ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Analysis

Internal pressure builds to end truce as Israel weighs extending it into an eighth day

Ben Gvir accuses Hamas of breaking Gaza ceasefire after the terror group takes responsibility for deadly Thursday terror attack in Jerusalem

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Coastal Police commander Yoram Sofer in Jerusalem to present a new proposal to eradicate crime in the Arab sector, August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Coastal Police commander Yoram Sofer in Jerusalem to present a new proposal to eradicate crime in the Arab sector, August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Pressure was building within Israel to resume fighting in the Gaza Strip, as leaders weighed Hamas’s overtures to extend a ceasefire-for-hostages deal beyond Thursday.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir argued that Hamas had broken the truce, centered around fighting in Gaza, after the organization claimed responsibility for a Thursday terror attack in Jerusalem. Less than an hour after Thursday’s truce extension was finalized, the shooting attack killed three Israelis.

“With one hand Hamas signs a ceasefire, with the other it sends terrorists to murder Jews in Jerusalem,” the police minister, who was against the pause in fighting to begin with, said in a Thursday statement released by his Otzma Yehudit party.

“This is not a ceasefire but rather a continuation of the concept of ‘containment’ [of terror] and concession that brought us murdered people, which gives [Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar hope that he can emerge from this conflict with the upper hand,” Ben Gvir continued.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the government’s other far-right party, Religious Zionism, said that the Jerusalem attack showed that Israel was at war “on all fronts” and urged the country not to rest until “total victory” was achieved. Smotrich’s party had at first opposed the truce deal, but ultimately voted for it when its duration was capped at 10 days.

Israel and Hamas’s temporary truce to allow for swaps of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners is currently set to end on Friday morning, after seven days. Hamas has signaled interest in extending the deal, for which it would need to release an additional 10 living Israeli hostages to gain another ceasefire day, with Israel freeing 30 Palestinian prisoners in return.

Released Gaza hostage Liam Or is embraced by his father at Hatzerim airbase, early November 30, 2023. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Seventy Israelis have already been released within the deal framework, alongside 20 foreign nationals and three Israeli-Russians who were released under separate agreements not made with Jerusalem. Another 8-10 Israelis were slated to be released on Thursday evening for a total at least 103 hostages freed in the past seven days, and 108 overall.

This would leave about 130 hostages in terrorist custody, of some 240 Israelis and foreign nationals kidnapped during the October 7 attacks, when terrorists killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians and triggered the ongoing war, now in its 55th day.

As political pressure increases and Hamas continues to test the boundaries of the agreement by withholding agreed-upon hostages, it is unclear how much leeway the government will have to extend the deal to include further categories of hostages for release, beyond the current women and children.

Opposition to extending the deal beyond 10 days

Voices within the Israeli government’s far-right flank have threatened to tank the coalition if the government shows signs of succumbing to mounting international pressure to turn the temporary pause in fighting into a more permanent one.

The brashest among them, Ben Gvir, publicly threatened on Tuesday to rupture his alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if the Israel Defense Forces do not resume the fighting.

Smotrich has not yet threatened rebellion, but is viewed as another figure highly suspicious of the potential for an extended truce to turn into a permanent ceasefire.

On Tuesday, Smotrich wrote that ending the war — including as part of a broad deal to release all hostages in exchange for Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails — “is not on the agenda” and would be “a plan to eliminate the State of Israel.”

For now, that position is congruous with that of the rest of the government, with the prime minister, defense minister and other top leaders unified in their messaging, both publicly and privately, that they are committed to renewing the fight in order to deliver on the twin war goals: uprooting Hamas and freeing all hostages.

But privately, “fear exists” that Netanyahu will bow to international pressure to move toward a permanent ceasefire, said a coalition MK who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the political sensitivity of the issue.

Yocheved Lifshitz (center), who was freed in October from Hamas captivity, protests in Tel Aviv on November 28, 2023, alongside family members, for the release of the remaining hostages, including her husband, Oded. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Political sources say that “there is no real disagreement in the cabinet” about continuing to press the fight once the hostage deal ends, but there are open questions about how Netanyahu will ultimately react to international pressure to stop the hostilities.

“We know that within the government, everyone is very determined to continue,” said the coalition lawmaker, “but we don’t know how they will react to ongoing pressure” from global powers.

Limiting the deal to a 10-day framework was part of what convinced Smotrich to have his party vote in favor. That vote also constrained Smotrich’s ability to publicly criticize extending the deal beyond the initial four days.

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit proved to be the only outlier in the 38-minister cabinet, casting its three votes against what it called “an immoral deal.”

A senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel last week that maximizing the duration of the ceasefire was Hamas’s goal in hostage negotiations. Politicians have already begun speculating that Hamas will want to push the deal terms beyond the original 10-day framework. If Netanyahu were inclined to agree, he would need to obtain another round of cabinet approvals.

Amid concern that a further extension would only make it harder to restart the war to remove Hamas, the coalition lawmaker said that “it would be harder this time to pass this resolution.”

MK Almog Cohen of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party shouts at relatives of hostages held in Gaza during a hearing of the Knesset National Security Committee, November 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Almog Cohen is so committed to continuing the fight that he is prepared to go rogue should Ben Gvir not follow through on his threat to quit if the war is stopped.

Cohen said he accepts extending the temporary ceasefire as long as hostages continue to be released, but that he personally would resign from the coalition if the war stops before Hamas is toppled.

Cohen, whose relationship with Ben Gvir is rocky, said that his party leader’s threat to quit if the war does not restart is genuine.

“I think that stopping the war,” versus a temporary ceasefire, “would be forcing the party to leave the coalition because the Israeli citizens don’t want it [to stop], after the horrific attack that happened on October 7,” said Cohen.

Other sources in the coalition outside Ben Gvir’s party said they believe the firebrand far-right leader made a bold pronouncement under the assumption that it would not need to be tested.

“I think he knows that the chances of stopping the war now are very low, and he put it out there to say he helped ‘to not stop the war,'” said a coalition source who asked to be anonymous.

Ben Gvir needed for political stability

Netanyahu’s ruling coalition could survive a Ben Gvir defection, assuming the continued support of Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, which joined the government amid the war.

Still, Netanyahu would likely have far more than Ben Gvir to worry about if the war were to fully stop, and could face revolt from multiple coalition lawmakers, including from his own party. The defense establishment, led by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, is also fully committed to waging the war until the declared goal of destroying Hamas’s military and governance capacities is achieved.

Simply put, in the current public atmosphere, a government that gives up on the goal of ending Hamas’s rule in Gaza is widely expected to meet an existential crisis.

The question, then, may be less how Ben Gvir will act in such a scenario, but rather whether he might jump ship if he believes the campaign is not pursued aggressively enough or that a truce is being extended one too many times.

Netanyahu would have cause for concern in such a scenario, as he is unlikely to trust that Gantz will keep him afloat. This makes keeping Ben Gvir in the coalition a priority, and could affect calculations in negotiations with Hamas.

Gantz, whose party strongly opposes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition and joined it only due to the outbreak of war, is widely expected to depart the emergency government once the war ends or its acute phase passes.

“Of course, he’s not with us for the long term,” said a coalition source.

War cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

At the same time, observers widely expect new elections to be held after the war ends, due to the current leadership’s perceived responsibility in the eyes of much of the public for the disaster of October 7.

The question of “long-term” then, in respect to both Gantz and Ben Gvir, may be entirely moot.

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