POLITICS

Israeli leader Netanyahu faces growing pressure at home after Biden’s Gaza proposal

Jun 1, 2024, 3:04 AM | Updated: 2:40 pm

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s prime minister faced growing pressure Saturday after U.S. President Joe Biden announced a proposed agreement to end the fighting in Gaza, with many Israelis urging Benjamin Netanyahu to embrace the deal but far-right allies threatening to collapse his government if he does.

Netanyahu called a permanent cease-fire in Gaza a “nonstarter” until long-standing conditions for ending the war are met, appearing to undermine the proposal that Biden described as an Israeli one.

A huge demonstration in Israel on Saturday night, led by families of hostages held by Hamas, urged the government to act now. Mediators the U.S., Egypt and Qatar pressed Israel and Hamas, saying the proposed deal “offers a road map for a permanent cease-fire and ending the crisis” and gives immediate relief to both hostages and Gaza residents.

But far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir said they would break up the government if it takes the deal. That could expose Netanyahu to new elections, scrutiny over security failures that led to the war and — if he loses the prime minister post — prosecution on longstanding corruption charges.

Netanyahu’s statement said that “Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: the destruction of Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel. Under the proposal, Israel will continue to insist these conditions are met before a permanent cease-fire is put in place.”

In a separate statement, Netanyahu accepted an invitation from U.S. congressional leaders to deliver an address at the Capitol, a show of support for Israel while top ally the U.S. shows frustration. No date has been set.

Biden on Friday asserted that Hamas militants are “no longer capable” of carrying out a large-scale attack on Israel like the one on Oct. 7. He urged Israel and Hamas to reach an agreement to release about 100 remaining hostages, along with the bodies of around 30 more, for an extended cease-fire.

Talks on a deal halted last month after a push by mediators in hopes of averting a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza’s southern city of Rafah. Israel says the Rafah operation is key to uprooting remaining Hamas battalions, even as the militants regroup elsewhere in the territory.

Israel on Friday confirmed its troops were operating in central parts of Rafah. Around 1 million Palestinians — almost half of Gaza’s population — have left Rafah, and the U.N. World Food Program has called living conditions “horrific and apocalyptic” as hunger grows.

Families of hostages said time was running out.

“This might be the last chance to save lives,” Gili Roman told The Associated Press. His sister, Yarden Roman-Gat, was freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November, but sister-in-law Carmel is still held. “Our leadership must not disappoint us. But mostly, all eyes should be on Hamas,” Roman said.

Families described an aggressive meeting Thursday with Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, who told them the government wasn’t ready to sign a deal to bring all hostages home and there was no plan B.

Many hostages’ families accuse the government of a lack of will.

“We know that the government of Israel has done an awful lot to delay reaching a deal, and that has cost the lives of many people who survived in captivity for weeks and weeks and months and months,” Sharone Lifschitz said. Her mother, Yocheved, was freed in November but her father, Oded, is still held.

The first phase of the deal described by Biden would last for six weeks and include a “full and complete cease-fire,” a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all densely populated areas of Gaza and the release of a number of hostages, including women, older people and the wounded, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The second phase would include the release of all remaining living hostages, including male soldiers, and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The third phase calls for the start of a major reconstruction of Gaza, which faces decades of rebuilding from the war’s devastation.

Biden acknowledged that keeping the proposal on track would be difficult, with “details to negotiate” to move from the first phase to the second. Biden said if Hamas fails to fulfil its commitment under the deal, Israel can resume military operations.

Hamas has said it viewed the proposal “positively” and called on Israel to declare an explicit commitment to an agreement that includes a permanent cease-fire, a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a prisoner exchange and other conditions.

In Deir al-Balah, where many Palestinians have fled following Israel’s assault on Rafah, there was some hope.

“This proposal came late, but better late than never,” said Akram Abu Al-Hasan.

The main difference from previous proposals is the readiness to stop the war for an undefined period, according to analysts. It leaves Israel the option to renew the war and diminish Hamas’ ability to govern, but over time, said Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum in Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

“It was a very good speech … it seems that Biden is trying to force it on the Israeli government. He was clearly speaking directly to the Israeli people,” said Gershon Baskin, director for the Middle East at the International Communities Organization.

Also on Saturday, Egypt’s state-run Al-Qahera News said officials from Egypt, the United States and Israel would meet in Cairo over the weekend about the Rafah crossing, a crucial aid entry point that has been closed since Israel took over the Palestinian side in May. Egypt has refused to open its side, fearing the Israeli control will be permanent.

Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 killed around 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducted about 250. More than 36,370 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s offensive, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Its count doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants.

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Shurafa reported from Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip. David McHugh in Frankfurt, Germany, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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Israeli leader Netanyahu faces growing pressure at home after Biden’s Gaza proposal