Netanyahu may face a choice between a truce and the survival of his government

For months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to offer a timeline for ending the war against Hamas in Gaza, a position his critics see as a political tactic. But he was put in difficulty by President Biden's announcement outlining a proposed truce.

Netanyahu, a conservative, has long juggled competing personal, political and national interests. Now he appears to face a difficult choice between the survival of his tough, uncompromising government and the return home of the hostages held in Gaza, as he sets himself and Israel on a new course away from growing international isolation.

The prime minister's critics have painted him as indecisive and say there are two Netanyahus. One, they say, functions pragmatically in the small war cabinet he has formed with some centrist rivals, to give it public legitimacy. The other is effectively held hostage by far-right members of his governing coalition, who oppose any concessions to Hamas and who guarantee its political survival.

On Friday, Biden outlined the general terms that he said were presented by Israel to American, Qatari and Egyptian mediators who pushed for a deal to pause fighting and free hostages in Gaza. Israeli officials confirmed that the terms corresponded to a ceasefire proposal that had been approved by the Israeli war cabinet but not yet presented to the Israeli public.

Now, analysts say, the crucial moment has come for Bibi, as the prime minister is popularly known.

Biden “threw Netanyahu out into the open of ambiguity and presented Netanyahu's proposal himself,” Ben Caspit, a biographer and longtime critic of the prime minister, wrote in Sunday's Maariv, a Jewish newspaper. “Then he asked a simple question: does Bibi support Netanyahu's proposal? Yes or no. No nonsense and hot air.

The leaders of two far-right parties in the coalition – Bezalel Smotrich, Israel's finance minister, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, national security minister – have pledged to topple Netanyahu's government if the prime minister accepts the deal outlined. by Biden before Hamas is completely destroyed. Some hardline members of Netanyahu's Likud party have said they will join them.

At the same time, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, two former military leaders who joined the emergency government throughout the war, have threatened to withdraw support from their centrist National Unity party by June 8 if Netanyahu does not step up. will move forward. with a clear path to follow. And opposition parties began organizing to try to overthrow the government.

The ceasefire proposal includes three phases. Under the plan, groups of hostages would be released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, a temporary ceasefire would turn into a permanent cessation of hostilities and an internationally supported effort to rebuild Gaza would be launched.

Last November, more than 100 hostages were released under a more limited agreement. An estimated 125 people are still detained by Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza, although dozens are believed to have died.

The Israelis were left with the task of analyzing two statements following Biden's speech that Netanyahu's office released – unusually – on Shabbat. The statements neither strongly support the proposal nor deny that it was presented by Israel to the mediators. Conditional and open to interpretation, they were apparently designed to leave Netanyahu's options open.

The first statement stated that Netanyahu had authorized the Israeli negotiating team to present a proposal that would lead to the release of the hostages and also “allow Israel to continue the war until it achieves all its objectives, including the destruction of the armed forces and Hamas governments”. capacity”.

The second reiterated the conditions for ending the war and added: “The idea that Israel will accept a permanent ceasefire before these conditions are met is a failure.”

Noticeably absent, though, was Netanyahu's oft-stated goal of a “total victory” over Hamas in Gaza — a slogan that Biden on Friday dismissed as a vague goal that would mean indefinite war.

While some of Netanyahu's staunchest supporters have taken to wearing blue baseball caps emblazoned with the “Total Victory” logo, statements released by the prime minister's office over the weekend appeared calibrated to be in line with Netanyahu's goals. war articulated by the Israeli authorities. of the military and defense establishment, as well as by Mr. Biden.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant reaffirmed that “in any process to end this war, we will not accept the Hamas government.” He said Israel will “isolate areas” of Gaza, clear them of Hamas operatives and “introduce forces that will allow the formation of an alternative government,” without specifying who those forces might be.

Netanyahu's opponents have accused him of prolonging the war to avoid elections and a public reckoning over Israeli political and intelligence failures that led to the devastating Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. That attack triggered the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, and the widespread death and destruction that followed.

But much now hangs in the balance for Netanyahu, who finds himself at both a political and strategic crossroads.

Since forming his current government – ​​the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel's history – 17 months ago, Netanyahu has had an increasingly hostile relationship with Biden. And although the four top leaders of Congress have formally invited him to speak at a joint meeting of Congress on Friday, they have not set a date.

The bipartisan unity masked an intense behind-the-scenes debate over the prime minister's reception, given deep political divisions in the United States over Israel's continuation of the war in Gaza.

Biden presented the ceasefire agreement not only as a way to stop the bloodshed in Gaza, but also as a path to a broader agreement in the Middle East that could lead Israel to greater integration in the region and include a “potential historic normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia”. Arabia.” Israel, Biden said, “could be part of a regional security network to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

Biden acknowledged that some parts of Netanyahu's coalition would not agree with the proposal and would prefer to continue fighting for years and occupy Gaza. He urged Israeli leaders “to support this agreement, despite whatever pressure comes.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said Sunday he will give Netanyahu and the government his full support for a deal to bring the hostages home. While the president's role is largely ceremonial and he lacks executive powers that could help Netanyahu if his government falls, his voice should be unifying and reflect the national consensus.

After Netanyahu's office released statements about the proposed truce, John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council, sought to dispel any ambiguity about its origins. “This was an Israeli proposal,” he said Sunday on ABC News. “We have every expectation that if Hamas accepted the proposal, as it was conveyed to them – an Israeli proposal – then Israel would say yes.”

However, based on past experience, some Israeli analysts remained skeptical that Netanyahu would be willing to abandon his far-right coalition partners. That, said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, would require “a new Netanyahu.”

“Whenever he had to choose whether to go for what is good for the country or for his extremist fanatics, or even for his own party, he always followed his extremist fanatics,” Professor Hazan said. He said Netanyahu also learned to say “Yes, but…” to the Americans, and then “wait for Hamas to say “No” and drag it out as long as possible.”

For its part, Hamas said in a statement on Friday that it viewed Biden's speech “positively” and said it was ready to “constructively” address any proposals based on a permanent ceasefire and other terms he outlined.

Considering the American political calendar, Professor Hazan said, Netanyahu only needs to engage in “survival politics” until Labor Day at the end of the summer, after which the administration will focus on November's presidential election.

“Is Netanyahu ready to make a 180-degree turn and do what's good for the country?” Professor Hazan said. “Now everyone is nervous about this. Don't hold your breath, ”he warned. “A speech by President Biden does not mean we have a new Netanyahu.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

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