Vows 'total victory — and yes, that includes action in Rafah'

Netanyahu: Those telling us not to enter Rafah are essentially saying ‘lose the war’

At Jerusalem press conference, PM says civilians will be given chance to leave; says hostage deal doesn’t seem close, pledges to oppose unilateral recognition of Palestinian state

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on February 17, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on February 17, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back Saturday on growing calls from world leaders to avoid a ground operation in Rafah, saying doing so would mean losing the war against Hamas.

“Those who want to prevent us from operating in Rafah are essentially telling us: ‘Lose the war.’ I won’t let that happen,” he vowed at an evening press conference in Jerusalem. “We won’t capitulate to any pressure.”

Rafah, which sits on the Gaza-Egypt border, is the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the enclave, but it is also where over a million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere.

The US and several of Israel’s Western allies have warned Jerusalem that an offensive in Rafah in the current conditions would be catastrophic. Israel, which has said it will draw up a plan for civilians to evacuate before it enters, believes it cannot effectively curtail Hamas without taking Rafah, which sits on Gaza’s border with Egypt. At least some of the 134 hostages remaining in Gaza are thought to be in the city. Hamas leadership is also believed to be sheltering there.

Netanyahu said at the press conference that he’d told US President Joe Biden that Israel will fight until “total victory — and yes, that includes action in Rafah.” But the IDF operation in Gaza’s southernmost city, he stressed, will “obviously” come only after civilians there have an opportunity “to evacuate to safe areas.”

Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Feb. 16, 2024 (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

In response to a question from The Times of Israel on whether there had been plans to enter Gaza’s southernmost city earlier, at the beginning of the ground offensive, and, if so, why that step had not been taken then, Netanyahu expanded on the government’s efforts to cope with the refugees in Rafah.

“I won’t get into our plans,” the premier responded, but “there is a lot of space north of Rafah” to evacuate the civilians sheltering there. “There will be space for evacuation.

“We have to do this in an orderly fashion — and that’s the instruction I’ve given to the IDF.”

He said the large number of Palestinians taking refuge in Rafah would not ultimately be a hindrance.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published February 16, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Netanyahu acknowledged international pressure not to operate in Rafah but wondered how the international community could expect Israel “to leave a quarter of Hamas’s [organized fighting] force intact, in a defined territory. We won’t allow that.”

Netanyahu emphasized that everyone in the government would like to strike another hostage deal. “I also want it”  and it would be “very good” if this could be achieved, he said. But he said that a new hostage deal with Hamas “does not appear very close” given the terror group’s exorbitant demands.

But even if a hostage deal is reached, he stressed, Israel will eventually enter Rafah. “There is no alternative to total victory. And there is no way to achieve total victory without destroying those battalions in Rafah, and we will do so.”

Netanyahu denied sidelining war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and observer Gadi Eisenkot in decisions regarding the hostage talks, as was alleged in media reports, when he decided, without consulting the pair, not to send an Israeli negotiation team back to Cairo for further talks.

He said the war cabinet had previously agreed to rebuff Hamas’s “delusional” demands, which included “demands regarding the Temple Mount, demands to end the war and leave Hamas intact, demands to withdraw from Gaza, demands to free thousands of murderers.”

While Israel had sent an Israeli delegation to Cairo at the start of the week at Biden’s request, “there was no change” in the Hamas position, and so “there was no point in going [back] there until we see a change.”

He argued that his position reflected the war cabinet’s policy, and added: “I’m running a give and take [negotiation], not a give and give.”

People block a highway during a protest to demand the release of the hostages taken by Hamas terrorists into the Gaza Strip on October 7, in Tel Aviv, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Netanyahu added that he wants the current emergency government to remain intact, in the cause of national unity.

No ‘prize for terror’

The prime minister also took a combative stance on international calls for progress on a Palestinian state. Netanyahu said that Israel “will not capitulate to international dictates” regarding a future agreement with the Palestinians.

US President Joe Biden speaks as Jordan’s King Abdullah II listens in the Cross Hall of the White House, Feb. 12, 2024, in Washington. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

“An agreement will be achieved only in direct talks between the two sides, without preconditions,” he said, stressing that he will continue “to firmly oppose unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood.”

Netanyahu said that there would be “no greater prize for terror” after the October 7 killings than giving the Palestinians a state, and that such a move would “prevent any future peace agreement.”

Last week, The Washington Post reported 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.

Members of Netanyahu’s party and ministers on the right flank of his coalition publicly blasted the report, with one Likud minister calling for Israel to threaten in response to cancel the Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority.

The October 7 attack, in which some 1,200 people were killed in a paroxysm of murder, rape and other atrocities led by the Hamas terror group, and which saw another 253 kidnapped and held hostage, distilled for many Israelis the security challenges of Palestinian statehood.

Asked whether relations with the US would be easier were Donald Trump in power, as his son Yair and others have asserted, Netanyahu said that Israel is working with the US president and his administration and “we appreciate the support we have received. There is a lot we agree on and there are things we disagree on. My policy is much more simple: I don’t get involved in internal US politics. I do insist on the demands of our state. When it’s possible, I say yes. When it’s necessary, I say no.”

In response to a reporter’s question about the Moody’s decision to downgrade Israel’s credit rating for the first time ever, Netanyahu pushed back against the notion of an “economic failure” by his government.

An Israeli policeman inspects the impact crater left by a rocket fired from southern Lebanon where it landed near the entrance of Ziv hospital in Israel’s northern city of Safed on February 14, 2024 (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

“I don’t think at all that there’s been an economic failure here,” he said. “Israel’s macroeconomic data are very good,” he said, insisting the downgrade was first and foremost due to the Israel-Hamas war and that the rating would rise again once the fighting is over.

He also addressed the prospect of elections, which opponents have said are necessary to restore trust in the government following the failures of October 7. He said a vote would be held as scheduled “in another few years.”

“The last thing we need right now is elections,” he said, arguing that voting for a new Knesset would divide Israelis and therefore be a boon to Hamas. “What we need now is unity.”

Turning to the question of a formal announcement that Israeli residents of Gaza border communities hit on October 7 can return safely to their homes, Netanyahu said that financial arrangements had been agreed upon, and the Defense Ministry would soon issue a clear statement regarding the security situation.

“There is never a situation of ‘no danger,’” he said. “But the danger of a ground invasion of the kind that happened on October 7 is not real, that’s clear to you. Hamas is deep in the tunnels. Some person can always get through the fence. But that [kind of] mass military terrorist invasion is off the table. And we will not let it happen again.”

As for mortar, rocket and missile fire, “it is always possible,” he acknowledged, adding that Israel had destroyed a “huge proportion” of Hamas’s capacities in this regard.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible” for such fire to happen, he said, but he expected any such incidents to be minimal.

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