Addressing US Jewish leaders on Gaza war, PM says: ‘We have to finish the job’

Netanyahu argues IDF making unprecedented efforts to protect civilians, decries genocide accusations; US envoy downplays plans for unilateral moves on Palestinian statehood

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, on February 18, 2024. (Coby Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, on February 18, 2024. (Coby Gideon / GPO)

Addressing American Jewish leaders Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the Israeli army was going to unprecedented lengths to protect civilians in Gaza during the war with Hamas, while insisting: “We have to finish the job.”

Speaking before the annual meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, Netanyahu blasted South Africa and Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza.

The prime minister lambasted Lula for comments he had made earlier on Sunday, in which he compared Israel to the Nazis, saying the only historical equivalent to events in Gaza was “when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

“He should be ashamed of himself,” Netanyahu said to applause.

He also panned Pretoria’s petitions to the International Court of Justice claiming genocide and demanding orders to halt Israel’s offensive and prevent it from operating in Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza. The court rejected any such orders, though it warned Israel of the need to protect civilians, given the mounting death toll.

Netanyahu promised that none of the accusations would stop Israel’s offensive against the Gaza terror group, pledging “total victory against [Hamas] savages,”

“When we set out to do this, even our best friends said to us, ‘It can’t be done,'” Netanyahu said of the war Israel has been fighting against Hamas since October 7 — when terrorists launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) holds public hearings on the request for the indication of provisional measures submitted by South Africa in the case South Africa v. Israel on 11 and 12 January 2024, at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the seat of the Court. (Courtesy International Court of Justice)

“Our brave soldiers are in the tunnels demolishing the infrastructure of these killers,” Netanyahu said, lauding the IDF and the efforts he said it makes to protect civilians.

“The Israeli army is going [to] lengths that no other army has gone through in protecting civilians,” said Netanyahu, adding that “total victory means the release of the hostages.”

International organizations in Gaza have increasingly warned of dire humanitarian conditions in the enclave. Israel has accused UN agencies of failing to keep up with aid going into the Strip. The mounting death toll has also led to intense global criticism, with Hamas saying nearly 29,000 people had been killed in the war. Israel says at least 10,000 of those are combatants, and that it is impossible to avoid civilian casualties, as Hamas’s military infrastructure is embedded within the population everywhere Israeli troops are operating.

It is believed that 134 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive.

The prime minister also praised the US government and public for rejecting the genocide allegations, and thanked US President Joe Biden for his assistance throughout the war, saying he agreed that everything must be done to get civilians out of harm’s way.

Netanyahu went on to call for pressure on Qatar to press Hamas to release the hostages it still has in captivity.

US President Joe Biden (right) is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023. (Evan Vucci/AP)

“Deal or no deal, we have to finish the job to achieve total victory,” Netanyahu said.

“One thing Israel cannot agree to is an international diktat that would… force a Palestinian state on Israel after the horrors of October 7,” he said, insisting the Israeli people were united around this. Netanyahu called on the Conference of Presidents to adopt the same resolution his cabinet passed earlier in the day against any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

Speaking before Netanyahu, US Ambassador Jack Lew sought to downplay talk that the US could recognize a Palestinian state unilaterally.

“We have never said there should be a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state,” says Lew.

Instead, he called for an “over-the-horizon process that includes a vision for a demilitarized Palestinian state.

“Now is a moment in time when there is a real possibility that by engaging in normalization and negotiations with Saudi Arabia” along with reforms in the Palestinian Authority, “there can be a demilitarized Palestinian state. But Israel will have to make that choice,” Lew said.

US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew gives a speech at a rally calling for the release of hostages in Hamas captivity, Tel Aviv, January 13, 2024. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“Any solution must ensure the safety and security of Israel,” Lew added, saying that “there can not be a militarized Palestinian state.”

US support for Israel has “not wavered,” Lew stressed, explaining that critical statements from Washington about Israeli policies stem from the fact that the war is “causing a huge amount of pain everywhere.”

“The fact that we have put a bright light on children suffering in Gaza is not an indication that the US is not behind Israel,” he argued. The war, he said, “has to be done in a way that’s consistent with our shared values. We have to remember, all of us, that a child is a child.”

And US pressure to let in more aid to Gaza came “as both a moral and strategic imperative,” he said. “When history is written, I believe that our Israeli friends will be grateful for the nudge” given to them on humanitarian aid, he asserted.

He admitted that in times of stress, certain language can be used, but Israel “must look at actions” from the Biden administration.

A protester waving the Palestinian flag stands outside the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, January 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

When the war first began, Netanyahu initially pledged that no humanitarian aid would be allowed into the Gaza Strip, but that policy quickly changed, due to intense US pressure. At first, aid was transferred into the Strip only through the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian-Gazan border after being inspected by Israel. However, further pressure from Washington, which said not enough aid was getting in, led Israel to open its own Kerem Shalom Crossing as well.

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