PM: World ganging up on us due to ignorance, antisemitism

As protesters demand he go, Netanyahu argues election would play into Hamas’s hands

PM says he is ‘doing everything’ to bring captives back, and those who claim otherwise are causing pain to hostage families; asserts national polls would paralyze country

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a press conference at his office in Jerusalem, March 31, 2024. (Screenshot, GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a press conference at his office in Jerusalem, March 31, 2024. (Screenshot, GPO)

As tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of Jerusalem accused him of abandoning hostages in Gaza and mismanaging the war against Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Sunday night that he was doing everything in his power to bring the captives home.

“I understand the despair and the desire to do everything to get back [the hostages],” Netanyahu said at a press conference, and “I am a full partner to that desire.”

“As Israel’s prime minister, I am doing everything and will do everything to bring our loved ones home,” he said.

Netanyahu also addressed growing international criticism of Israel, saying he believed hatred directed at the Jewish state was the result of a combination of ignorance and antisemitism.

“The terrible massacre [of October 7] was quickly forgotten and the whole world is ganging up on us,” he said, arguing that if Israelis “don’t stand together to rebuff attacks [on them], then nobody else will do it for us.”

A mid-level Israeli negotiating team landed in Cairo on Sunday evening to try to make progress toward a deal with Hamas that would see dozens of hostages freed in exchange for an extended truce in Gaza.

With talks stuck, Netanyahu asserted that Israel was showing flexibility in the negotiations while Hamas was hardening its position. For example, said the prime minister, Hamas is demanding the unchecked return of Gazans to the northern Strip, “including Hamas terrorists.”

He said Hamas’s demands would have security implications, but that he could not go into them publicly.

Tens of thousands attend an anti-government protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 31, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“If we give in to another demand every two days, will this bring about a deal?” Netanyahu asked rhetorically. “This is the opposite of the truth.”

He said such an approach would only make it harder to get the hostages home.

Netanyahu argued that any who claim he and the rest of the nation’s leadership were not doing everything to bring the hostages home “are mistaken and causing others to be mistaken.”

Those who “know the truth and still repeat this lie cause unnecessary agony for the families of the hostages,” he insisted.

Freed hostage Raz Ben-Ami speaks at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum protest in Tel Aviv’s Hostages’ Square on March 30, 2024. (YouTube screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Outside in the warm Jerusalem night, protesters called loudly for elections.

“As long as we are a democracy, there is a tool that changes reality,” said Opposition Leader Yair Lapid. “It is called elections. Election now!”

“Elections now! Elections now,” the crowd screamed in response.

Netanyahu argued that elections would paralyze the country — “in the midst of the war, the moment before victory” — for up to eight months.

“It would paralyze negotiations for freeing our hostages and would bring an end to the war before the goals are completely achieved,” he said. “And the first who  would welcome this is Hamas, and that tells you everything.”

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in an undated handout photo released on March 30, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Lapid later issued a statement in response, saying “elections will not paralyze the country — it is paralyzed now. The war with Hamas is paralyzed, the hostage deal is paralyzed, the north is paralyzed and in particular the government under your leadership is paralyzed, and has failed.”

Netanyahu insisted to reporters that the final stage of the war was drawing close. The IDF was ready to operate in Rafah, he said, after it would evacuate the civilian population and distribute humanitarian aid.

“It’s the right thing to do operationally and internationally,” he said.

Palestinian children fetch water in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“It takes time, but it will be done,” Netanyahu added, pledging that the Hamas battalions in the city, Hamas’s last major stronghold in the Strip, will be eliminated. “There is no victory without it,” he said.

He praised the IDF’s ongoing operation against Hamas in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. “This is not what a hospital looks like anywhere in the world,” he said. “This is what a house of terrorism looks like.”

The army has arrested some 500 terror operatives and killed 200 at the hospital complex in recent weeks, and says gunmen are hiding inside maternity and burn wards as they battle troops.

Netanyahu’s top advisers are heading to Washington this week for postponed talks with the White House about alternatives to a major operation in Rafah.

Former US president Barack Obama (L) and former US president Bill Clinton (R) cheer for US President Joe Biden during a campaign fundraising event at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on March 28, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

US President Joe Biden has said he would oppose any major ground operation in the city, where around 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering.

