Netanyahu Doesn’t Want a Deal – He Wants to ‘Finish the Job’

What hostages?

by Rivkah Brown

3 June 2024

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich. Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

It’s ironic that at the same moment that an AI-generated image demanding ‘All Eyes On Rafah’ was trending on Instagram, the eyes of journalists around the country were locked on Westminster, where I imagine they will be for the next five weeks.

Even the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood couldn’t break their adoring gaze: yesterday a group of over 100 stars including Riz Ahmed, Dame Harriet Walter, Steve Coogan and Juliet Stevenson wrote to Keir Starmer demanding he suspend arms sales to Israel if he’s made prime minister.

By Monday morning, the story (and Israel and Palestine altogether) was virtually nowhere to be seen in the national media, the fact that Israel and Hamas could be within days of ending an era-defining war – described by one Israeli Holocaust scholar as “a textbook case of genocide” – buried beneath more important news of Kemi Badenoch’s toilet crusade.

The deal, announced by US president Joe Biden on Friday, would deescalate hostilities in three phases: a six-week ceasefire, then a permanent ceasefire, followed by the rebuilding of Gaza – a rather quixotic project given that Israel’s razing of the strip is visible from space. Biden’s generous insistence that the deal was tabled by Israel convinced few observers – fewer still after the country’s prime minister immediately disparaged it.

So enraged was Benjamin Netanyahu by Biden’s face-saving presentation of the deal as his own that he broke Shabbat to trash it. It’s a “non-starter”, he said – “a deal we agreed to,” his chief foreign policy advisor Ophir Falk told the Sunday Times, but “not a good deal”. Meanwhile, western powers furiously shadow-boxed Hamas, demanding the group accept the proposal – which closely resembles one Hamas proposed in May (wrecked by Israel after it invaded Rafah) and which it has already said it views “positively”. Nor is the Israeli public standing in the way of a deal: 40% support it, according to a poll by the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation. The problem, as ever, is the Israeli government.

Responding to Biden’s announcement of the deal, Netanyahu told the press that his objectives, which are mutually exclusive, “have not changed: the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel”. More and more Israelis are realising that only some of these things matter to Bibi, if any of them.

Weekly protests in Tel Aviv demanding the release of the 121 hostages still held by Hamas (some twinned with the demand for the emancipation of Israel’s roughly 9,500 Palestinian prisoners) have increasingly centred the call for a ceasefire. 120,000 people descended on Israel’s de facto capital on Sunday to urge the prime minister to accept Biden’s deal. Police used sound and water cannons to disperse them.

Netanyahu fears that accepting the deal will precipitate the collapse of his threadbare coalition, whose extreme right wing – including national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich –​​ has already threatened to walk away from any settlement short of the annihilation of Hamas (a military impossibility, given its leaders live in Doha). If they do, another general election will ensue, which Netanyahu will almost certainly lose. Without the cover of the executive, Bibi’s exposure to long-deferred corruption charges would dramatically increase.

Netanyahu has insisted he wants to “finish the job in Rafah”, further imperilling the hostages and radicalising thousands more Palestinians to take up arms against Israel. The job he really wants to finish is in the Knesset: a political career he believes, like the land of Israel, is his birthright.

The article was adapted from our newsletter The Cortado. For more analysis straight into your inbox, click here.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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