Netanyahu’s balancing act

Demands for a hostage deal, a Rafah battle, governmental stability and US pressure all pushing the premier in different directions.

By Troy O. Fritzhand | | Topics: America, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gaza, Biden
Will American politics and Biden's reelection campaign keep Israel from doing what must be done to defeat Hamas?
Will American politics and Biden's reelection campaign keep Israel from doing what must be done to defeat Hamas?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement to the public on Sunday sought to placate both camps—his friends and opponents—as an elusive hostage deal seemingly falls out of reach and the west pushes to bring a halt to the fighting.

“I would like to refer to trending publications in the media, publications that cause damage to the negotiations for the release of the abductees, and also to unnecessary suffering for the families of the abductees who are going through a nightmare and my heart is strong,” he began in a nudge towards the protesters in Tel Aviv and outside his Jerusalem residence that are pushing for a deal to free the hostages.

Demonstrations against the prime minister and his government have amplified in the past few months, with organizers having changed their strategy completely and now calling for a full ceasefire if it means bringing the hostages home.

Netanyahu repeats what has been echoed by the US, namely that it is not his government but Hamas who is preventing an agreement. “Contrary to these publications, it is Hamas that is preventing the release of our abductees. We are working in every possible way to free the abductees. This is in the forefront of our minds.”

To demonstrate this, the premier pointed to a November deal that brought the number of freed hostages to 124 (112 alive and 12 dead) in exchange for a short pause in fighting and the release of 210 terrorists from Israeli prisons.

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government, April 6, 2024. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.


Since then, media reports from within and without Israel relay the same message: “Israel is sending a negotiating team and is upping its concessions. Hamas returns with hardened demands, including its main sticking point, to end the war.”

Netanyahu said, “Throughout the negotiations, Israel demonstrated a willingness to go a long way. A long way that was described by US Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken and others as ‘extraordinarily generous.’”

Blinken has been extremely clear about this sentiment, saying, for example, on Saturday, “The reality in this moment is the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas.”

He moreover said the deal on the table, in which Israel has agreed to release thousands of terrorists over stages in exchange for the remaining hostages—most of whom are no longer alive—should be a “no-brainer” for the terrorist group.

Various theories for Hamas’s insistence on refusing a deal have floated among major publications, the gist of which is that Gaza-based leader Yahya Sinwar believes, despite the mass toll taken by Gaza and its residents, that his terrorist group is winning the war. In his mind, prolonging the fight indefinitely will only increase his chances and the group’s chances of survival following the war.

At this stage of the speech, Netanyahu turned to those advocating for an immediate entry into Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city and home to four Hamas terror battalions.

On Saturday evening and Sunday morning outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu recorded his speech, Israelis gathered with a plea for the government to move forward with plans to invade Rafah and end the war. Families of soldiers who perished in battle joined the crowd, lending a hand to their message that their loved ones should not have died in vain.


The goals of the war

Making matters more complicated for Netanyahu, Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar, a member of the prime minister’s Likud Party, addressed the group outside, telling them, “The goals of the war explicitly stated that Hamas would not be able to continue to control the Gaza Strip. These goals are a necessary condition for the continued existence of the government. If they are not achieved, the government will have no right to exist.”

Netanyahu addressed this, saying, “Hamas remained entrenched in its extreme positions, chief among them the demand to withdraw all our forces from the Strip, end the war, and leave Hamas intact.

“The State of Israel cannot accept this. We are not ready to accept a situation in which the Hamas battalions come out of their bunkers, take control of Gaza again, rebuild their military infrastructure, and return to threatening the citizens of Israel in the surrounding settlements, in the cities of the south, in all parts of the country.”

He said that if this occurs, the next Oct. 7 “is only a matter of time.”

Turning to those families, he said, “Is this why heroes and heroines fell? Did we pay unbearably heavy prices for this? The answer is—no!”

The premier said that leaving Gaza would “be a terrible defeat for the State of Israel. It will be a huge victory for Hamas, for Iran, for the entire axis of evil. It will project a terrible weakness, both to our friends and to our enemy.”

Then turning to the international community, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu finished by saying, “This weakness would only bring the next war closer, and it would push the next peace agreement further away. Because alliances are not made with the weak and defeated, alliances are made with the strong and victorious. Therefore, Israel will not agree to Hamas’s demands, which mean surrender, and will continue the fighting until all its goals are achieved.”

His final statement concerns the US push for Israel-Saudi normalization, whereby a defense pact between Washington and Riyadh would emerge and Israel and the leader of the Sunni Muslim world would openly embrace each other. The only caveat is that Riyadh has told Washington that no deal is possible without an end to fighting in Gaza and an Israel commitment to a path towards a Palestinian state, something Netanyahu and his governing partners have pushed back against.

On the US side, they have told the Saudis that no bilateral agreement will occur without the Israeli component.

A tough spot

So the Israeli prime minister finds himself in a tough spot.

On one end, his supporters are pushing for a continuation of fighting, one that may or may not bring the hostages home alive.

On the other hand, his political enemies and his largest military supplier—the US—alongside prospects for historic peace, dangle in the background, likely leading to the indecision, now months of delays on the Rafah invasion, that have held up the war for much of 2024.

More so, siding with those against his government and the US will likely bring about the end of his government, as has been signaled by partners such as Finance Minister and Religious Zionism Party leader Bezalel Smotrich and National Security and Otzma Yehudit Party head Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, as well as by Zohar’s remarks.

This is all while international pressure and the court of world opinion continue to turn against Israel and in favor of Hamas.