Ben-Gvir, Smotrich threaten to bolt if Biden proposal accepted

Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit Party, called the potential deal a ‘surrender’ to Hamas.

By Joshua Marks, JNS

Two key members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition are threatening to bring down the government should he back a ceasefire-for-hostage proposal announced by U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said on Saturday night that they will not accept an agreement that leaves the Hamas terror group still standing in Gaza.

Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism Party, tweeted that he had spoken with Netanyahu, making it clear to him that he will not be part of the government if it agrees to ending the war without destroying Hamas and returning all of the hostages.

“We will not agree to the end of the war before the destruction of Hamas, nor to a serious damage to the achievements of the war so far through the withdrawal of the IDF and the return of Gazans to the north of the Gaza Strip, nor to the wholesale release of terrorists who will return, God forbid, to murder Jews,” Smotrich wrote.

“We demand the continuation of the fighting until the destruction of Hamas and the return of all the abductees, the creation of a completely different security reality in Gaza and Lebanon, the return of all residents to their homes in the north and south and a massive investment in the accelerated development of these areas of the country.”

For his part, Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit Party, called the potential deal a “surrender” to Hamas in an X post.

“This is a reckless deal, which is a victory for terrorism and a security danger to the State of Israel. Agreeing to such a deal is not absolute victory—but absolute defeat. We will not allow the end of the war without the complete elimination of Hamas,” he wrote.

According to the terms so far made public, the deal on the table means Israel ending the war without achieving its war aim of destroying Hamas, he continued.

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“Should the prime minister implement this reckless deal under the conditions published today…Otzma Yehudit will dissolve the government,” he concluded.

The Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit faction holds 14 seats in the Knesset, meaning it plays a pivotal role in maintaining Netanyahu’s 64-member ruling coalition, elected in November 2022.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party with 24 seats, earlier on Saturday repeated his pledge to provide Netanyahu with a political safety net to go ahead with the agreement. He criticized Smotrich and Ben-Gvir for their threats to collapse the government.

“The threats of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich represent the neglect of national security, of the abductees and of the residents of the north and the south,” tweeted Lapid. “This is the worst and most reckless government in the country’s history. For them, there will be a war here forever, zero responsibility, zero management, a complete failure,” he added.

Lapid said in an interview with Channel 12 on Saturday that, “The State of Israel should make the deal presented by Biden, because the abductees are dying there [in Gaza]. They don’t have time.”

National Unity Party head and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz called for the War Cabinet to convene as soon as possible after Biden’s speech to “formulate steps for going forward.”

Gantz has threatened to leave the emergency wartime coalition by June 8 if Netanyahu does not take a series of steps Gantz has proposed regarding the war.

National Unity holds eight seats, so Gantz cannot bring down the government.

Meanwhile, senior Netanyahu adviser Ophir Falk was quoted by Britain’s Sunday Times on Saturday as saying that Biden’s address was “a political speech for whatever reasons.”

Falk stressed that while Jerusalem wasn’t happy with the proposal, it was not rejecting it.

“It’s not a good deal but we dearly want the hostages released, all of them,” he said, according to the report.

“It’s a deal we agreed to,” he stated, adding however that “there are a lot of details to be worked out,” including Israel’s demand that there be no permanent ceasefire declared “until all our objectives are met.”

These objectives have not changed since Hamas started the war on Oct. 7, he said, and include “the release of the hostages and the destruction of Hamas as a genocidal terrorist organization.”

For his part, Lapid said that Falk’s interview proved Jerusalem had already accepted the Biden proposal. For it to retract its support now “is a death sentence for the abductees and a crisis of trust with the Americans and the mediating countries,” he added.

Tens of thousands of Israelis participated in a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night calling on the government to accept the Biden proposal and demanding Netanyahu’s resignation. Clashes broke out between protesters and police, leading to arrests.

In a joint statement on Saturday, Egypt, Qatar and the United States called on Israel and Hamas to accept the ceasefire outline.

“As mediators in the ongoing discussions to secure a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages and detainees, Qatar, the United States, and Egypt, jointly call on both Hamas and Israel to finalize the agreement embodying the principles outline by President Biden on May 31, 2024,” the statement read.

“These principles brought the demands of all parties together in a deal that serves multiple interests and will bring immediate relief both to the long-suffering people of Gaza as well as the long-suffering hostages and their families. This deal offers a roadmap for a permanent ceasefire and ending the crisis.”

The terms of the proposal laid out by Biden on Friday include a permanent end to hostilities and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip.

Speaking in the State Dining Room at the White House, Biden said Israel had proposed a three-phase ceasefire deal to Hamas through Egyptian, Qatari and U.S. mediators.

“For the past several months, my negotiators, of the foreign policy, intelligence community and the like, have been relentlessly focused, not just on a ceasefire that would inevitably be fragile and temporary, but on a durable end of the war,” said Biden. “That’s been the focus—a durable end to this war.”

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The U.S. president said he wants a future “without Hamas in power,” but described a series of steps that did not include the elimination of the terror group or its surrender.

“The first phase would last for six weeks,” he said. “Here’s what it would include: a full and complete ceasefire. The withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza. Release of a number of hostages, including women, the elderly, the wounded, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.”

That phase, which would also include the return of some of the remains of dead hostages and the continued daily delivery of 600 trucks of aid to the Palestinians, would lead to an indefinite period of negotiations between Israel and Hamas to end the war, he said.

“During the six weeks of phase one, Israel and Hamas would negotiate the necessary arrangements to get to phase two, which is a permanent end to hostilities,” the president added. “The proposal says if the negotiations take longer than six weeks from phase one, the ceasefire will still continue as long as negotiations continue.”

The United States, Egypt and Qatar “would work to ensure negotiations keep going until all the agreements are reached and phase two is able to begin,” Biden added.

In the second phase, “Israeli forces will withdraw from Gaza” and release additional Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of all remaining living hostages, the president said. Quoting the text of the proposal, he said that at that point, the ceasefire would become “the cessation of hostilities permanently.”

The third phase would include the reconstruction of Gaza and the return of any remaining dead hostages.

During the third phase, Biden said that the United States, Arab nations, the international community, along with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, would ensure that Hamas is not allowed to rearm.

The second and third phases are open-ended, allowing for additional negotiation, but the senior U.S. official told reporters that each is envisioned to last about 42 days.