Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected US calls to scale back Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip or take steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state after the war, drawing an immediate scolding from the White House.
- Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has used a televised news conference to again dismiss calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state after the Gaza war
- The US, Israeli’s closest ally, immediately rebuked his comments, saying the White House would “not stop working” toward a two-state solution
- Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas militants are pushing for a new ceasefire which could bring the remaining 130 of them home
The tense back and forth reflected what has become a wide rift between the two allies over the scope of Israel’s war and its plans for the future of the beleaguered territory.
In a nationally televised news conference, Mr Netanyahu repeatedly said Israel would not halt its offensive until it destroyed Gaza’s Hamas militants and brought home all remaining hostages held by the group.
He rejected claims by a growing chorus of Israeli critics that those goals were not achievable, and vowed to press ahead for many months.
“We will not settle for anything short of an absolute victory,” he said.
Mr Netanyahu, who leads a far-right government opposed to Palestinian statehood, repeated his longstanding opposition to a two-state solution. He said a Palestinian state would become a launching pad for attacks on Israel.
He said Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River”, adding: “That collides with the idea of sovereignty. What can we do?”
“This truth I tell to our American friends, and I put the brakes on the attempt to coerce us to a reality that would endanger the state of Israel,” he said.
The comments prompted an immediate rebuke from Israel’s closest ally, the White House.
US national security spokesman John Kirby said President Joe Biden would “not stop working” toward a two-state solution.
“We obviously see it differently,” he said.
Mr Netanyahu spoke just a day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel would never have “genuine security” without a pathway toward Palestinian independence.
Earlier this week, the White House also said it was the “right time” for Israel to lower the intensity of its devastating military offensive in Gaza.
Israel launched the offensive after an unprecedented cross-border attack by Hamas on October 7 which killed around 1,200 people and took some 250 others hostage. Roughly 130 hostages are believed by Israel to remain in Hamas captivity.
Israel’s assault, one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history, has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health authorities, caused widespread destruction and uprooted over 80 per cent of the territory’s 2.3 million people from their homes.
The staggering cost of the war has led to increasing calls from the international community to halt the offensive. After initially giving Israel wall-to-wall support in the early days of the war, the US has begun to express misgivings and urged Mr Netanyahu to spell out his vision for postwar Gaza.
The US has said the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority, which governs semi-autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, should be “revitalised” and return to Gaza. Hamas ousted the authority from Gaza in 2007.
The US has also called for steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians seek Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem for their state, areas that were captured by Israel in 1967.
Speaking on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr Blinken said a two-state solution was the best way to protect Israel, unify moderate Arab countries and isolate Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran.
He said without a “pathway to a Palestinian state”, Israel would not “get genuine security”.
At the same conference, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said that kingdom was ready to establish full relations with Israel as part of a larger political agreement.
“But that can only happen through peace for the Palestinians, through a Palestinian state,” he said.
Families of hostages push for new ceasefire
Before October 7, Israeli society was bitterly divided over Mr Netanyahu’s plan for a judicial overhaul. Since the attack, the country has largely rallied behind the war. But divisions have once again begun to surface over the prime minister’s handling of the conflict.
Families of the remaining hostages and their many supporters have called for a new ceasefire that could bring them home. Hamas released over 100 hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a week-long ceasefire in November.
Dozens of people attended a sombre gathering in Tel Aviv on Thursday in solidarity with the family of Kfir Bibas, the youngest Israeli hostage, who spent his first birthday in Hamas captivity.
The boy and his four-year-old brother Ariel were taken hostage along with their mother, Shiri, and their father, Yarden. All four are still held hostage.
Commentators have begun to question whether Mr Netanyahu’s objectives are realistic, given the slow pace of the offensive and growing international criticism, including genocide accusations at the United Nations world court, which Israel vehemently denies.
Mr Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of delaying any discussion of postwar scenarios to avoid looming investigations of governmental failures, keep his coalition intact and put off elections.
Polls show that the popularity of Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has plummeted during the war.
Hamas says permanent ceasefire needed for hostage releases
Hamas has continued to fight back across Gaza, even in the most devastated areas, and launch rockets into Israel. It says it will not release any more hostages until there is a permanent ceasefire — something Israel and the US have ruled out.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have heeded Israeli evacuation orders and packed into southern Gaza, where shelters run by the UN are overflowing and massive tent camps have gone up.
Israel has continued to strike what it says are militant targets in all parts of Gaza, often killing women and children. Early on Thursday, medics said an Israeli air strike on a home killed 16 people, half of them children, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
Israel blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because it fights in dense residential areas. Israel says, without providing evidence, that its forces have killed roughly 9,000 militants, and that 193 of its own soldiers have been killed since the Gaza ground offensive began.
On Thursday, the Israeli army said it had destroyed “the heart” of Hamas’ weapons manufacturing industry near a major north-south road in central Gaza. It said the complex included weapons factories and an extensive tunnel network used to ship arms throughout Gaza.