Under pressure from Smotrich, PM cancels war cabinet meeting on post-war Gaza plan

Talks to be held in security cabinet instead, after far-right factions protest their exclusion; Smotrich to Biden: ‘Not a single shekel will go to the Nazi terrorists in Gaza’

File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)
File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night canceled a war cabinet meeting at the last minute which was scheduled to discuss post-war arrangements for the Gaza Strip, apparently due to pressure from his far-right coalition partners including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Netanyahu has refused to hold any such meetings until now, reportedly because he does not want to reveal the expected role that Palestinian Authority officials will have in managing Gaza’s civil affairs after the war.

The delay has frustrated the Biden administration, which argues that failure to plan for who will govern Gaza after the war could lead to the Israel Defense Forces being bogged down in the enclave indefinitely.

Hebrew media reported late Thursday that Netanyahu had decided to instead discuss the matter in a Tuesday meeting of the wider security cabinet, after Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism party announced it was holding an emergency faction meeting to protest being excluded from the scheduled discussion.

“The war cabinet isn’t authorized to decide [what happens after the war with Hamas in Gaza],” sources from the Religious Zionism faction were quoted as saying by Ynet news.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of the far-right Oztma Yehudit party, also spoke out against the war cabinet discussion, according to the Ynet report. “This is the role of the security cabinet — so the discussions on what happens after [the war against Hamas] should be held in the security cabinet – not the war cabinet.”

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in this undated photo published by the military on December 29, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Ynet report added that on Tuesday the security cabinet will also hear updates from ongoing Qatar-led talks to secure the remaining hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages — mostly civilians.

In response to the devastating onslaught, Israel vowed to destroy the terror group, launching a wide-scale offensive in the coastal enclave that the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claims has killed more than 21,000 people, most of them women and children. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, and people killed as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 8,000 Hamas and other terror group operatives in Gaza.

The US says it opposes a ceasefire that would leave Hamas intact, as the terror group still vows to continue to carry out attacks on Israel of the type it perpetrated on October 7.

US President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023. (AP/Evan Vucci)

But Washington insists that the PA — which Israel has accused of supporting terrorism through education, payment of stipends to terrorists and a failure to condemn Hamas’s October 7 atrocities — eventually fill the vacuum to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under a single political entity and pave a path toward an eventual two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The US concedes that the PA will need to be “rejuvenated” before it can take responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

Earlier in the week Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu had rejected several requests, including from the chiefs of the Mossad, Shin Bet and Israel Defense Forces, to hold deliberations on the matter.

Netanyahu’s office had responded to that report by saying that he had instructed his top confidants, including Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, to prepare for preliminary deliberations on the matter and that a date had been set.

The report came as Dermer was in Washington to meet with top US officials to discuss the Israel-Hamas war and efforts to return the hostages.

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer walks into the Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington, DC on December 26, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP)

On Friday morning, meanwhile, Smotrich sent a message to Biden on social media — albeit in Hebrew — that Israel will continue to withhold Palestinian tax funds for as long as he remains in his position as finance minister.

“We have a lot of respect for the US, our best ally in the world, and for President Biden, who is a true friend of Israel,” Smotrich posted on X, formerly Twitter. “But we will never put our destiny in the hands of foreigners, and as long as I am finance minister, not a single shekel will go to the Nazi terrorists in Gaza. This is not an extreme position. This is a life-saving and reality-based position.”

On Thursday, an unnamed US official told Axios that Biden is getting increasingly frustrated with Israel’s decision to withhold tax funds in the wake of the October 7 onslaught, and has pushed Netanyahu to resolve the issue.

Israel collects monthly tax revenues on Ramallah’s behalf on imports and exports, and transfers those funds to the PA, but has increasingly held some of the funds over various issues, chiefly Ramallah’s payment of stipends to terror convicts and the families of slain terrorists.

It has recently warned it will not allow the PA to transfer funds earmarked for services and salaries in the Gaza Strip, alleging the money could reach Hamas while Israel is at war with the terror group.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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