in de facto control of the territory, which the Palestinian armed group would likely consider a major strategic victory after nearly eight months of an Israeli military offensive.

Ever since the armed group's devastating attack on October 7, which Israeli authorities say left 1,200 dead in Israel and another 250 taken hostage, Israeli leaders have vowed to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza. They also said they would maintain “security control” in Gaza after the war, making a full withdrawal more difficult.

Netanyahu has repeatedly promised the Israeli public an “absolute victory” over Hamas, claiming in April that such an outcome was only “one step away.” Hamas militants, however, have fought a fierce guerrilla war against Israeli troops in Gaza, and top Hamas leaders have frustrated Israeli attempts to capture or assassinate them.

Analysts in Israel described Biden's speech as intending to bypass Netanyahu, to make a direct appeal to the Israeli public, which polls show largely supports the war effort. Although Israeli officials have put forward proposals that included commitments to a prolonged ceasefire, Netanyahu faces a series of competing pressures at home that could lead his government to a turning point, they said.

“Biden is challenging Israel, saying, 'I expect you to allow this deal to go forward. Don't sabotage it. Don't dig out the ground for political reasons,” said Uzi Arad, a former Israeli national security adviser under Netanyahu. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

Families of hostages held in Gaza have rallied public support for their call for a ceasefire agreement amid growing fears for the fate of their loved ones, with large crowds taking part in demonstrations in Tel Aviv. About 125 of around 250 hostages remain in Gaza, with more than 30 presumed dead, Israeli authorities said.

Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat was kidnapped from Kibbutz Be'eri during the Hamas-led massacre on October 7, admitted that the deal would be difficult for some of the Israeli public to accept. But he said reaching an agreement to free the remaining hostages is crucial.

“If this deal doesn't go through, whether because of Hamas or because of Israel, we will be heading towards an eternal war, in which we will sink deeper and deeper into the mud, dragging down Israelis, Palestinians and certainly the hostages,” Dickmann said. . “It could be now or never.”

If Netanyahu were to accept the deal, however, he may have difficulty maintaining his governing coalition. Some of his far-right coalition partners have suggested they might leave his government if there is what they see as a premature end to the war. And if Israel agreed to a truce that allowed Hamas to maintain power, even moderate Israelis would likely wonder what results the offensive in Gaza would actually achieve.

Netanyahu's emergency unity government is already under threat: Benny Gantz, a rival who joined Netanyahu as a wartime measure, has threatened to leave unless the prime minister draws up a plan for postwar Gaza and bring the hostages home by June 8th. Netanyahu has yet to announce any intention to comply with Gantz's demands.

On Thursday, Mr. Dickmann said he met with Israel's national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, along with several other hostage family members. Hanegbi told the group that the Israeli government is not in a position to accept a deal on the release of hostages that includes an end to the war, Dickmann said. Mr. Hanegbi also said earlier this week that he expected the fighting to continue for several more months.

Yair Lapid, leader of Israel's parliamentary opposition, urged Netanyahu to accept the deal outlined by President Biden. He repeated that his party would give Netanyahu a “safety net,” preventing a no-confidence vote to topple the government if extremists like Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, resigned in protest at a ceasefire agreement. .

Analysts said Netanyahu has sought to avoid this scenario, as it would make him dependent on some of his harshest critics.

Israel and Hamas first observed a week-long truce in late November during which 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners were released. Since then, both sides have taken seemingly insoluble positions: Hamas conditioned any further hostage releases on Israel ending the war, while Israel promised there would be no respite until it destroyed Hamas and brought its hostages home .

The proposed ceasefire plan, as outlined by Biden, would begin with a six-week suspension of hostilities, during which Hamas would release women, elderly people and wounded hostages held in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack. about Israel starting the war. Israel would withdraw from Gaza's main population centers, release at least hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and facilitate the entry of at least 600 humanitarian aid trucks daily.

During the first phase, hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians will return to their homes in northern Gaza for the first time in months. Israeli officials have said their forces will gradually withdraw to allow them to return largely unrestricted, should hostilities resume. They saw the offer as a concession to Hamas, which they said could use the opening to rebuild its government in northern Gaza.

During the second phase, Israel and Hamas will effectively declare the war is over, Biden said. Hamas would release the remaining living hostages, including Israeli soldiers, in exchange for more Palestinian prisoners, as Israeli forces withdraw from Gaza. The third phase would then involve the reconstruction of Gaza and Hamas would return the bodies of the remaining dead hostages.

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli activist who helped negotiate the 2011 release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held for years by Hamas, said the deal outlined by Biden highlights the need for a plan to politically defeat Hamas by building a government alternative Palestinian.

“The bottom line, in the absence of a coherent 'day after' plan to replace Hamas in Gaza, is that accepting the plan means giving in to Hamas' demands,” said Baskin, who nevertheless supports the deal.

Biden admitted that there were still “a number of details to negotiate” to move to the second phase of the agreement, namely the announcement of a lasting ceasefire. He said Israel and Hamas will negotiate during the first phase in an attempt to reach acceptable terms for the continuation of the cessation of hostilities.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting from Rehoboth Beach, Del.

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