To cut a deal with Hamas or not: Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu faces tough choices

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, is finding himself in a spot as the war on Gaza has enters the seventh month. 

Updated - April 11, 2024 12:56 am IST

Published - April 09, 2024 03:29 pm IST - Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Increasing pressure from the U.S., growing international criticism over the civilian casualties in Gaza, a spreading protest movement at home demanding his resignation and bringing hostages back and widening cracks in his Cabinet. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, is finding himself in a spot as the war on Gaza has entered the seventh month. 

Israel claims that it destroyed most of Hamas’s military capabilities in Gaza in six months of fighting and victory is “within reach”. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) says Hamas’s remaining four battalions have been deployed in Rafah, a southern town where over 1.4 million Palestinians, most of them refugees from the north, are living, mostly in makeshift campus, under worsening humanitarian conditions. 

Israeli leaders have vowed to attack Rafah. But the U.S., Israel’s most important ally, has made it clear that it doesn’t support a large scale operation in the town over fears that it could trigger another wave of civilian casualties. In a call with Mr. Netanyahu last week, President Joe Biden said America’s continued support for Israel’s war would depend on measures to protect civilian lives in Gaza. At home, Mr. Netanyahu is under growing pressure to get the hostages back home. 

Hamas took 253 people hostage in their October 7 attack which killed at least 1,200 Israelis. Of the hostages, 129 are still in captivity. Some of them are believed to be dead. At least 33,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 75,000 injured in Gaza in Isrel’s offensive ever since.

Since October 7, the ‘Bring them home’ movement has gathered momentum in Israel which has seen mass protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in recent days. Protesters slam Mr. Netanyahu’s handling of the hostage crisis and demand his resignation and early elections. This seems to have enhanced pressure on the government to hold more talks with Hamas under international mediation. 

Withdrawal from southern Gaza 

On Sunday, the Israeli Defence Forces announced it was withdrawing all combat troops from Khan Younis in southern Gaza, a move that can be interpreted both as a compromise and a tactical retreat for regrouping and further attacks. 

Israeli leaders claim that the withdrawal, announced a day ahead of talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas in the presence of Qatari, American and Egyptian officials, was aimed at regrouping troops ahead of an attack on Rafah. But the withdrawal also brings all active combat operations in the entire Gaza strip to an end for now, which means Hamas can also regroup in the south.

The decision to withdraw troops from the south has already triggered a crisis in Mr. Netanyahu’s government with its fat-right flank threatening to withdraw support and bring down the coalition. 

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party posted on X on Monday: “if the Prime Minister decides to end the war without a substantial attack on Rafah to defeat Hamas, he will not have a mandate to continue as premier.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right National Religious Party, has also slammed the Prime Minister over the Khan Younis withdrawal. 

“The only body empowered to make key decisions in wartime is the wider Cabinet, but unfortunately that is not how things work,” Mr. Smotrich wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister. 

“We see that decisions are made in the narrow cabinet without approval from or notification of the wider Cabinet, under international pressures, which hurt the war’s momentum and our security interests,” he added.

Mr. Ben+Gvir and Mr. Smotrich have 14 MPs in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. Mr. Netanyahu’s government now has the support of 72 MPs in the 120-member Knesset, which includes support from Benny Gantz’s National Unity party which offered support to the government after October 7. If Mr. Ben-Gvir and Mr. Smotrich withdraw support, the government will lose its majority. 

However, Opposition leader Yair Lapid said on April 8 he was ready to offer support to Mr. Netanyahu’s government over a hostage deal. 

“It’s time to bring them home! Now!” wrote Mr. Lapid on X.  “Twenty-four fingers is much more than what Ben Gvir and Smotrich have,” he added, referring to the number of seats his party holds in the Knesset, 

Mr. Netanyahu played down on Monday criticisms from his allies that he was making concessions to Hamas by withdrawing troops from southern Gaza. He said the Rafah invasion plan was still on. “This victory requires entering Rafah and eliminating the terrorist battalions there. This will happen; there is a date,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a brief video message. 

Hard choices 

But he doesn’t have any easy choices. If he launches the Rafah invasion, a deal for hostages with Hamas may not come true. Egyptian officials claimed progress in Monday’s talks in Cairo and all sides are expected to return to the table after Id. But both Hamas and Israel were ambiguous about the prospects of a deal. 

If Mr. Netanyahu fails to get the hostages freed, domestic pressure will mount on him. If he invades Rafah, Israel could face further international isolation. If he cuts a deal with Hamas to get the hostages out in return for a ceasefire, his far-right allies might revolt. If Mr. Ben-Gvir and Mr. Smotrich leave the government, Mr. Netanyahu, whose popularity has plummeted after the October 7 attack, will lose majority. He can survive if he strikes a deal with Mr. Gantz and Mr. Lapid, both centrists. But how long ‘King Bibi’ can stay in power on life support from his most influential political rivals? 

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