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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Netanyahu tries to preserve coalition amid discord over cease-fire proposal

Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, March 31, 2024. (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv/The New York Times)

By Adam Rasgon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought Monday to keep his government from unraveling over a new Israeli cease-fire proposal, as two key right-wing ministers doubled down on threats to leave the government.

For months, Netanyahu has been trying to navigate the countervailing pressures from Israel’s allies who are seeking a halt in the fighting and his right-wing coalition partners who are pushing for a continued battle against Hamas.

Then on Friday, President Joe Biden stepped up the pressure, declaring it was time for the war to end and outlining a new cease-fire proposal that he said Israel had endorsed. The move intensified pressure on Netanyahu to bring the war to a close, but he might not be able to do that without losing his grip on power.

The domestic political difficulties Netanyahu faces became evident Monday when the far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is key to his governing coalition, declared again that he would not accept the latest proposal, if it left Hamas intact.

He said his party would pull out of the government if Israel moved forward with such an agreement. Without Ben-Gvir’s six parliamentary seats, Netanyahu would likely struggle to remain in office.

Hamas has said it views the proposal Biden outlined “positively” but has not said whether it would accept it. On Sunday, Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, told an Egyptian channel that “the ball” was now “in the Israeli court.”

Another far-right political leader, Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, threatened to topple the government if it agrees to the proposal. “If the government, God forbid, decides to adopt this proposal of surrender, we will no longer be a part of it and we will take action to replace the failing leadership with a new leadership that knows how to defeat Hamas and win the war,” he said.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, offered assurances to lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that Israel’s latest proposal would not end the war without ending Hamas’ rule in Gaza. He said it would enable Israel to continue fighting Hamas until all its war aims are achieved, including destroying the military and governing capabilities of the group, which led the deadly Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel.

“The claims that we have agreed to a cease-fire without our conditions being met are incorrect,” Netanyahu said Monday, speaking before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to a statement from his office.

The prime minister expressed openness to a 42-day pause in the fighting — part of the first phase of what U.S. officials have described as the three-phase deal proposed by Israel — but rejected a complete end to the war without Hamas’ defeat or surrender, according a person present at the committee meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share details of the closed door discussion.

Netanyahu also claimed that Biden hadn’t presented the “whole picture” of the latest cease-fire proposal when he spoke about the issue last week, the person at the meeting said.

In his speech Friday, Biden went into an unusual level of detail in presenting what he described as the new Israeli framework. He said it amounted to a road map to an “enduring cease-fire” and said that if Hamas abided by its terms, it would lead to the “cessation of hostilities permanently.”

Two Israeli officials confirmed that the offer shared by Biden generally aligned with the most recent cease-fire proposal that Israel had presented in talks mediated by Qatar and Egypt and supported by the United States.

Earlier Monday, an official close to Ben-Gvir said he was supposed to meet with Netanyahu to discuss Israel’s most recent cease-fire offer and review a written version. But the minister said Monday afternoon that officials in the prime minister’s office had refused to show him the document, and he made no mention of meeting with Netanyahu.

The minister said he later received a phone call from Tzachi Hanegbi, the prime minister’s national security adviser, who claimed that a written version of the proposal didn’t exist.

Shira Efron, a senior director of policy research at the Israel Policy Forum, said that although Ben-Gvir and Smotrich were in a “once in a lifetime coalition” wielding influence in important ministries, they were willing to take risks that could result in the loss of decision-making power.

“They’re true ideologues,” she said in an interview.

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