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Netanyahu’s dilemma: Facilitate a truce with Hamas to free Gaza hostages or maintain military pressure

The Israeli army is intensifying attacks on Rafah in the south of the Strip, while Egypt and Qatar are attempting to bring the parties in the conflict closer to a ceasefire agreement

Israel-Hamas War
A demonstration to demand Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bring back those kidnapped by Hamas, in Tel Aviv, February 3.Luis De Vega Hernández
Luis de Vega (Special Correspondent)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a dilemma that hangs over his head like a sword of Damocles: to prioritize a truce for the release of the hostages held in the Strip, or to ramp up military operations in Gaza to put an end to Hamas. Netanyahu finds himself in a crossfire between those who are calling for the former, such as the United States and the families of the hostages, and those who prescribe the latter, notably the most ultranationalist wing of his government. The prime minister’s categorical refusal to meet what he considers unacceptable demands from Hamas for a ceasefire leads Israel, at least for the moment, toward the option of keeping the steamroller of its army active in Gaza, where it has already killed almost 28,000 Palestinians.

This was demonstrated by the ongoing bombardments and artillery attacks on Rafah, the last unconquered part of the Strip and a refuge for more than one million displaced Gazans. These attacks are considered the prelude to the occupation of an area already experiencing a “humanitarian nightmare,” according to UN Secretary General António Guterres. Meanwhile, the mediating countries are not throwing in the towel and are trying to keep ceasefire talks afloat. Since Thursday, the Egyptian and Qatari authorities, two of the mediating countries along with the U.S., have been trying to unblock the talks in Cairo with a Hamas delegation. According to their officials, the parties to the conflict maintain positions that make a truce impossible.

In a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute at the end of January among Israel’s Jewish and Arab population, 51% said the main objective of the war was the release of Israeli hostages, while 36% said the main objective should be to eliminate Hamas. “Those are not conflicting goals and we will not give up either” said Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, who met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his latest tour of the region. “The whole Israeli society is determined to bring back the hostages and to eradicate Hamas.”

The main focus of pressure on Netanyahu’s administration are the families of those who fell into the hands of Hamas and other Islamist militias during the October 7 attacks on Israel. “Please, prime minister, if you continue on this path, there will be no more hostages to free. Regain our trust, release them now.” This was the plea issued Wednesday night by Adina Moshe, who was freed at the end of November during the previous ceasefire after being held captive for 49 days in Gaza. Moshe was one of five released hostages who took part in a rally in Tel Aviv following Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the conditions laid out by Hamas for a new truce.

Kobi Michael, an Israeli analyst with the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), acknowledges that there is “tension” between the two objectives that mark Netanyahu’s dilemma. But he has no doubt that “the only thing that can accelerate negotiations between the two sides is Israeli military pressure on Hamas,” and that Qatar and Egypt must raise the pressure on the militia to change its position. Hamas, he adds in a telephone conversation, is “emotionally terrorizing” Israelis, especially the families of the abductees, because it knows the “sacred value of life” that prevails in Israel. “The people of Israel understand very well that we cannot accept the agreement at any price,” he concludes.

The priority of the hostages

Not everyone agrees on prioritizing military intervention to defeat Hamas. “Freeing the hostages is a national, pragmatic, and moral duty. It is not more important than eradicating Hamas, but it is much more urgent and, consequently, must be the priority,” says Ehud Barak, the former prime minister who is in favor of calling elections as soon as possible because of what he considers Netanyahu’s inability to manage the country. “Approximately one-third of the hostages are no longer alive, hence the need to act immediately.” Failure to reach an agreement will mark “Israeli society as a whole for generations to come,” adds the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli army in an article published on the Channel 12 website. “Israel needs to make a strategic choice between Biden’s initiative and the vision presented by [Itamar] Ben-Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” he notes, referring to the preferences of the U.S. president and two of the most radical ministers in the government.

Netanyahu “does not want to say no to a U.S. president who is personally involved in the efforts to free the prisoners,” said Akiva Eldar, a political analyst for the daily Haaretz, in statements to the Al Jazeera network. The prime minister “is interested in negotiations, but I am not sure if most of the captives will be alive then, and they cannot wait until Netanyahu and Hamas come up with an absolute and final agreement.”

The families are also keeping up the pressure on Netanyahu: “We have reached the moment of truth, the moment when we have to decide who lives and who dies, who will return and who will become prey to inhuman monsters: 136 hostages are now waiting in tunnels, without oxygen, without food, without water, and without hope, waiting for you to save them,” they warned in a statement. Of those 136, authorities estimate that at least 30 have already died, either while in captivity or during the October 7 attacks. “If the hostages do not return home, all high school students, all mothers and fathers, should know that they may be next. That they live in a state that is not committed to their safety, that mutual accountability in the state is dead.”

For Labor’s Barak, Israel is like the Titanic, sinking with Netanyahu at the helm, hence his call for elections. He has proposed June because delaying them any longer, to the end of this year or early 2025, would hand Netanyahu a “lifeline,” he argues. In this way, the former prime minister believes, Netanyahu could circumvent Biden, who faces elections next November, and thus manage his continuity hand in hand with ministers like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who back a military iron fist in Gaza, the expulsion of Palestinians from the Strip and its permanent reoccupation by Israeli civilians and military.

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