‘Nobody needs to tell me what to do’: PM pushes back on far-right pressure over Rafah

Netanyahu says Israel won’t agree to a hostage deal that requires ending the war; Gallant: IDF op in south Gazan city could come ‘very soon’; Ben Gvir: IDF’s hands are being tied

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"

From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Prime Minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Prime Minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday reportedly pushed back against criticism from far-right ministers over the pace of Israeli operations in Gaza, telling members of his cabinet that “nobody needs to tell me what to do or how to do it.”

According to Hebrew media reports, the prime minister declared that “things are happening and will happen” and that he “expect[s] unity from this table.”

After Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced during the weekly cabinet meeting that an Israeli operation in Rafah — Hamas’s last remaining stronghold in southern Gaza — is close, a number of far-right ministers reportedly lashed out at the government’s handling of the conflict.

“Over the last week, I have been very intensively involved in the preparation of the operation in Rafah – including today. The operation will happen soon, even very soon,” Gallant was reported saying.

In response, Settlements and National Projects Minister Orit Strock launched a broadside, saying that Gallant had said that “negotiations will only be conducted under fire,” but this was now “not happening.” Indirect negotiations have been taking place in Cairo over the past several weeks.

Weighing in, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir accused Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi of tying the hands of the armed forces, charging that they “do not let the IDF fight.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with troops of the 98th Division on the Gaza border, March 3, 2024. (Elad Malka/ Defense Ministry)

Pushing back, Netanyahu reportedly responded by insisting that “if anyone thinks we will abandon our intention to eliminate Hamas, they are wrong”. He further said that despite the delays, Israel will ultimately “eliminate Hamas.”

As the ministers were arguing, protesters outside the building called for an immediate Rafah offensive. Before he entered the meeting, Sports and Culture Minister Miki Zohar told those gathered outside that accomplishing “the goals of the war are a necessary condition for the continued existence of the government,” Channel 12 reported.

Also addressing the demonstrators outside the Prime Minister’s Office, Finance Minster Bezalel Smotrich called for an immediate military incursion into Rafah, declaring that he would not allow Netanyahu and his fellow cabinet members to “extinguish the spirit of heroism.”

In a video message later on Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu doubled down on his promise not to end the war before Hamas is defeated, emphasizing in no uncertain terms that Israel will not agree to an end to the campaign and the withdrawal of IDF troops from the Strip, and will not accept a hostage-truce deal with Hamas that includes a requirement to end the war.

“Israel cannot accept this,” he said. “We are not prepared to accept a situation in which the Hamas battalions come out of their bunkers, take control of Gaza again, rebuild their military infrastructure, and return to threatening the citizens of Israel in the surrounding communities, in the cities of the south, in all parts of the country.”

“Israel will not agree to Hamas’s demands, which mean surrender, and will continue the fighting until all its goals are achieved,” Netanyahu declared.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a video statement, May 5, 2024 (Screen grab via Government Press Office)

Responding to Netanyahu’s video, Ben Gvir issued a statement repeating his demand for an immediate Rafah operation.

“We did not attack Gaza and we got October 7. We didn’t attack Rafah and we got a targeted attack,” he said, referring to today’s rocket attack on the Kerem Shalom Crossing launched from the Rafah area.

“Netanyahu, enter Rafah now,” Ben Gvir urged.

Weekend discord over hostage deal

Sunday’s disagreements in the cabinet occurred against the backdrop of reports of international pressure on Israel to agree to an effective end to the war in Gaza as part of a hostage release deal.

Senior officials from the US, Qatar and Egypt are taking part in talks on a deal in Cairo, as are Hamas officials — although Netanyahu decided not to send a delegation at this stage.

In response to the reports of a possible end to the hostilities in exchange for the hostages, an Israeli official, speaking anonymously to the media on Saturday, repeated Jerusalem’s insistence that “Israel will under no circumstances agree to end the war as part of an agreement to free our abductees.”

The official added: “The IDF will enter Rafah and destroy the remaining Hamas battalions there — whether there is a temporary pause to free our captives or not.”

The same official put out a second statement later to the same effect, saying any claims Israel had agreed to end the war “are untrue.”

A number of media outlets named the official who put out the two statements as Netanyahu himself.

A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of buildings in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 30, 2024. (AFP)

Signaling discord within the Israeli leadership, war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz criticized those comments.

“I advise the ‘official sources’ and all other decision-makers to wait for official updates, to act with restraint and not to become hysterical due to political reasons,” he said in a statement on Saturday afternoon, apparently referencing far-right pressure on Netanyahu not to agree to a deal that could be perceived as a win for Hamas.

Gantz added that when Hamas does submit a response, the war cabinet will convene to deliberate it.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni lashed out at Gantz for issuing his statement on Shabbat, but made no mention of the two statements Gantz had been responding to — widely reported to have been issued by Netanyahu’s office — which were also released during the Sabbath.

History of threats

Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich have repeatedly expressed vehement public opposition to a deal scaling back or temporarily halting the fighting, both saying it would undermine the government’s right to exist and lead to its dissolution.

Slamming the Netanyahu government for making what he said were dangerous “strategic concessions” in order to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, Smotrich last week appeared to threaten to bolt the coalition if it approved the agreement currently being negotiated in Egypt.

“A government that submits to international pressure, stops the war in the middle, avoids immediate entry into Rafah and returns to Egyptian mediation proposals that leave Hamas existing in any configuration will at that moment lose its right to exist,” Smotrich stated following a meeting of his Religious Zionism party last Tuesday.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich addresses the media following a meeting of his Religious Zionism faction in the Knesset, April 30, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

His announcement came shortly after Ben Gvir stated, following a private meeting with the prime minister, that Netanyahu had promised not to agree to a “reckless” hostage deal.

“I warned the prime minister [of the consequences] if, God forbid, Israel does not enter Rafah, if, God forbid, we end the war, if, God forbid, there will be a reckless deal,” Ben Gvir said in a video statement.

Ben Gvir has more than once threatened to bolt the coalition over the conduct of the war, including early last week when he tweeted that a “reckless deal equals the dissolution of the government.”

Responding to Ben Gvir and Smotrich’s threats and rhetoric last week, National Unity Minister Gadi Eisenkot, an observer in the war cabinet, slammed what he described as political blackmail.

“The cabinet defined the goals of the war six months ago. Over the last day, two cabinet members have been blackmailing with political threats,” Eisenkot said.

Lazar Berman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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