Asked about the decision to delay the delegation after the US withheld its veto at the UN Security Council and a ceasefire resolution went through, Netanyahu said he’d told the Americans the night before the vote that he would keep top aides Tzachi Hanegbi and Ron Dermer home if it did so.

He repeated that there had been no previous Security Council resolution that did not condition a pause in the fighting on the release of hostages.

“I told them, ‘Don’t do it. It will send an extremely grave message to Hamas: They don’t have to release a single hostage, and they can get a ceasefire.’”

He added: “We are still and always interested in hearing from our American friends, even when we have disagreements with them. They have things to say on the humanitarian issue and on the evacuation of the population. We hear it, we will hear it in the future.

“We will find the way to have dialogue on this issue. But I thought it was important to send the message on that very day to the entire international community, and also to Hamas. And that was an important message that I stand behind.”

Brothers in Arms members scuffle with police and ultra-Orthodox Jews in the ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem calling for equal conscription laws to be implemented. March 31, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Also Sunday evening, dozens of protesters from the Brothers in Arms movement staged a demonstration inside Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, calling for Haredim to be drafted to the IDF, as his coalition faces a crisis over its failure to pass legislation on the matter.

Netanyahu said his government had given itself nine months in June 2023 to solve the problem, but that the October 7 attacks took up six months of attention.

He said a lot of work had been done, and praised the “real desire” on the part of Haredim to find a compromise.

“I think the problem can be solved,” Netanyahu said.

“We need to advance the equality [of sharing the burden of army service],” he said. “It can be done in a positive spirit and with broad agreement.”

Spanish UN peacekeepers stand on a hill overlooking the Lebanese border villages with Israel in Marjayoun town on January 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Netanyahu also said he would find a solution for Israelis evacuated from their homes on the border with Lebanon, who have been without a home for long months amid incessant attacks by Hezbollah.

“I am committed to bringing them back,” Netanyahu insisted.

He repeated that he prefers to find a solution to the threat from Hezbollah through diplomatic means, but if that fails, Israel would do so through “other means.”

Physical and moral defense

In the final minutes of his press conference, Netanyahu returned to an earlier question put to him about why it was that the world was apparently increasingly taking positions antagonistic to Israel.

“What has happened in the past few months was that the terrible massacre [of October 7] was quickly forgotten,” he said, “and the whole world is ganging up on us. And there are people here and abroad who say ‘Maybe there’s something to this; maybe we’re really not in the right.”

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators wave Palestinian flags and hold placards as they protest in Parliament Square in London on February 21, 2024. (HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)

Speaking suddenly with more passion, he asked how it could be that “good people” in the world were teaming up against Israel, with major demonstrations in world capitals, and yet “not a word was said about the millions massacred or uprooted from their homes in the Syrian civil war, or in Yemen’s internal war and elsewhere?…Every dead civilian, every such loss is, of course, a tragedy, but it can’t be compared; we are talking about very small numbers, compared to the massacre of millions… how can it be that the worst things are believed — genocide, those claims against Israel?”

Netanyahu said he had once asked his father, a professor of Jewish history, how blood libels against Jews were believed for centuries: “‘How can it be that millions around the world believed this? It must be ignorance,’ I said.”

His father answered: “Not only ignorance.”

Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with his father Benzion Netanyahu, in Benzion’s house in Jerusalem, February 5, 2009. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

“’Ignorance can’t explain why a great French philosopher like Voltaire believed the antisemitic allegations,’” Netanyahu recalled his father saying, “’or a great Russian writer like Dostoevsky believed the antisemitic lies.’”

“There is a virus that has accompanied us for millennia now,” said the prime minister, “a virus of antisemitism” that changes shape but abides. “The question is what do we do about it.”

Two things, he answered: “First of all, we established a state to be able to physically fight against those who would kill us. And second, we also need to rebuff these attacks by every means — and if we don’t stand together to rebuff these attacks, then nobody else will do it for us.”

So, he concluded, “We have to unite in the physical defense, and in the moral defense against the accusers — and to accuse them of the lies, the hypocrisy, the falsehoods. That, I’d say, is our mission, the fight against antisemitism in our generation.”

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