ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Deri hails Biden: Paying personal political price to help us

After Ben Gvir pans Biden, Netanyahu lauds White House support during war

At weekly cabinet meeting, prime minister says he won’t agree to hostage deal ‘at any price,’ lays out requirements to consider Hamas toppled

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2024. (Tomer Appelbaum/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2024. (Tomer Appelbaum/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the White House for its support during Sunday’s cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir criticized US President Joe Biden in an interview with an American newspaper.

“We deeply appreciate the support we have received from the Biden administration since the outbreak of war,” Netanyahu said, citing weapons shipments, support in international bodies and the deployment of US forces to the region.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements, but so far we have managed to overcome them with determined and considered decisions,” he added.

In a Wall Street Journal interview published Sunday, Ben Gvir harshly criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the war in Gaza, accusing it of benefitting Hamas and arguing that Israel would have been better off dealing with a second Trump administration.

“Instead of giving us his full backing, [President Joe] Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel, which goes to Hamas,” Ben Gvir declared. “If Trump was in power, the US conduct would be completely different.”

Netanyahu said during the cabinet meeting that there are those who say yes to every US demand and receive praise abroad while endangering Israel’s national security, and those who say no and receive praise at home while damaging Israel’s core interests.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends the funeral of Border Police officer Sgt. Shay Germay at the Cemetery in Karmiel on January 7, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“I want to say from my experience — the key is knowing how to navigate. To say yes when possible, to say no when necessary,” he said. “I don’t need help to know how to navigate our relationship with the US and the international community, while standing up for our national interests.”

“As a sovereign state fighting for its existence and future,” Netanyahu continued, “we will make our decisions by ourselves, even in cases where there isn’t agreement with our American friends.”

Since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, the Biden administration has fast-tracked the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of munitions to Israel, bypassing congressional review.

At the same time as it has provided Israel with weapons and diplomatic backing in its war against Hamas, the White House has also pushed Jerusalem to allow more aid to reach Gazans and is reportedly weighing the use of weapons supplies as leverage to pressure Israel to reduce the intensity of its operations in the Gaza Strip.

Reservists of the 5th Brigade operate in the northern Gaza Strip, in a handout image released by the IDF on February 3, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

White House officials and Netanyahu have also clashed in recent weeks over the possibility of a Palestinian state as part of a regional agreement that would include Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization.

Ben Gvir’s remarks were roundly criticized by opposition leaders, while coalition members went out of their way to praise Biden without referencing the far-right minister.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, an observer in the war cabinet, tweeted his appreciation for Biden: “Thank you, US President Joe Biden. The people of Israel will remember forever how you stood at Israel’s side at one of our hardest periods.”

Deri acknowledged differences of opinion between the two allied countries, and then added: “You are paying a personal political price in order to help us. We will thank you forever for this. May God protect you and America.”

Not at any price

During his remarks Sunday, Netanyahu also addressed a potential hostage deal, saying that “we will not agree to every deal, and not at any price.”

President Joe Biden, right, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, center, during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Hamas officials are reviewing a multi-stage offer that was hammered out last week by Israel, the US, Qatar, and Egypt in Paris. It would see an extended truce and the release of Palestinian prisoners for a three-part release of hostages held by Hamas.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that reports in the press about Israel agreeing to free large numbers of terrorists are not true.

Likud ministers at the cabinet meeting insisted that any further decisions about a potential hostage deal would have to come in front of the full cabinet, and not just the small war cabinet, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. The demand includes any further meetings abroad by Mossad chief David Barnea with international intermediaries.

File – Ronen Bar head of the Shin Bet security services (L) with Mossad chief David Barnea at the annual IDF memorial ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War at Yad La-Shiryon, September 27, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, and Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli all supported that demand.

Hamas and other terror factions are holding onto 132 of the 253 hostages abducted on October 7, following a weeklong November truce deal that saw the release of over 100 civilians, mostly women and children.

The IDF has said 29 of the 132 are dead, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

On Sunday,  Netanyahu seemed  to put the toppling of Hamas as his main war aim.

“I want to be clear about our policy — the essential goal is first of all the elimination of Hamas,” he said.

The prime minister then laid out three conditions for that to happen: the destruction of the remaining Hamas battalions, 17 out of 24 of which have been defeated; mopping-up operations, which he said the IDF is doing through raids in the northern and central Strip; and the neutralization of Hamas’s tunnel network, “which demands more time.”

Netanyahu said that Israel will not end the war until all its aims are accomplished — “the elimination of Hamas, bringing back all our hostages, and ensuring that Gaza will never again represent a threat to Israel.”

Palestinian men and children gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA. (Photo by AFP)

Netanyahu also called for a process to replace the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees with “other organizations that are not tainted by support for terrorism.”

Since allegations that UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attacks became public late last month, UNRWA has seen many of its top donor countries announce funding freezes, leading to concerns that the agency could stop operating in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East by the end of February.

Israeli intelligence alleges that some 10% of the Gaza staff — 1,200 employees — are tied to the Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups.

Israel has long taken issue with UNRWA, alleging that it is riddled with and controlled by Hamas members, that its facilities are used for terror activity, that its education system incites against Israel and that it perpetuates the refugee crisis.

However, a senior Israeli official briefing The Times of Israel last week clarified that Jerusalem does not support the agency’s immediate dissolution because it is the main organization providing humanitarian aid in Gaza, preventing a crisis that would force the IDF to halt its operations against Hamas.

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