Smotrich: If Hezbollah doesn’t withdraw from border, IDF must take southern Lebanon

After Gantz’s ultimatum to Netanyahu, far-right leader issues his own demands to PM, including for military to establish a ‘permanent presence in the entire Gaza Strip’

Religious Zionism party leader Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting in northern Israel, May 19, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)
Religious Zionism party leader Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting in northern Israel, May 19, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Israel should not shy away from launching a military takeover of southern Lebanon if Hezbollah does not withdraw from the border, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich declared Sunday, becoming the latest minister to publicly challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the handling of the conflict on Israel’s northern and southern borders.

Speaking at a faction meeting of his far-right Religious Zionism party held, unusually, in northern Israel, Smotrich demanded that Netanyahu make a clear announcement of a plan to deal with the Iran-backed terror group, saying that if necessary, Hezbollah must be dealt with through military action.

“A public ultimatum must be issued to Hezbollah that they completely stop firing and withdraw all forces to beyond the Litani River,” said Smotrich, who also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry.

Promoting a plan reminiscent of Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon in the years following the First Lebanon war in 1982, Smotrich warned, “If the ultimatum is not fully met, the IDF will launch an assault deep in Lebanese territory to defend the northern communities, including ground entry and Israeli military takeover of the southern Lebanese area.”

“The way to bring the [evacuated] residents home to the north is through a military decision with a devastating assault on Hezbollah, its infrastructure and the destruction of its power,” he said.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war against Hamas there.

In response, Israel has threatened to go to war to force Hezbollah away from the border if it does not retreat and continues to threaten northern communities, from where some 70,000 people were evacuated to avoid the fighting.

International efforts including by France and the US to resolve the matter through a diplomatic solution has thus far failed, as Hezbollah has maintained it will not enter into any concrete discussions with Israel until there is a ceasefire in Gaza, where is Israel is battling Hamas in the wake of the October 7 massacre carried out by the terror group in southern Israel.

Religious Zionism party leader Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (second left) leads a faction meeting in northern Israel, May 19, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Smotrich also issued two demands concerning the Gaza Strip, which he said were a direct response to an ultimatum laid out by war cabinet minister Benny Gantz on Saturday night, signifying deepening rifts in the wartime coalition and dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s operational decisions from all sides.

In a televised address, Gantz told Netanyahu that if no clear plan of action has been set in motion by June 8, he will pull his centrist National Unity part from the governing coalition and return to the opposition.

Charging that the war was drifting off course due to the cowardice of some leaders, Gantz laid out six strategic goals for Israel to work towards, including the return of the hostages, replacing Hamas with Israeli security control and an international civilian governance mechanism, and restoring safety to Israel’s north by September 1.

His plan was met by outrage from right-wing members of government, including Smotrich, who said shortly after Gantz’s address that the country would achieve victory with or without him.

Doubling down on his criticism of Gantz on Sunday, Smotrich claimed the former IDF chief of staff’s ultimatum aimed for Israel “to stop the war, for Israel to be defeated in the north and for a Palestinian state to be established in line with the US’s demands.”

A day after urging Netanyahu”to make a strategic decision on full Israeli control of Gaza,” Smotrich again called for Israel to establish additional points of control “in the center, south and north of the Strip.”

Secondly, he argued, Israel should take complete control of Rafah and establish permanent control over the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, which runs along Gaza’s border with Egypt in order to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the enclave.

The war cabinet must decide on the IDF’s “permanent presence in the entire Gaza Strip,” the far-right minister added.

Smotrich’s demands were derided by an unnamed senior official who was quoted by Hebrew media outlets accusing the far-right lawmaker of toeing a “dangerous and irresponsible strategic line” while making demands “with a noticeable lack of understanding.”

“What’s the next step?” the official was said to have asked, “conquering Iraq and Yemen?”

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