Gantz wants to move ahead; Lapid promises PM a safety net

Far-right parties vow to bring down government if PM backs hostage-ceasefire deal

Ben Gvir says deal would spell ‘total defeat’ rather than Netanyahu’s promised ‘total victory’; Smotrich warns terror would surge, insists fighting continue until Hamas destroyed

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

File - Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (2-R) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File - Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (2-R) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The heads of the government’s two ultranationalist parties, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit, both threatened to bring down the government Saturday night if a newly proposed hostage release and ceasefire deal is adopted by the government.

Both party leaders claimed that the deal would spell the end of the war without the completion of Israel’s central war aim of destroying Hamas, and vowed that they would pull their parties out of the coalition if it was accepted.

The two parties won 14 seats when running together in the 2022 elections and are crucial to the governing majority of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s core 64-strong coalition.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid earlier Saturday reiterated a promise to provide a political safety net to Netanyahu, to ensure his government would not fall over the deal, but Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would not provide support for the coalition on other issues. Lapid said that Israel “must do this deal, now… before the hostages die there [in Gaza].”

In contrast to the far-right response, National Unity party chief and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz called for the war cabinet to convene as soon as possible to “formulate steps for going forward,” and appeared to imply that the proposal had already been approved by the war cabinet.

Gantz’s party joined the coalition days after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught and has threatened to leave if Netanyahu does not make a series of strategic decisions regarding the war by June 8. Gantz’s party holds only eight seats, however, and Netanyahu can therefore retain power without him, but could not do so for long without the far-right parties.

In a speech on Friday night, US President Joe Biden revealed that a new Israeli proposal for a ceasefire and hostage deal was submitted on Thursday to Hamas via Qatar. The US president laid out some of the proposal’s key elements in some detail, urged Hamas to accept it and the Israeli government to “stand behind it.”

US President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in the Middle East, in the State Dining Room of the White House on May 31, 2024 (Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

Biden said the offer would “bring all the hostages home, ensure Israel’s security, create a better day after in Gaza without Hamas in power, and set the stage for a political settlement that provides a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” although he did not specify how Hamas would be removed from power.

Netanyahu said earlier on Saturday that there would be no “permanent ceasefire” in Gaza until Hamas’s military and governing capabilities were destroyed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits troops in Gaza, December 25, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

And an Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel that “Israel’s conditions for the end of the war have not changed,” and that they comprised “destroying Hamas military and civil capabilities, freeing the hostages, and ensuring that Gaza will no longer represent a threat to Israel.”

The Israeli proposal, the official insisted, however, would ensure that Israel can achieve all of these conditions before a permanent ceasefire takes effect.

The premier’s ultranationalist coalition partners declared that anything other than the “destruction of Hamas” would not be acceptable to them.

In a statement issued soon after the end of Shabbat, Smotrich said he had spoken with Netanyahu and told him that he would quit the coalition if the new proposal was accepted.

“I made clear to him that I will not be part of a government that agrees to the proposed outline and ends the war without destroying Hamas and bringing back all the hostages,” said the finance minister.

“We will not agree to end the war before the destruction of Hamas — not to the grave harm that an IDF retreat [from Gaza] would cause to the achievements of the war thus far, not to the return of Gazans to northern Gaza, and not to the wholesale release of terrorists who will return, God forbid, to murdering Jews,” he continued, referring to potential provisions and consequences of a deal.

Smotrich said that his party was instead demanding that “the fighting continue” until Hamas is destroyed and the hostages are returned, and insisting on the “creation of a totally different security reality in Gaza and Lebanon, the return of all the [Israeli] residents of the north and south to their homes, and massive investment in the accelerated development of these regions of the country.”

Ben Gvir, for his part, said he also rejected the proposal and threatened to “dismantle the government” if it is adopted.

“The deal according to the details that have been published today would mean ending the war and giving up on destroying Hamas,” he said.

“This is a reckless deal that would be a victory for terrorism and a security risk for the State of Israel,” he argued, declaring that it would represent not the total victory that Netanyahu has repeatedly promised, but rather “total defeat.”

“If the prime minister puts this deal into action under the conditions that have been published today, the meaning of which is the end of the war and abandoning [the goal of] destroying Hamas, Otzma Yehudit will dismantle the government,” he warned.

Unlike Smotrich, Ben Gvir did not mention returning the hostages as part of his war aims.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Ramat Gan, May 18, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Earlier, Gantz called for the war cabinet to convene as soon as possible to further advance the new proposal. “We are committed to continue advancing an arrangement to return the hostages as was formulated by the negotiation team and unanimously approved by the war cabinet, as part of the wider effort to achieve all of the war’s objectives,” Gantz said.

“In light of the developments, the war cabinet must be convened as soon as possible, together with the negotiating team, to formulate the next steps.”

Earlier Lapid said he wanted to “remind” Netanyahu of a proposal he has made on several occasions to enable a hostage deal by providing a “safety net” of political support “if Ben Gvir and Smotrich leave the government.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following the threats made by the ultranationalist leaders to do just that, Lapid later Saturday denounced them for endangering the country.

The threats by Ben Gvir and Smotrich “abandon national security, the hostages, and the residents of the north and the south,” said Lapid.

“This is the worst and most reckless government in the country’s history. As far as they’re concerned, there could be war here forever,” said Lapid. “Zero responsibility, zero management, total failure.”

Two hundred and fifty-two hostages were seized by terrorists when Hamas invaded southern Israel on October 7, butchering some 1,200 people. Israel immediately declared its intention of toppling the Hamas regime in Gaza and securing the release of the hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza — not all of them alive.

One hundred and five civilian hostages were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by IDF troops alive, and the bodies of 19 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 37 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

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