ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Netanyahu pressured on hostage deal, as Ben Gvir, Smotrich lash out at US

Lapid reiterates offer to back government instead of far-right factions, warns of fresh violence if national security minister’s powers not curtailed ahead of Ramadan

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives for a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on February 5, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives for a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on February 5, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against continuing to give power to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, reiterating his offer to enter the government to replace the ultranationalist, in order to secure backing for a deal to free hostages still captive in Gaza.

Lapid’s comments came as Netanyahu’s political allies continued to aim fire at US President Joe Biden’s administration, risking a downturn in ties already frayed by ongoing fighting in Gaza, with increasing pressure by Washington to wrap up the Gaza offensive after nearly four months.

Following a meeting with Netanyahu on Monday evening, Lapid told reporters that he had offered to serve as a “safety net” for the coalition, in order to allow the government to agree to a deal to free the hostages from Gaza.

“I told the prime minister — I am not interested in portfolios, I was foreign minister, I was finance minister, I was prime minister. I am interested in one thing — returning the hostages,” Lapid announced.

“And if he needs a safety net of any kind from me — by entering the government, from the outside, in any way — just tell me. Because the important thing is to return the hostages,” he asserted, reiterating a previous offer to enter the government to replace the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties, if that is what is needed to secure the release of the hostages from Gaza.

Hardliners from both parties have indicated that they could oppose a deal, and even bring down the government over it.

Hamas has insisted that any hostage deal include a way to the end the fighting, which is aimed at destroying the terror group. Israel launched the offensive following the October 7 onslaught on southern Israel, in which thousands of Hamas led-terrorists crossed into Israel from Gaza, massacring some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 5, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

While a majority of Israelis are against a deal that would see Israel release all Palestinian security prisoners or halt the fighting, Netanyahu is under increasing public pressure to secure the hostages’ release, even if it means halting the war.

Warring ideologies within the right-wing government have also been blamed for Israel’s lack of strategy for civilian control of post-war Gaza. Speaking to reporters later Monday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated that defeating Hamas will require the “political act” of deciding who will run civilian matters in the Strip following the war, in what was seen as veiled criticism of Ben Gvir.

“Only the advancement of a political alternative will ensure the end of Hamas’s rule. There will be no civilian Israeli control in the Strip, this is the time to make the right decisions so that we can meet the political goals we have set,” he said.

During a Likud faction meeting Monday, Netanyahu touted the fact that Israel had already secured the freedom of 110 of the hostages during a temporary ceasefire in November and said that while he would “continue to act on this issue… Hamas has demands that we will not agree to.”

“The key to their freedom should be similar to the previous agreement,” but the remaining hostages’ return “will not be realized at any cost,” he asserted, predicting that Israel will achieve a “complete victory over Hamas” within a relatively short period.

“We will kill the Hamas leadership, therefore, we must continue to act in all areas of the Gaza Strip. The war must not end before then. It will take time — months not years.”

As the meeting began, Netanyahu came under fire from the families of the hostages, after they were reportedly turned away from speaking to the Likud faction, following weeks of efforts to secure access.

According to Hebrew media reports, the families — who have been a regular presence in the Knesset for months as they lobby for the government to do more to secure their loved ones’ release — were not allowed into the room to address lawmakers ahead of the gathering, despite having done so at several other parties’ faction meetings.

Israelis rally to demand securing the release of hostages held by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, February 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Likud is the only party that has not met with us to date,” Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat was kidnapped on October 7, told the Walla news site.

“We were hoping that they would meet with us, but they continue to look for reasons not to do it,” he added, pledging not to stop “until all the abductees return home.”

By sticking with Ben Gvir, Netanyahu risks a worsening crisis with the US, with the rabble-rousing politician doubling down on criticism of Washington at his own faction meeting.

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with the far-right minister in which he 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 with a second Trump administration.

“Instead of giving us his full backing, [US 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.”

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party and Minister of Public Security Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 5, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Throughout the war, the Biden administration has offered Israel support to the tune of billions of dollars, though NBC recently reported that the White House may slow down aid to the Jewish state.

The White House previously called out Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich for advocating the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza and President Biden has described members of the current government as some “of the most extreme” he had seen in his political career.

“I go my own way. I don’t blink. I don’t fold,” Ben Gvir declared during his Otzma Yehudit party’s faction meeting on Monday, alleging that someone close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had instructed Likud lawmakers to “attack” him over his comments.

“We value America, we love the administration, but we need to change the way we operate,” he told reporters, calling on Netanyahu to “choose the path of Otzma Yehudit.”

“I’m not sweeping the complex reality facing the Biden administration under the table. America is our ally, our friend, but the Biden administration must stop pressuring us, bringing in fuel and humanitarian equipment that ends up going to Hamas,” he said.

Smotrich likewise attacked the Biden administration during his Religious Zionism party’s faction meeting, claiming that recently announced US sanctions against violent settlers were part of “a false and antisemitic campaign” led in part by members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd left) heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

“The administration is taking measures that are usually taken against terrorists and terrorist organizations,” he continued, confirming media reports that he is seeking to prevent Israeli banks from complying with the sanctions.

“It is not possible for an Israeli citizen with Israeli money in an Israeli bank to be deprived of rights and assets due to an American order,” Smotrich stated, adding that he was in touch with the supervisor of banks, Daniel Hahiashvili, regarding the matter.

Two Israeli banks already froze accounts belonging to sanctioned individuals over fears of American legal repercussions.

Lapid warned that keeping Ben Gvir as minister in charge of police in East Jerusalem risked seeing the capital “go up in flames” during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Arguing that the government is unprepared for tensions that traditionally surround the Muslim holy month, Lapid called on Netanyahu to restrict Ben Gvir’s authority and to appoint a team to oversee Israel’s preparations for the volatile period because “we are headed for disaster.”

Last year, the High Court barred Ben Gvir from giving operational orders to police forces regarding how they manage demonstrations and how they use force during protests.

Police escort Jewish visitors marking the holiday pf Passover at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, April 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

“We didn’t need the interview in the Wall Street Journal to remind us that Ben Gvir is a dangerous clown who prefers to light fires instead of putting them out, but during Ramadan this could cause an all-out conflagration that would cost human lives,” said Lapid.

MK Ayman Odeh, the head of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al alliance, lashed out at Netanyahu on Monday for including both Ben Gvir and Smotrich in his coalition, arguing that the prime minister “has always pursued politics of incitement.”

“The rise of Kahanism is not a mistake — it is a policy,” he said. “Is Netanyahu weak against Ben Gvir and Smotrich? No. He uses them to do the job he himself wants to do.”

The Netanyahu government also came under fire from Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, when war cabinet minister Benny Gantz was forced to cancel a press briefing after setting it for the exact same time and place as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Both ministers had announced that they would be speaking — separately — at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv at 7 p.m., drawing ridicule from their political opponents.

The two cabinet members’ decision to speak separately was “absurd” and showed “that this cabinet is pure politics,” Liberman declared.

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