With Israel’s team headed for Qatar, Smotrich opposes deal, PM said toughening stance

Netanyahu reportedly insisting Palestinian prisoners convicted of the most serious crimes be deported, also said to demand a list of which hostages are still alive

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a Knesset vote on the state budget, February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a Knesset vote on the state budget, February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Sunday that he opposes the “delusional” outline for a hostage deal that an Israeli delegation was set to continue to negotiate in Qatar on Monday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, was reported to have toughened his stance on the terms.

The outline, which was formulated at a US-Israel-Egypt-Qatar forum in Paris over the weekend, reportedly involves Hamas releasing 40 hostages including, women, children, female soldiers, and elderly and ill abductees in exchange for a six-week pause in fighting and Israel releasing hundreds of Palestinian terror convicts.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, an observer on the war cabinet, told the ultra-Orthodox news outlet Kikar HaShabbat on Sunday that there was a “good chance of a deal” happening but that “we are still far from it.”

“We want to create a good deal that will achieve several goals but also be accepted by the Israeli public,” he said of the challenges coming up in the negotiations. “It’s not a simple deal, we don’t have feedback from Hamas yet, everything we do is via mediators.”

Smotrich, however, said in a conference in Jerusalem that in his opinion, the outline was not good. Any new hostage deal “should be better for us” than the previous deal in November, as regards “the ratio of hostages to terrorists, and the days of respite for each hostage; certainly not an infinitely worse ratio.”

The finance minister went on to say that as it stood, the current nascent deal saw Hamas gaining more than Israel. He said he would vote against the reported deal and anything similar to it.

Protesters in Jerusalem calling for the hostages’ release march to Paris Square on February 3, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

He also defended comments for which he was heavily criticized last week in which he said that the hostages were “not the most important thing” in Israel’s war against Hamas.

“I said that the matter of the hostages is important, but not the most important thing,” he said. “Look at how much fire I took last week just because I said the most logical and correct thing.”

An Israeli delegation was scheduled to head to Qatar on Monday for further negotiations of the outline, while Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani is set to visit Paris on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Qatar is notably working on the release of the hostages, which is a priority for us,” said a French presidential official. Three French nationals are among the hostages seized from Israel on October 7 still held by Hamas.

The discussions will also focus on “ongoing efforts to obtain a ceasefire… and enable massive aid to be provided to the Gazan population,” added the official.

Meanwhile, unnamed senior Israeli sources told Channel 12 News on Sunday they feared that Netanyahu was intentionally sabotaging the talks on a deal — “for political reasons,” to appease the far-right of his coalition — by setting stricter conditions and restricting the Israeli representatives’ ability to discuss most topics in Qatar.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the report, Netanyahu has set a new condition for the mooted deal, under which Palestinian terrorists convicted of “heavy” crimes who would be released from Israeli prisons would have to be expelled to Qatar.

Netanyahu reportedly raised the demand during discussions by the war cabinet on Saturday night when Israel’s delegation to the Paris summit briefed ministers on their progress.

In addition, Ynet reported that Netanyahu also said in Saturday night’s war cabinet telephone consultations that he was not prepared to advance on the parameters of a deal until Israel receives a list specifying which of the 130 hostages held in Gaza since October are still alive.

“Netanyahu is not really interested in the deal,” an anonymous official told Channel 12. “He is doing things to torpedo negotiations and unveiling [new] demands at the last minute.”

According to the official, the other members of the war cabinet, including observers Aryeh Deri and Ron Dermer, support the current outline for the hostage deal, leaving Netanyahu alone in his purported objections to it.

The Channel 12 report also said that Netanyahu has limited the Israeli delegation to discussing only humanitarian issues such as the number of trucks carrying aid into the Gaza Strip and how much food would be allowed in.

The war began on October 7 when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel in which thousands of terrorists rampaged through southern towns murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253.

It is believed that 130 of the hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released before that, and three were rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

During the November truce, 105 hostages, mostly women and children, were released in groups of 15 or so over a week. For every group of at least 10 hostages released by Hamas, Israel held off fighting in the Gaza Strip and released 50 female and minor Palestinian convicts from prison.

Protesters demonstrate for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Subsequent negotiations for a new deal to facilitate the release of more hostages have thus far not yielded any results as Hamas kept demanding a permanent ceasefire in exchange for the hostages. Israel has repeatedly said that its campaign to destroy Hamas in Gaza will resume once any truce is over.

AFP contributed to this report.

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