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Netanyahu rival offers to help quell mutiny for Hamas hostage deal

A top rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered to back the beleaguered leader in the event that his government begins to collapse over a hard-right mutiny against a hostage deal with Hamas.

“So a hostage deal is doable. It is a difficult deal. This is a deal we might not like, but it’s doable, and therefore it needs to be made,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid told reporters Monday outside the State Department in Washington. “So the Israeli opposition will give a security net to the government in order to do the hostage deal because we need to bring them back.”

Lapid flew to the United States at a difficult time for Netanyahu, who is trying to manage international fallout over civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, overcome U.S. objections to a military campaign against Hamas forces in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, and broker a ceasefire-and-hostage-release deal. That diplomatic task has been complicated by an Israeli strike that killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza and the competing demands of the hostages’ relatives and hard-right Israelis demanding a military victory.

“If the prime minister decides to end the war without a substantial attack on Rafah to defeat Hamas, he will not have a mandate to continue as premier,” Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir wrote Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second left, meets with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, third from right, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

Netanyahu hastened to emphasize that “there is a date” for the Rafah operation. “We are constantly working to achieve our goals, first and foremost the release of all our hostages and achieving a complete victory over Hamas,” Netanyahu said Monday “This victory requires entry into Rafah and the elimination of the terrorist battalions there. It will happen — there is a date.”

A political safety net dependent on Lapid would offer little comfort to Netanyahu, as the center-left politician, who brokered a coalition that ousted Netanyahu from 2021 to 2022, would have the power to exit the coalition as easily as he entered it. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s team, for their part, maintains that the burden is on Hamas to accept a deal on offer rather than demand additional concessions from Israel.

“There is a deal that’s on the table for Hamas, and we hope that they’ll accept it,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Monday. “We do believe that the Israeli government is ready to make a deal. They want to see their hostages returned. But we have to see Hamas being willing to accept such a deal.”

Ben Gvir aired his threat in the hours as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — a war cabinet leader and member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, albeit one with a fraught relationship with the prime minister — called for a hostage deal.

“The operational conditions that the IDF created through relentless military pressure on Hamas allow us flexibility, freedom of action and also making difficult decisions to return the hostages,” Gallant said Monday. “We are at an opportune moment, but there’s another side that must agree to it.”

The public disputes between U.S. and Israeli officials about the conduct of the war threaten to complicate the negotiation process, said Jacob Nagle, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu who is now a Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow. Israeli officials announced the withdrawal of military forces from Khan Yunis, another southern Gaza city, in the wake of a severe reproof from an American president angry about the World Central Kitchen strike, a sequence likely to encourage Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack, to reject Israel’s proposal.

“[Sinwar] thinks that the U.S. is pressuring us to accept the hostage deal [on his terms],” Nagle told the Washington Examiner. “I think it’s very bad. And it’s very dangerous.”

Hamas officials have tried to use the hostages as leverage to demand an end to the war, which Israel has refused to do. Miller downplayed the idea that Biden is pressing Israel to make additional concessions to Hamas, but he also reiterated U.S. opposition to a Rafah campaign, even though Blinken allowed last month that “it’s possible” for Israel to devise an acceptable plan for how to mitigate civilian casualties and humanitarian suffering in a Rafah campaign.

“We don’t think a full-scale operation in Rafah is something that we could support in any event,” Miller said. “So we have made clear that we don’t want to see that full-scale invasion in any event.”

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

Nagle, the Netanyahu ally, said the U.S. is not pressuring Israel to strike a hostage deal on terms that Netanyahu and his government cannot accept. But he also emphasized that Israel will conduct a Rafah campaign.

“You cannot ask Israel, ‘Don’t do Rafah,’” Nagle said. “Maybe you can ask us, don’t do Rafah before November 2024 … but Israel is going to do Rafah after we [plan for] the problem of the refugees. This is the only legitimate demand the United States can put on the table.”

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