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Netanyahu juggles cease-fire, split cabinet as Blinken visits

By Galit Altstein, Bloomberg News

As the U.S. Secretary of State worked toward a Gaza cease-fire on a visit to Israel Wednesday, a major Tel Aviv newspaper offered a front-page summary of his challenge: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with key cabinet colleagues and the headline “Who’s in charge here?”

On one side was hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir saying if Israel doesn’t invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, Netanyahu “understands perfectly well what that means.” On the other were centrist ministers labeling that “blackmail.”

Antony Blinken met Netanyahu before heading to the Gaza border to be briefed on the flow of humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave where Israel has fought a nearly seven-month war after a Hamas invasion that killed 1,200 and abducted 240.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, according to health officials in the Hamas-run enclave. The figures don’t differentiate between combatants and civilians and Israel claims a third of them are fighters.

After the Netanyahu meeting, the secretary’s spokesperson said he’d “discussed the need to avoid further expansion of the conflict and updated the Prime Minister on ongoing efforts to ensure a lasting, sustainable peace in the region. The Secretary reiterated the United States’ clear position on Rafah.”

Even if Netanyahu manages to keep his government together, recent days have underlined the challenges.

The U.S. is seeking an exchange of hostages for prisoners and a pause that would lead to the end of the war. Linked to this are efforts for eventual ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia and steps toward an independent Palestinian State.

Before meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken spoke to angry demonstrators outside his hotel seeking a return of the hostages, saying, “Bringing your loved ones home is at the heart of everything we’re trying to do. There is a very strong proposal on the table right now. Hamas needs to say yes, and needs to get this done.”

It’s increasingly unclear whether Netanyahu can accept any deal and stay in power.

Nationalist leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who hold the key to his government’s survival, say they’ll walk out if he delays a Rafah invasion and releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Israel says thousands of Hamas fighters are entrenched in Rafah.

Centrists, led by Benny Gantz, who joined the war cabinet after the Oct 7 attack, argue that the government will lose its legitimacy if it doesn’t put all its efforts into getting the 130 hostages — some of whom are dead — released, and worry about Rafah later.

Netanyahu appears to be trying to have it both ways. On Tuesday, he told a meeting of hostage families and relatives of soldiers killed in the fighting that “the idea that Israel will stop the war before achieving all its goals is out of the question. We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there – with or without a deal.”

Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, has yet to respond to the proposal. According to an Israeli official quoted in Haaretz newspaper, it would stop fighting for some weeks, release 33 hostages, permit Gazans to return home in the northern part of the enclave and release hundreds of prisoners, some of whom have been convicted of murder.

Israeli news site Ynet says the proposal discusses a yearlong cease-fire with steps toward a Palestinian state.

Finance Minister Smotrich said Tuesday the government will “lose its right to exist” if it refrains from invading Rafah and agrees to any proposal that “keeps Hamas intact.” He would be willing to “pay a price to save Israel from such existential danger.”

Ben Gvir had voted against a previous cease-fire in November that saw more than 100 Israelis and foreign nationals released from Gaza along with several hundred Palestinian prisoners.

Yair Lapid, head of the Israeli opposition, said he’d spoken to Blinken and told him that “Netanyahu has no political excuse not to go to the deal for the return of the abductees. He has a majority in the people, he has a majority in the Knesset and if necessary I will make sure he has a majority in the government.”

Lapid’s party has 24 seats in the 120-seat parliament and has said before he’d join the government for something specific like a hostage deal before seeking new elections. A party official said Netanyahu has never approached Lapid on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army is completing preparations for an operation in Rafah, where more than a million Gazans are taking shelter. It says tens of thousands of tents are being set up north of Rafah as safe zones for civilians before any invasion. U.S. officials, however, say they’ve seen no serious plan to protect civilians so far.

With assistance from Courtney McBride.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Source: Orange County Register

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