Home News After Biden calls for truce, Netanyahu says Israel’s war plans haven’t changed

After Biden calls for truce, Netanyahu says Israel’s war plans haven’t changed

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President Biden called on Israel and Hamas to reach a ceasefire, declaring that “it is time to end this war.” The day before, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated on Saturday that Israel will not agree to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza as long as Hamas remains in control and military power.

Netanyahu’s statement did not explicitly endorse or reject the ceasefire plan Biden proposed in an unusually detailed speech on Friday. Two Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, confirmed that Biden’s proposal matched one approved by Israel’s wartime cabinet.

But Netanyahu’s comments early the next morning appeared to dampen Biden’s hopes for a quick resolution to the Gaza war, which has claimed more than 36,000 Palestinian lives, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

“Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: destroying Hamas’ military and governing capacity, releasing all hostages and ensuring that Gaza poses no further threat to Israel,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement released Saturday morning.

Biden administration officials and some Israeli analysts said they believed Israel still supported the proposal Biden described on Friday and that Netanyahu’s statement on Saturday was more geared toward a domestic audience and aimed at managing members of his far-right cabinet rather than striking back at the White House. With just five months until the U.S. presidential election, Biden is desperate for the war to end.

But Netanyahu’s domestic political concerns may be what matters most. On Saturday night, two of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners — Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir — threatened to quit the government if he goes ahead with the proposal. Ben-Gvir called the terms of the deal a “complete defeat” and a “victory for terrorism.” If their parties both quit his coalition, it could spell the end of Netanyahu’s government.

Hamas immediately welcomed Biden’s speech on Friday and expressed its willingness to approach “positively and constructively” any agreement that meets its demands, including a full Israeli withdrawal, a permanent ceasefire, Gaza reconstruction, the return of displaced Palestinians to their homes and a “serious prisoner exchange.”

Mr. Biden outlined the plan without specifying who would rule Gaza after the war. Unless some other arrangement is reached, Hamas is likely to retain de facto control of the territory, which the Palestinian militant group is likely to see as a major strategic victory after Israel’s nearly eight-month military offensive.

Since the militant group launched a devastating attack on Oct. 7 that Israeli authorities say has killed 1,200 people in Israel and taken 250 hostages, Israeli leaders have vowed to overthrow Hamas rule in Gaza. They have also said they will maintain “security control” over Gaza after the war, making a full withdrawal more difficult.

Netanyahu has repeatedly promised the Israeli public that Israel would “completely defeat” Hamas, and in April said that this result was “only one step away.” However, Hamas militants have waged a tenacious guerrilla war against Israeli troops in Gaza, and Israel’s efforts to capture or assassinate senior Hamas leaders have failed.

Israeli analysts saw Biden’s speech as an attempt to bypass Netanyahu and appeal directly to the Israeli public, who surveys show broad support for the war. They said Netanyahu faces a host of competing pressures at home that could cause his government to shift its stance despite proposals from Israeli officials, including a commitment to a lasting ceasefire.

“Biden is throwing down the gauntlet to Israel, saying, ‘I want you to allow this arrangement to continue. Don’t destroy it. Don’t destroy it for political reasons,'” said Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser in Netanyahu’s government. “Practice what you preach.”

Families of hostages held in Gaza called for a ceasefire as concerns grew over the fate of their loved ones, and large crowds took part in demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Israeli authorities said about 125 of the approximately 250 hostages remained in Gaza, with more than 30 presumed dead.

Gil Dickman, whose cousin Carmel Gate was kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas-led massacre at Kibbutz Beri, acknowledged that the deal would be difficult for some Israelis to accept. But he said it was crucial to reach an agreement to release the remaining hostages.

“If this deal doesn’t happen because of Hamas or Israel, we’re headed for an endless war, we’re going to get sucked deeper and deeper into the quagmire, and the Israelis, the Palestinians and, of course, the hostages will be dragged down,” Mr. Dickman said. “This could be the last moment, or there won’t be another chance.”

However, if Netanyahu agrees to the deal, he may have a hard time maintaining his governing coalition. Some of his far-right coalition partners have said they might leave his government if the war ends too soon. If Israel agrees to a ceasefire that allows Hamas to remain in power, even moderate Israelis might wonder what the offensive on Gaza actually achieved.

Netanyahu’s emergency coalition government is already facing a threat: Benny Gantz, a rival who joined Netanyahu as a wartime measure, has threatened to resign if Netanyahu fails to present a post-war Gaza plan and bring the hostages home by June 8. Netanyahu has not announced any intention to meet Gantz’s demands.

On Thursday, Dickman said he had met with Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and several other hostages’ families. Dickman said Hanegbi told them the Israeli government could not agree to a hostage release deal that included an end to the war. Hanegbi also said earlier this week that he expected the fighting to continue for several more months.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition in the Israeli parliament, urged Netanyahu to accept the deal proposed by President Biden. He reiterated that his party would provide Netanyahu with a “safety net” to prevent hardliners such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir from resigning in protest of the ceasefire, triggering a no-confidence vote that could bring down the government.

Analysts say Netanyahu is trying to avoid that scenario because it would make him dependent on some of his harshest critics.

Israel and Hamas first reached a one-week ceasefire in late November, during which 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners were released. Since then, both sides have reached seemingly unattainable agreements: Hamas demands that Israel end the war before further hostage releases, while Israel vows not to cease fire unless Israel eliminates Hamas and rescues the hostages.

Biden’s proposed ceasefire plan would first call for a six-week cessation of hostilities, during which Hamas would release women, elderly people and injured hostages held in Gaza since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that sparked the war. Israel would withdraw from Gaza’s main population centers, free at least hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and facilitate the entry of at least 600 humanitarian aid trucks a day.

In 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 say their forces will be gradually withdrawn to allow them to return largely unfettered if hostilities flare up again. They see the proposal as a concession to Hamas, which they believe could use the opportunity to re-establish a government in northern Gaza.

Biden said that in the second phase, Israel and Hamas would effectively declare the war over. Hamas would release the remaining living hostages, including Israeli male soldiers, in exchange for more Palestinian prisoners, and the Israeli army would withdraw from Gaza. The third phase would provide for 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 Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held for years by Hamas, said the deal proposed by Biden underscored the need for a plan to defeat Hamas politically by establishing an alternative Palestinian government.

Mr. Baskin nonetheless supported the deal, saying: “In the absence of a coherent ‘follow-up’ plan to replace Hamas in Gaza, accepting it would mean capitulating to Hamas’ demands.”

Biden acknowledged that there were still “some details to be negotiated” in order to move forward with the second phase of the deal, which would declare a permanent ceasefire. He said Israel and Hamas would negotiate in the first phase to reach acceptable terms for a lasting ceasefire.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, contributed reporting.

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