ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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PM: Absolute victory within reach; surrender to Hamas demands would bring disaster

Netanyahu downplays disagreements in cabinet over ‘day after’ plans, says he is trying to recruit regional players to help with future civil governance, vows UNRWA will be replaced

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 at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Sam Sokol / Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Sam Sokol / Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’s “delusional” conditions for a new hostage deal on Wednesday, arguing that only military pressure will secure the release of the Israelis being held captive in the Gaza Strip.

Speaking with reporters during a press conference in Jerusalem, Netanyahu insisted that he had made no specific promises regarding the release of Palestinian security prisoners with blood on their hands, or any ratio for Palestinian prisoners to be freed in return for hostages in a potential deal, declaring that Israel “has not committed to anything.”

“There is supposed to be some kind of negotiation via the intermediaries. But right now, given what I see from the response by Hamas [to the Israel-backed framework for talks on a deal], they’re not there,” he said.

“Surrender to Hamas’s delusional demands, that we’ve just heard, not only would not bring about the freedom of the hostages, but it would only invite an additional slaughter; it would invite disaster for Israel that no Israeli citizens want,” he said.

Hamas proposed a ceasefire plan that would see a four-and-a-half-month truce during which hostages would be freed in three stages, and which would lead to an end to the war, Reuters reported, in response to a proposed outline sent last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators and backed by the United States and Israel.

Addressing his comments to the families of the hostages, Netanyahu insisted their return remains a top priority and that “continued military pressure is an essential condition for the freeing of the hostages.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu said that he told visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken today that Israel is “within touching distance of absolute victory,” and that Hamas’s defeat will be the “victory of the entire free world.”

“The victory is within reach,” he stated, predicting that the war would be won in a “matter of months” rather than years or decades.

Netanyahu’s comments echoed those of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, who said on Tuesday during a visit to northern Gaza that the hostages’ return “won’t happen without military pressure.”

Calling the military’s accomplishments in the offensive against Hamas “unprecedented,” Netanyahu said that 20,000 Hamas fighters are dead or injured — more than half the Hamas fighting force, with 18 of its 24 battalions no longer functional.

Israel’s “valiant fighters” have “proved that everything they told us was impossible was possible… and more,” he added, taking aim at “experts,” TV commentators and those in the international community who predicted that the ground offensive would fail.

The premier said that after Khan Younis, “the main Hamas stronghold,” the IDF is readying to fight next in Rafah.

Asked how the army can achieve an absolute victory if Israel is currently withdrawing forces, Netanyahu replied that “this is a process that takes time” and denied that Hamas is reestablishing itself in northern Gaza, where the IDF, he said, is engaged in ongoing raids to tackle the remaining “splinters.”

“There is no alternative to the military collapse [of Hamas]. There will not be a civilian collapse [of Hamas rule] without a military one,” he said.

Soldiers of the Givati Brigade operate in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, in an image published February 4, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The ‘day after’ is the day after Hamas,” Netanyahu continued, saying that he had informed Blinken that after Hamas is destroyed, Israel will “ensure that Gaza is demilitarized forever” — a goal which will be achieved through Jerusalem retaining the freedom to “act in Gaza wherever and whenever it needs to, to ensure that terror does not again raise its head.”

The civil governance of Gaza cannot be carried out by supporters of terror, Netanyahu continued, insisting also that “we will have to replace” UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, which Israel alleges is inextricably linked to Hamas.

“I have ordered that this process begin, and updated Secretary Blinken about this today,” he said.

Netanyahu also confirmed that he rejected a US request for Blinken to meet privately Wednesday with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, saying he does not believe that would have been appropriate and that he doesn’t meet military commanders without political leaders present when he visits the United States or elsewhere.

Noting that Israel’s security chiefs attended a meeting with Blinken on Wednesday under his leadership, Netanyahu asserted that “that’s how we need to act.”

Asked about public disagreements between members of his cabinet regarding Gaza’s postwar governance, Netanyahu replied that there is a wide agreement on the need to destroy Hamas and to ensure demilitarization under the IDF’s oversight. Civil administration by non-terror forces can only come after that happens.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz gives a statement on January 4, 2024. (Courtesy)

Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition allies like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have called for the reestablishment of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the “voluntary emigration” of Palestinians, predicting that “Israel will permanently control the territory.”

Unlike Smotrich, war cabinet member Minister Benny Gantz asserted on Tuesday evening that “our goal is 100% security control, 0% civilian control” in Gaza — prompting Netanyahu to reply that “anyone who thinks that bringing Palestinian Authority officials into the Gaza Strip will defeat Hamas is wrong. There is no substitute for absolute victory.”

Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday that he is trying to recruit regional players to help with future civil governance, but he does not believe this effort will succeed unless and until it is clear that Hamas is defeated.

Outside players remain fearful that they “would get a bullet in the head” from Hamas, he asserted, adding that it is “not serious” to believe that you can destroy the civil governance by Hamas before you have destroyed its military capabilities.

“There is no alternative to the military collapse [of Hamas]. There will not be a civilian collapse [of Hamas rule] without a military one,” he said.

Addressing the regional impact of the war, Netanyahu predicted that “the circle of peace will expand” if Hamas is defeated, after Saudi Arabia declared it won’t normalize relations with Israel until the war in Gaza is over and an irreversible path to a Palestinian state is established.

“There’ll be no agreement [on further peace treaties] if Hamas is not defeated,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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