Pushback From Netanyahu Narrows Hopes for Gaza Cease-Fire: Live Updates

Pushback From Netanyahu Narrows Hopes for Gaza Cease-Fire: Live Updates

Hopes of a cease-fire in Gaza ebbed on Monday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said overnight that he could only agree to a temporary truce with Hamas, which opposes any cease-fire unless it is permanent.

Mr. Netanyahu’s statement drew widespread criticism on Monday in Israel, where there is growing support for a cease-fire deal that would involve the release of at least some of the Israeli hostages still held in Gaza.

The backlash revived accusations that Mr. Netanyahu — whose governing coalition depends on support of ultranationalist leaders who are opposed to a permanent truce — has put his personal interest above the national one. Mr. Netanyahu says Hamas’s total defeat is in Israel’s strategic interest. But others say that the hostages’ freedom is a higher priority and that the prime minister’s main motivation is to avoid the collapse of his government.

The claims exemplify a wider dispute about Mr. Netanyahu, whose decision in 2020 to remain in politics, despite standing trial for corruption, exacerbated deep splits in Israeli society and prompted years of political instability.

The country’s military leadership believes that a cease-fire deal would be the swiftest way of releasing some 120 Israelis, both alive and dead, who remain in Gaza. Recent polling also suggests that a majority of Israelis see the return of the hostages as a higher priority than more fighting in Gaza.

In a statement on Sunday night, Mr. Netanyahu said he would agree only to a deal that would “allow Israel to resume fighting until all of the objectives of the war have been achieved.” The comments reiterated his long-held position that the war must continue until Israel has destroyed Hamas’s military and governing abilities.

Still, negotiations over a deal continued on Monday in Cairo, where Ronen Bar, the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, gathered for talks mediated by the Egyptian government. More discussions are scheduled later this week in Qatar, another mediator between Israel and Hamas.

As well as reaching a compromise over the length of the cease-fire, the sides need to agree on the number and identity of the Palestinian prisoners to be exchanged for the hostages. They also need to agree about the extent to which Israeli troops should withdraw from Gaza; Hamas seeks a total withdrawal while Israel hopes to retain control over some parts of the territory that it has captured.

After months of failed negotiations, hopes for a deal were revived last week amid reports that Hamas had become more flexible on critical points, prompting Mr. Netanyahu to send negotiators to Qatar.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s grip on power relies on the support of two far-right parties opposed to any agreement that would leave Hamas in power in Gaza. Critics say this has made him wary of committing to a hostage-release deal that could lead to the collapse of his coalition and prompt early elections that polling suggests he would lose. Mr. Netanyahu is currently standing trial on charges of corruption, accusations he denies, and his political future would be at stake if he lost power for the third time in his career.

“The simple truth is as follows: Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want a hostage deal,” Ben Caspit, a biographer and prominent critic of the prime minister, wrote on social media. “He might be willing to get the hostages back, but not at the expense of his coalition’s well-being. It’s that simple.”

An influential minister in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, Bezalel Smotrich, underscored the coalition’s fragility on Monday by hinting on social media that his party could leave the coalition if the prime minister struck a deal that keeps Hamas in power in Gaza.

“We will not be part of a deal to surrender to Hamas,” said Mr. Smotrich, a far-right firebrand whose party holds the balance of power in Mr. Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

“This deal is a defeat and humiliation for Israel,” Mr. Smotrich added.

Some analysts believe Mr. Netanyahu may not personally be opposed to a deal, but wants to maximize its chances of success by delaying it until the end of July, when Parliament goes on recess.

Without a sitting Parliament, lawmakers would find it far harder to bring down the government, giving Mr. Netanyahu more room to strike a deal that his coalition partners might resist, according to Nadav Shtrauchler, a former strategist for the prime minister.

“He’s trying to create room for maneuver — and for that, he needs time,” Mr. Shtrauchler said.

Mr. Netanyahu may also be using hardball negotiating tactics in order to force bigger compromises from Hamas. With each passing day, Israel’s military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah further weakens Hamas’s position there, Mr. Shtrauchler said.

“The efforts of the military in Gaza may help him get more from Hamas,” Mr. Shtrauchler said.

But critics believe Mr. Netanyahu’s resistance to a swift deal is mainly borne from political considerations. The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, tried to highlight that idea by offering on Monday to help keep the prime minister in power if the government collapsed because of a hostage deal.

“It is not true that he has to choose between the life of the hostages and the continuation of his tenure as prime minister,” Mr. Lapid said in a speech. “I promised him a safety net, and I will keep that promise.”

Mr. Netanyahu did not immediately respond to Mr. Lapid’s offer, but analysts and allies of the prime minister said he was unlikely to accept it because he does not trust Mr. Lapid’s intentions.

“Lapid will give him a parachute for this specific deal, but 24 hours later he will vanish,” Mr. Shtrauchler said.

“It’s not something that Netanyahu can consider reliable,” Mr. Shtrauchler added.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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