'The fate of the world depends on where America goes'

Netanyahu says perceived tensions with US make it harder to get hostages out

14,000 Hamas fighters, 16,000 civilians killed in Gaza, PM tells Call Me Back podcast; says war could end tomorrow if Hamas surrendered, freed hostages; talks of exile for Hamas leaders

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interviewed on the Dr. Phil Primetime show on Merit Street Media from Jerusalem on May 9, 2024. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interviewed on the Dr. Phil Primetime show on Merit Street Media from Jerusalem on May 9, 2024. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The perception of tensions in the US-Israel relationship is making it harder for Israel to reach a hostage deal with Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview released on Sunday.

“That perception certainly doesn’t help the hostage situation, certainly doesn’t help stabilize the Middle East,” Netanyahu told host Dan Senor on the Call Me Back podcast, recorded Sunday morning. “It gives succor to Iran and its henchmen. But it means that we have to apply the pressure even more.”

Netanyahu did not comment on the actual state of relations.

Ties between Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden have reached a nadir as the White House holds up the delivery of heavy bombs to Israel, amid warnings that the provision of artillery and other weaponry also could be suspended if Netanyahu moves forward with a widescale operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Israeli troops are expanding their limited incursion into Gaza’s southern border area.

Hamas last week offered its own proposal for a truce and hostage deal as Israeli troops began their moves toward Rafah. Jerusalem rejected that offer, saying it failed to meet its key requirements, and talks have stalled since.

The premier insisted that it is “patent nonsense” that he has not prioritized hostage negotiations.

Dan Senor. (Dor Malka)

“The charge is malicious. It’s false,” he said.

Netanyahu promised that pressure from allies would not stop him from achieving Israel’s war aims.

“What do you do when you’re faced with such international pressure?” Netanyahu asked rhetorically. “I can say that in Israel’s history, when faced with this kind of pressure, the leaders did what they had to do.”

Repeating a position he has expressed several times in recent days, Netanyahu said he deeply appreciates the support Israel has received from Biden – “but if we have to stand alone, we will do so, because I’m the prime minister of Israel, the one and only Jewish state, and we will not go down.”

Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout photo published May 13, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel “will fight, if necessary, with our fingernails,” he said, a message he conveyed to Biden in their last phone call.

Netanyahu argued on the podcast that “the fate of the world depends on where America goes.” He elaborated: “Does it succumb to this madness, to this mobocracy in those campuses, to this flagrant antisemitism that is sweeping the globe?”

Palestinian flags are taken from protesters as they walk out of UNC Chapel Hill’s commencement ceremonies at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on May 11, 2024. (Ethan Hyman/AP)

Netanyahu said America’s own global position is being tested as a result of the onslaught against Israel. “These crowds, mobs, in American universities — they burn the Israeli flag and they burn the American flag. They chant: ‘Death to Israel, death to America.’ So we’re fighting a common battle, a battle between civilization and barbarism.”

Turning to the fight in Gaza itself, Netanyahu said the ratio of Hamas combatants to Gazan civilians killed was about one-to-one.

“Fourteen thousand have been killed, combatants, and, probably around sixteen thousand civilians have been killed,” he said.

Gazans transport bags of grain on a cart in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 4, 2024 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified, does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, and includes terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle.

Israel faces growing international pressure to bring about a ceasefire amid the mounting death toll in Gaza. The Biden administration has also been increasingly critical of the high civilian toll.

Netanyahu maintained that condemnation of Israel’s conduct of the war is incompatible with supporting Israel’s right to go after Hamas: “You cannot say that you support the right of Israel to defend itself and then condemn it when it seeks to exercise that right.”

The military campaign, said Netanyahu, will continue for a long time, in order to prevent Hamas from reemerging.

You cannot say that you support the right of Israel to defend itself and then condemn it when it seeks to exercise that right.

“You don’t have to reoccupy it,” he said of Gaza. “You just have to demilitarize it actively. And you know, the distances are so small. So you go in, you go out. Or you remain where you have to be.”

Netanyahu said the next stage was to find another civil administration in Gaza.

His hope, he said, was to use locals unaffiliated with Hamas with the support of Arab states. But none of that will happen, argued Netanyahu, until Hamas is defeated.

US President Joe Biden speaks to CNN, May 8, 2024 (CNN screenshot)

“No one’s going to come in until they know that you either destroyed Hamas, or you’re about to destroy Hamas. And that’s a certainty. Because if they think Hamas is going to emerge from the rubble and retake Gaza, they’re not going to commit suicide.”

Netanyahu has come under criticism for being unwilling to articulate and advance a clear plan for an alternative government to Hamas in Gaza.

Once Hamas is eliminated, said Netanyahu, new opportunities will present themselves, including the expansion of the Abraham Accords. Israel’s current and potential Arab partners have been publicly critical of the war on Hamas, though Israeli officials assert they have been more supportive of the effort behind the scenes.

File: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry attends a panel discussion during the World Economic Forum Special Meeting in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

Victory over Hamas, Netanyahu said, “is not when every last Hamas fighter disappears, but when we vanquish them, destroy their organized battalions, and mop up the remaining places, and that’s going to take some time, but we can do it.”

He added, “We’re actually quite close to achieving that. We’re very close to achieving the destruction of the remaining Hamas battalions.”

Four Hamas battalions remain intact in Rafah, in addition to two in the central Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu indicated that Israel is open to Hamas leaders going into exile after they surrender. “This war could be over tomorrow. If Hamas lays down its arms, surrenders, returns the hostages, the war is over.” Netanyahu said. “It’s up to them.”

He added: “The idea of exile is there. We can always discuss it. But I think the most important thing is surrender.”

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