Senior Netanyahu adviser: Israel okayed Biden-touted hostage deal, but work needed

Ophir Falk tells UK’s Sunday Times there will be no permanent ceasefire until Hamas is destroyed; President Herzog tells PM he will back him on hostage release proposal

Ophir Falk (Youtube screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Ophir Falk (Youtube screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has confirmed that while there is still work that needs to be done on a hostage release deal presented by US President Joe Biden, Israel has agreed to the framework.

“There are a lot of details to be worked out and that includes there will not be a permanent ceasefire until all our objectives are met,” Ophir Falk told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper.

According to the report, Falk stressed that Israel was not rejecting the deal, which he characterized as “a deal we agreed to — it’s not a good deal but we dearly want the hostages released, all of them.”

But, echoing an earlier statement by Netanyahu, Falk added that Israel’s conditions to end the war in Gaza, sparked by Hamas’s October 7 massacre, “have not changed — the release of the hostages and the destruction of Hamas as a genocidal terrorist organization.”

He was also quoted as saying Biden’s address was “a political speech for whatever reasons.”

Biden announced what he described as an Israeli proposal in his speech on Friday, triggering shockwaves in the Israeli government, where far-right parties threatened to bring down the coalition if Netanyahu tried to see it approved.

People walk by photographs of Israelis still held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, May 28, 2024. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

On Sunday President Isaac Herzog said he would back Netanyahu to move ahead with the plan.

Speaking at a conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Herzog said he had told Netanyahu that he would give him “full support” for a hostage-release deal.

Herzog also thanked Biden for his speech and for “his ongoing efforts to bring about the release of all the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.”

“We must not forget that according to Jewish tradition, there is no greater commandment than redeeming captives and hostages — especially when it comes to Israeli citizens who the State of Israel was not able to defend,” Herzog said at the conference, named for his father, Chaim Herzog. “It is our inherent obligation to bring them home within the framework of a deal that preserves the security interests of the State of Israel.”

Herzog’s role is largely ceremonial and he would not have a say in approving a hostage deal, but as a state figurehead, his opinion carries sway among the public.

In his speech on Friday night, Biden revealed that the new Israeli proposal for a ceasefire and hostage deal was submitted on Thursday to Hamas via Qatar. The US president laid out some of the proposal’s key elements in some detail and urged Hamas to accept it and the Israeli government to “stand behind it.”

Biden said the offer would “bring all the hostages home, ensure Israel’s security, create a better day after in Gaza without Hamas in power, and set the stage for a political settlement that provides a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” although he did not specify how Hamas would be removed from power.

While he described the latest proposal as one crafted by Israel, and thus presumably approved by the narrow war cabinet, he evidently recognized that this was not the final say from Jerusalem and urged Netanyahu’s full government to stand behind the offer its negotiators had submitted via the mediators to Hamas.

President Isaac Herzog speaks in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024 (Screen grab. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The premier’s ultranationalist coalition partners quickly declared that anything other than the “destruction of Hamas” would not be acceptable to them. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism party, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who heads the Otzma Yehudit party, both issued statements Saturday night saying they would bolt the government if that demand is not met.

The two parties won 14 seats when they ran jointly in the 2022 elections and are crucial to the governing majority of Netanyahu’s core, 64-strong coalition, in the Knesset’s 120-seat Knesset.

Neither Smotrich nor Ben Gvir are members of the three-member war cabinet that oversees the war and acts as the point on hostage negotiations. Its members are Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Minister Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu said earlier on Saturday that there would be no “permanent ceasefire” in Gaza until Hamas’s military and governing capabilities were destroyed.

In contrast to the far-right response, Gantz, who leads the center-right National Unity party, called for the war cabinet to convene as soon as possible to “formulate steps for going forward,” and appeared to imply that the proposal had already been approved by the war cabinet. It would still need full government approval to be implemented.

Gantz’s party joined the coalition days after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught and has threatened to leave if Netanyahu does not take a series of strategic decisions regarding the war by June 8. Gantz’s party holds only eight seats, which it added to the 64 the government held before the war started, and Netanyahu can therefore retain power without him, but could not do so for long without the far-right parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid earlier Saturday reiterated a promise to provide a political safety net to Netanyahu, to ensure his government would not fall over the deal, but Lapid’s Yesh Atid would not provide support for the coalition on other issues. Lapid said that Israel “must do this deal, now… before the hostages die there [in Gaza].”

In addition to the far-right urging the war to go on and Gantz demanding answers on how it will end, the government is also facing pressure from a strong public movement to agree to a deal. On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people participated in a demonstration in Tel Aviv urging that a deal be reached, while also calling for the government to be replaced by holding elections.

The war in Gaza erupted with Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air, and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages.

It is believed that 121 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 19 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 37 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

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