Elections now are the 'dream' of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran

Curbing hostage deal hopes, Netanyahu says Hamas putting up ‘brick wall’ of demands

In press conference, PM says terror group refuses to move toward compromise, pledges Rafah operation will take place; claims that elections would mean ‘defeat’ for Israel in Gaza

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at an evening press conference, February 29, 2024. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at an evening press conference, February 29, 2024. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening expressed pessimism that Israel and Hamas could reach a deal to pause fighting in Gaza and release hostages, accusing the terror group of continuing to stonewall Israel rather than make a good faith effort at compromise.

Saying that Israel was continuing to prepare to expand its offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite increasingly strident warnings from the international community against such a move, Netanyahu sought to temper expectations for a deal raised by US President Joe Biden earlier this week when he said a deal was “close.”

“We face a brick wall of delusional, unrealistic Hamas demands,” said Netanyahu in a press conference at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, adding that the terrorist group “knows its demands are delusional and is not even trying to move close to an area of agreement. That’s the situation.”

“We are all hopeful, but I’m giving you the current assessment… We continue to act, continue to hope, but I can’t make a promise at this moment” that a deal will be done, he said, because such a promise would “have no cover.”

Israel and Hamas, which both have delegations in Qatar this week hammering out details of a potential 40-day truce, have said there is still a big gulf between them, and the Qatari mediators say there is no breakthrough yet. Israel’s representatives were set to return from Qatar Thursday, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

The prime minister pledged that Israel would get back all the hostages held in Gaza, “with or without a framework,” and said that he was demanding to see the names of all hostages to be released before he agreed to a hostage deal.

On Wednesday, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh claimed that the group was showing flexibility in negotiations with Israel, but was at the same time ready to continue fighting.

Israel and Hamas appear to be far from seeing eye-to-eye on the terms of the deal, which purportedly includes a six-week pause in fighting and the release of some 40 hostages in exchange for 400 Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel.

People walk past graffiti on a wall in Kfar Saba calling for the return of hostages kidnapped during the Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught, on February 27, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

In the meantime, pledged Netanyahu, the IDF is preparing to operate against the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah and the central Gaza Strip.

“We will do this by evacuating civilians from combat zones,” he insisted, “we will do this by taking care of their humanitarian needs, and we will do this by following international law.”

Netanyahu did not mention in his opening remarks the deadly incident in northern Gaza early Thursday involving dozens of civilian fatalities surrounding a convoy of aid trucks, and he was not asked about it by reporters.

Netanyahu took an oblique swipe at US President Joe Biden, pointing to a Harvard-Harris poll this week that found 82 percent support for Israel among the US public. “More than four in five American citizens support us and not Hamas,” he said, and that “gives us the strength to continue the campaign until Hamas is destroyed.”

US President Joe Biden, left, eats ice cream with comedian Seth Meyers at Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in New York. (AP/Evan Vucci)

On Monday, Biden said in an interview that Israel is going to lose international support if it maintains its “incredibly conservative government.” Netanyahu the next day released a video statement responding directly to Biden, citing the same Harvard-Harris poll.

There is also a widespread belief that anger at Biden’s support for Israel among progressive and Arab-American voters is pushing him to be more critical of the war effort. Netanyahu’s repeated reference to the poll appeared to be a signal to Biden that the president’s support for Israel won’t imperil his election prospects in November.

Netanyahu, who seems to be taking a more confrontational approach toward the US president of late, also hailed the recent Knesset vote against unilateral Palestinian statehood, backed by 99 MKs. The move came in the wake of reports that the US and several Arab partners were preparing a detailed plan for a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that includes a “firm timeline” for a Palestinian state.

Asked about Biden reportedly calling him an asshole and saying he is running the war with political considerations in mind, Netanyahu noted that the White House denied this. “Whether there were such denigrations, or briefings about them,” he added, “doesn’t influence me in the slightest.”

Netanyahu also boasted about resisting international pressure to halt the war against Hamas.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest outside a High Court hearing on the government’s drafting of Haredi yeshiva students for the military on February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his prepared remarks, Netanyahu addressed the issue of Haredi enlistment, one that could endanger his coalition and force elections.

The prime minister said he would seek a consensual arrangement under which more Haredim would carry out military service. He said that he respects the Haredim who study Torah and those who volunteer for emergency rescue services, but that one “cannot ignore what the public widely sees as the discrepancy in the division of the burden” by which almost all ultra-Orthodox youngsters do not serve.

“The Haredi public recognizes this today,” he claimed.

Taking aim at Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, without naming him, Netanyahu said: “We will set out goals for an agreement by consensus” to raise the number of Haredi recruits.

“Anyone who wants complete agreement won’t get any agreement,” he added, a day after Gallant said he would only support an IDF draft law that is backed by all coalition parties.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) speaks with commanders at the Central Command HQ near Jerusalem, February 27, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

He hinted that Gallant and the leaders of the National Unity Party, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who are also pushing a proposal for the Haredim to be drafted and who he also does not name, could be using the issue as a means to try to bring down the government. Were any element in the coalition to push “extreme demands” regarding Haredi conscription, that could be enough to trigger its collapse and new elections, Netanyahu said.

Were this to happen, “that would mean the end of the war, [and] the defeat of Israel,” he argued.

Israel would be paralyzed for 6-8 months, the government’s hands would be tied in the battles against Hamas and Hezbollah and for the hostages, and there would be divisions within the ranks of IDF fighters, he claimed.

This, he said, “is precisely the dream of [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar, the dream of Hezbollah and the dream of Iran… They’re just waiting for it.”

A woman walks past posters depicting Yahya Sinwar (L), the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Abu Obeida (R), the masked spokesman of Hamas’s Qassam Brigades, plastered on a wall in the Burj al-Barajneh camp for Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s southern suburb on February 5, 2024. (Anwar Amro/AFP)

“All the cabinet members know this,” he added, implying that ministers seeking elections would thus be acting in the interests of the enemy.

Asked whether Gallant consulted with him before his declaration the day before, Netanyahu dodged the question, repeating that “the worst thing that could happen to us is a general election in mid-war,” which would spell “defeat in the war.”

“I am sure that the defense minister is aware of the implications of general elections and the grave danger to the State of Israel” if the war goals are not achieved, he continued. “So I’m sure we’ll find a solution.”

Asked about National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s efforts to impose restrictions on prayer for Arab Israelis at the Al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, Netanyahu said that “there was a preparatory discussion” at which Ben Gvir spoke his mind, and that “we will have an additional discussion at the start of next week.”

Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Old City, April 17, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90/File)

“Ultimately, we ensure freedom of worship, in accordance with security conditions. We have no intention of stopping Muslim freedom of worship,” he said. If Israel were not sovereign on the Temple Mount, he added, there would not be freedom of worship for the three faiths.

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