After Biden’s Push for Truce, Netanyahu Calls Israel’s War Plans Unchanged

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 retains 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 in an unusually detailed address on Friday. 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.

Biden administration officials and some Israeli analysts said they believed that Israel still supported the proposal Mr. Biden described on Friday, and that Mr. Netanyahu’s statement on Saturday was more tailored to his domestic audience and meant to manage his far-right cabinet members, rather than to push back against the White House. Mr. Biden is eager for the war to end, with the American presidential election just five months away.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic political worries could prove paramount. 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.

Hamas immediately welcomed Mr. Biden’s speech on Friday and said that it was willing to deal “positively and constructively” with any deal that met its list of demands, including a complete Israeli withdrawal, a permanent cease-fire, the reconstruction of Gaza, the return of displaced Palestinians to their homes and a “serious prisoner exchange.”

As outlined by Mr. Biden the plan did not specify who would rule the Gaza Strip after the war. Unless other arrangements are reached, that could leave Hamas in de facto charge 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 Oct. 7 attack, which Israeli authorities have said left 1,200 dead in Israel and 250 others taken hostage, Israeli leaders have vowed to topple Hamas’s rule in Gaza. They have also said they will maintain “security control” in Gaza after the war, making a full withdrawal more difficult.

Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly promised the Israeli public “absolute victory” over Hamas, arguing in April that such an outcome lay just “a step away.” Hamas militants, nonetheless, have fought a dogged guerrilla war against Israeli troops in Gaza, and top leaders of Hamas there have frustrated Israeli efforts to capture or assassinate them.

Analysts in Israel described Mr. Biden’s address as intending to bypass Mr. Netanyahu, to make a direct appeal to the Israeli public, which broadly supports the war effort, according to surveys. Although Israeli officials have put forward proposals that included commitments to a sustained cease-fire, Mr. Netanyahu faces a host of competing pressures at home that could lead his government to turn, they said.

“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.”

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, with large crowds attending demonstrations in Tel Aviv. About 125 of the roughly 250 hostages remain in Gaza, with over 30 of them presumed dead, the Israeli authorities have said.

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 to free the remaining hostages was critical.

“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,” Mr. Dickmann said. “It could be now or never.”

Were Mr. Netanyahu to agree to the deal, however, he could struggle to maintain his governing coalition. Some of his far-right coalition partners have suggested they might leave his government should there be what they see as a premature end to the war. And if Israel agreed to a truce that allowed Hamas to retain power, even moderate Israelis would likely wonder what the offensive in Gaza had really accomplished.

Mr. Netanyahu’s emergency unity government is 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 to bring home hostages by June 8. Mr. Netanyahu has yet to announce any intention to meet Mr. Gantz’s demands.

On Thursday, Mr. Dickmann said he had met with Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, along with several other hostage family members. Mr. Hanegbi told the group that the Israeli government was not in a place to agree to a hostage release deal that included ending the war, Mr. Dickmann said. Mr. Hanegbi also said earlier this week that he expected the fighting to last for another several months.

Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s parliamentary opposition, urged Mr. Netanyahu to take the deal as outlined by President Biden. He repeated that his party would give Mr. Netanyahu a “safety net,” preventing a vote of no-confidence to topple the government should hard-liners like Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, resign in protest over a cease-fire deal.

Analysts said that 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 carved out seemingly intractable positions: Hamas conditioned any further hostage releases on Israel ending the war, while Israel vowed there would be no truce until it destroyed Hamas and brought home its hostages.

The proposed cease-fire plan, as laid out by Mr. Biden, would begin with a six-week halt in hostilities, during which Hamas would release women, the elderly and wounded hostages held in Gaza since the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel that started the war. Israel would withdraw from major population centers in Gaza, release at least hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and facilitate the daily entry of at least 600 humanitarian aid trucks.

During the first phase, hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians would return to their homes in northern Gaza for the first time in months. Israeli officials have said their forces would gradually withdraw so as to enable them to return largely unfettered, in the event that hostilities resumed. They viewed the offer as a concession to Hamas, who they argued could use the opening to rebuild its government in northern Gaza.

During the second phase, Israel and Hamas would effectively declare that the war had ended, Mr. Biden said. Hamas would release the remaining living hostages, including male Israeli soldiers, in exchange for more Palestinian prisoners, while Israeli forces would withdraw from Gaza. The third phase would then provide for the reconstruction of Gaza and Hamas would return of 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 Mr. Biden outlined underscored the necessity of a plan to defeat Hamas politically by building an alternative Palestinian government.

“The bottom line, in the absence of any coherent ‘day-after’ plan that replaces Hamas in Gaza, is that accepting the plan means giving into Hamas’s demands,” said Mr. Baskin, who nonetheless supports the deal.

Mr. Biden allowed that there were still “a number of details to negotiate” in order to advance to the second phase of the deal — the announcement of a lasting cease-fire. He said Israel and Hamas would negotiate throughout the first phase in an attempt to reach acceptable terms for the continued cessation of hostilities.

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

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