Netanyahu says IDF will operate in Rafah 'carefully'

‘We’re not a banana republic’: Netanyahu denounces Schumer’s call for Israeli elections

PM says ‘sister democracy’ should not face calls for leadership change, especially in wartime; asks how world forgot Oct. 7 ‘so quickly,’ slams false claims aimed at ending the war

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a CNN interview, March 17, 2024 (CNN screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a CNN interview, March 17, 2024 (CNN screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday responded directly and forcefully to criticism from Washington, saying calls last week for elections in Israel from US Sen. Chuck Schumer were “wholly inappropriate.”

“It shouldn’t have been said, it’s wrong,” he said during a “Fox & Friends” interview, echoing comments he also made on CNN.

“It’s wrong to try to replace the elected leaders of a sister democracy, a staunch American ally, at any time, but especially during a time of war,” said Netanyahu.

“I think what he [Schumer] said is totally inappropriate. It’s inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there,” said Netanyahu on CNN. “That’s something the Israeli public does on its own. We’re not a banana republic.”

During the interviews, Netanyahu declined to commit to elections following the war against Hamas, saying that it was “ridiculous” to talk about. “That’s for the Israeli people to decide,” he said.

He also argued that elections during the war would be a victory for Hamas, as they would freeze the war for six months.

Last Thursday, Schumer called on Israel to hold new elections, saying he believed Netanyahu had “lost his way” and was an obstacle to peace in the region.

There have also been ample signs of displeasure coming from the Biden administration. US officials told Politico last week that President Joe Biden would consider placing conditions on future military aid to Israel if it moves ahead with a planned offensive against the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.

Biden has also said an IDF entry into Rafah would be a “red line” for his administration, and repeatedly expresses frustration over the civilian death toll in Gaza and the slow distribution of financial aid.

Responding to Netanyahu’s criticism on Sunday, Schumer said, “It’s a good thing that a serious discussion has now begun about how to ensure Israel’s future security and prosperity once Hamas has been defeated.”

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks on the Senate floor on March 14, 2024. (Video screen capture)

Speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu launched a more oblique critique of Schumer and Biden, saying that those who want to stop the war do so “by making false accusations against the IDF, against the Israeli government and against the prime minister of Israel. They do this by trying to bring about elections now, in the midst of the war.”

Turning to Israel’s “friends in the international community,” Netanyahu asked pointedly: “Is your memory so short? Did you so quickly forget October 7, the most terrible massacre committed against Jews since the Holocaust? Are you ready to deny Israel so quickly the right to defend itself against the monsters of Hamas? Did you lose your moral conscience so quickly?”

Responding to Schumer’s and the Biden Administration’s backing for a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said that would be “the greatest reward for terrorism in history.”

“Hamas had a de facto Palestinian state in Gaza. And what did they use it for? To massacre Israelis and the worst savagery that was meted on Jews since the Holocaust,” he said on Fox News.

The prime minister also called for international pressure to be placed on Hamas and Iran, rather than Israel.

“No amount of international pressure will stop us from realizing all the goals of the war: eliminating Hamas, releasing all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat against Israel,” insisted Netanyahu.

Palestinians walk at a makeshift market next to building rubble during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 12, 2024 group Hamas. (AFP)

“We must not give in to these pressures, and we will not give in to them,” Netanyahu declared.

He also promised that despite the opposition, the IDF will operate in Rafah — “carefully” — adding that “it will take a few weeks, and it will happen.”

“Those who say that the operation in Rafah will not happen are the same ones who said that we will not enter Gaza, that we will not operate in Shifa, that we will not operate in Khan Younis and that we will not resume fighting after the [weeklong November] ceasefire,” Netanyahu said.

Israel has said Rafah, where four Hamas battalions are deployed, is Hamas’s last remaining major stronghold in the Strip after the IDF operated in the north and center of the Palestinian enclave. It has said an offensive there is necessary to achieve the war’s goals and is not a question of “if” but “when.”

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip, in a photo cleared for publication on March 14, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Netanyahu’s office said on Friday he had approved military operational plans for an offensive in the southern Gaza city.

Ahead of his meeting with Netanyahu, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Sunday said the civilian casualties that would result from an Israeli operation in Rafah would make regional peace “very difficult.”

“Right now, it is about ensuring we come to a long-lasting ceasefire,” Scholz said after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah at his private residence in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba. “That would enable us to prevent such a ground offensive from taking place.”

Scholz was set to meet with Netanyahu on Sunday afternoon in Israel.

Asked if he was prepared to exert pressure on Netanyahu to stop such an assault, Scholz said it was “very clear we must do everything so the situation does not get worse than it already is.”

“Israel has every right to protect itself… At the same time, it cannot be that those in Gaza who fled to Rafah are directly threatened by whatever military actions and operations are undertaken there.”

Scholz did not directly answer a question about whether Germany would react to a large-scale Rafah offensive, for example by restricting German weapons exports to Israel.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to the media at a press conference in Berlin, March 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

War erupted when Hamas-led terrorists rampaged through southern communities on October 7, slaughtering some 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, and taking 253 captives to Gaza, where over half remain. The devastating onslaught and the resulting Israeli offensive — aimed at eliminating Hamas and returning the hostages — have sparked fears of a regional conflagration.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 31,500 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified, and includes those killed by the terror groups’ failed rocket launches and some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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