Smotrich threatens to quit gov’t over hostage deal; Eisenkot slams far-right ‘blackmail’

Finance minister says he’s ‘ready to pay the political price’ to prevent ‘existential threat’ to Israel; Ben Gvir says he ‘warned’ Netanyahu of consequences of a ‘reckless deal’

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"

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)
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)

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, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Tuesday appeared to threaten to bolt the coalition if it approves an agreement currently being negotiated in Egypt.

Speaking with the press following a meeting of his far-right Religious Zionism faction in the Knesset, the cabinet member said that while he would have received kudos for coming out in favor of a deal, he believes that such a course of action would endanger Israeli civilians and that he is “ready to pay the political price” to prevent an “existential threat” to the State of Israel — even if it means going to the opposition.

Smotrich skipped a cabinet meeting to attend the faction meeting, amid ongoing political disagreements within the government over the deal and Israel’s pending ground operation in Rafah.

Smotrich explained that while his “heart is torn” by the suffering of the hostages and their families, his “head is thinking at the same time about the future of nine million Israeli citizens” and how they will be affected by a potential return of Hamas to northern Gaza and the release of terrorists with blood on their hands in exchange for the hostages.

“That’s why it was personally easiest for me as a public figure and politician to support any deal and at any price. I would receive applause from everyone, from the families of the hostages, from the media, from the international community, but in the end, my responsibility is to the public, to my conscience and to the truth,” he said. “And the head and the truth say that such a deal must be opposed because its results will be disastrous” and constitute “the surrender of the State of Israel.”

“We have reached a crossroads where the State of Israel has to choose between decisive victory and defeat in war and humiliation,” he continued, claiming that “acceptance of the deal that is on the table means unequivocally waving a white flag and granting victory to Hamas.”

Relatives and supporters of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7, hold placards and wave Israeli flags during a demonstration calling for their release, Tel Aviv, April 27, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

If the current proposal is accepted, in the end, Hamas will be “alive, kicking, strengthening and preparing for the next terrible massacre,” he added — accusing the war cabinet of agreeing to “strategic concessions that endanger the State of Israel.”

“The war cabinet blindly agreed to begin discussing the end of the war before Hamas is defeated and to give up conquering Rafah,” he complained.

Israel has reportedly expressed openness to the possibility of Palestinians moving back to northern Gaza without going through Israeli security checks. Jerusalem is also said to be willing to discuss a pause in fighting for up to a year.

“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, calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finally give the command ‘Rafah now.’”

Israel has informed Egypt, which is brokering the talks, that it is giving negotiations one last chance before launching an operation against Hamas’s final stronghold in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Earlier this week, Smotrich declared that the government will have “no right to exist” unless Israel invades Rafah.

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

Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich have expressed 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.

“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.

File: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks ahead of a faction meeting in the Knesset, March 18, 2024. (Sam Sokol/ Times of Israel)

“The prime minister heard my words, promised that Israel would go into Rafah, promised that the war would not end, and promised that there would be no reckless deal. I welcome these things. I think the prime minister understands very well what it will mean if these things do not take place,” he added.

Ben Gvir has repeatedly threatened to bolt the coalition over the conduct of the war, most recently earlier this week when he tweeted that a “reckless deal equals the dissolution of the government.”

For his part, Netanyahu told a delegation of bereaved families and relatives of hostages on Tuesday that Israel “will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — whether or not there is a deal — in order to achieve total victory.”

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

Minister Gadi Eisenkot, a war cabinet observer, attends a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, on February 6, 2024 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“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 stated.

Describing their actions as “a serious phenomenon that harms Israel’s national security,” Eisenkot asserted that he “will only be a partner in a government that makes decisions based on the national interests of the State of Israel, and not on political considerations.”

Netanyahu, right, meets with members of the Gvura Forum and Tikva Forum in Jerusalem on April 30, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Smotrich hit back at Eisenkot, calling for him to show “a little humility,” and adding that it was his “duty to act against a bad deal that will endanger the security of the citizens of Israel.”

The finance minister wrote on X that the war cabinet observer was accustomed to the so-called pre-October 7 conception of security “where everyone thinks the same,” adding that others were “allowed to think differently.”

“This is not blackmail, this is a legitimate opinion of millions of Israelis who care about the future no less than you do,” he wrote.

Eisenkot’s fellow National Unity minister, Benny Gantz, stated earlier this week that if the government rejects a hostage deal backed by the security services, it will “have no right to continue to exist.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid likewise criticized Ben Gvir and Smotrich, declaring that Israel had “become a hostage of irresponsible lunatics.”

“You can’t go on like this. A minister with a criminal record stands in the Prime Minister’s Office and threatens the prime minister with the consequences if he does not do what he is told,” he said. “Ben Gvir tells the whole world and the whole region that Netanyahu is weak and working for him. It is unbelievable that he is not fired on the spot.”

As ministers traded barbs, it was announced that Tuesday evening’s war cabinet meeting had been canceled.

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

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