Calls grow for Netanyahu to make crucial choices on cease-fire and postwar Gaza

Palestinians walk and travel along a street, in an area where houses have been destroyed in Israeli strikes, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Photo: Reuters)
Palestinians walk and travel along a street, in an area where houses have been destroyed in Israeli strikes, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

The U.S. and domestic rivals have demanded clarity from the Israeli prime minister after an opposition member of the Israeli war cabinet quit.

TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly articulated what he doesn’t want in Gaza: No Hamas, no Palestinian Authority and no permanent cease-fire until the hostages are all home.

Now, the Israeli leader faces increasing pressure to say what he does want. The decision will likely shape his political career and the future of the war in Gaza.

Netanyahu met Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in the Middle East pushing a cease-fire plan promoted by President Biden that has been met with skepticism by the Israeli leader and Hamas. The U.S. is seeking to publicly pressure both Netanyahu and Hamas into a cease-fire deal, but the two sides still are at odds over whether an agreement would constitute a permanent end to fighting.

Blinken told reporters Tuesday that Netanyahu had “reaffirmed his commitment" to a Gaza cease-fire proposal during a meeting in Jerusalem. But the prime minister’s office didn’t immediately comment on the talks.

Far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition have threatened to leave the government if Israel accepts a deal that halts the war. The departures could collapse the prime minister’s coalition and lead to his ouster.

The prime minister has said that Israel would only negotiate a permanent end to the war in a later phase of a cease-fire, when Israel would force Hamas to give up its military and governance capabilities.

Those demands are nonstarters for Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, which has said the two sides must agree to end the fighting now.

Blinken also met Tuesday morning with the head of Israel’s parliamentary opposition, Yair Lapid, who has offered to back Netanyahu’s government if the leader agrees to a deal. America’s top diplomat also met with Benny Gantz, a former army chief who over the weekend quit Netanyahu’s government and war cabinet, arguing the prime minister doesn’t have a long-term strategy for the conflict.

“I think there’s a strong consensus again behind moving forward with proposals," said Blinken, who repeated earlier assertions that the main obstacle to a deal was Hamas, which he said hadn’t yet given a firm answer to the cease-fire proposal.

Hamas in a statement Tuesday said it supported a United Nations Security Council resolution adopted a day earlier calling on Hamas to accept a cease-fire deal. But the militant group again stressed the need for a permanent cessation of the conflict. It has pushed for written guarantees that Israel won’t restart the war after an initial pause.

Netanyahu, absent a cease-fire deal, faces pressure to make other decisions. His defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and opposition leaders are urging him to articulate a plan for how to administer Gaza, lest Israel be left with a costly military occupation or a return to rule by Hamas.

Far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition are also boxing him in, calling for Israel to occupy Gaza and resettle it with Jewish communities. The politicians could hold greater sway over the direction of the war after the departure of Gantz, who was one of three voting members, alongside the prime minister and Gallant.

Amplifying the pressure on the prime minister to make a decision are exchanges of fire with Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, where the two sides are moving closer to a full-scale war after months of escalating hostilities driven by the conflict in Gaza.

The Israeli military’s operation in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, meanwhile, is likely to come to an end within weeks, as Israel could achieve its goal of disrupting Hamas’s last military battalions and smuggling networks, according to military analysts. That could mark a moment when Netanyahu will have to decide what comes next.

“It’s a time of decisions," said Israel Ziv, a former commander of the Israeli military’s Gaza Division. “Netanyahu can’t run away or delay."

Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel must apply military pressure on Hamas in Gaza to free hostages and to destroy the group’s military capabilities. Only then, Netanyahu has said, can he ensure the safety of Israeli citizens and restore a sense of deterrence among its enemies.

The prime minister’s standing among Israelis was buoyed over the weekend when two Israeli commando teams rescued four hostages held in central Gaza. The complex operation resulted in scores of Palestinian casualties during a firefight in a crowded urban area.

While the rescue was celebrated inside Israel, the families of other hostages in Gaza again urged the prime minister to agree to a cease-fire deal for their release. The Palestinian fatalities also heaped diplomatic pressure on Israel, with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Jeremy Laurence saying in a statement Tuesday that he was “profoundly shocked at the impact on civilians," adding that the actions of both sides may amount to war crimes.

The three-phase cease-fire plan outlined by Biden late last month would begin with a complete cease-fire over six weeks, a withdrawal of Israeli forces from populated areas of Gaza and the release of some hostages held by Hamas. The second phase would see a permanent end to the hostilities, a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the release of remaining hostages. Phase three would involve a plan for the reconstruction of Gaza.

The U.S. has said it wants a revived Palestinian Authority to administer Gaza—an idea opposed by members of Netanyahu’s Likud party and his far-right coalition partners. But the White House has also dangled in front of Netanyahu the prospect of normalization with Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy and political power.

In recent weeks, Hamas has shifted to a lower-intensity insurgency against the Israeli army in Gaza. Some Israeli military and political analysts believe Netanyahu has no other option than to manage an Israeli occupation of the enclave to destroy Hamas’s remaining resistance.

“No other power can or will fight terror and prevent Gaza from once again becoming a Hamas base," said Asher Fredman of the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, a think tank.

Key to Netanyahu’s future could be his defense minister, Gallant, who has also criticized the prime minister for failing to plan for the postwar status of Gaza.

Netanyahu’s indecision could eventually cause Gallant, like former war-cabinet colleague Gantz, to consider his options to pressure Netanyahu, according to Ziv, the former general.

The defense minister hasn’t said he is planning to leave the government and his spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gantz left the government to call for elections that could topple Netanyahu and try to create a swell of public opposition to the prime minister’s rule, and if the defense minister left that would add even greater pressure on Netanyahu.

“Gallant can’t live in an atmosphere of non-decision," said Ziv.

Write to Rory Jones at Rory.Jones@wsj.com and Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

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