Netanyahu and Hamas are playing politics over a Gaza truce

While Palestinians and Israelis suffer, their leaders cannot agree on a ceasefire deal

May 08, 2024
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been briefing the press about truce negotiations. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been briefing the press about truce negotiations. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

On the night of Saturday 4th May, one Israeli journalist broke a taboo. Yaron Avraham, a correspondent for Israel’s Channel 12, revealed that an anonymous “senior diplomatic source” who had been briefing the press about the Gaza truce negotiations taking place in Cairo—and seemingly trying to scupper the chances of a deal—was none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Avraham refused, he said, to play “this game”.

In recent weeks the US, Egypt and Qatar have been frantically mediating between Israel and Hamas to secure an agreement to end the crisis. Israel and Hamas have not managed to negotiate a hostage and prisoner exchange, now in its seventh month, since November. Under that deal, Hamas released 105 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails and a week-long truce. In the meantime, the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 34,000 Palestinians, according to figures from the Hamas-run Health Ministry, and more than 130 hostages are believed to still be held in the Strip. Many are thought to be dead.  

At the end of April, Egyptian intelligence officials were in Israel for talks, which resulted in a proposal for a truce going to Hamas. But mediators have been unable to bridge significant gaps, including one central bone of contention: the deal including an end to the war. This is something Hamas wants and that Israel has, so far, refused.

In recent weeks, neither side had displayed great willingness to compromise. Over the weekend, Hamas said that Israel’s decision to evacuate Palestinians from Rafah in southern Gaza ahead of an incursion there would torpedo the deal. An attack on Sunday by Hamas on Gaza’s Kerem Shalom crossing (recently opened by Israel to allow in more aid following international pressure) which killed four Israeli soldiers, was destroying chances of an agreement, according to one Egyptian official.

Then over the weekend as talks continued in Cairo—and, unusually for Israel, during the Sabbath, when observant Jews do not consume any news media—the prime minister, in the guise of the unnamed official, insisted that Israel wouldn’t agree to end the war. Further, Netanyahu insisted that the Israeli military would plough ahead with its plans to invade Rafah, a site the government has long argued is key to one of its main (and arguably unachievable) aims for this war: total defeat of Hamas. And rather than send a delegation to the Egyptian capital for the ceasefire talks, Israel said it would await Hamas’s response. 

A response came on Monday evening: Hamas would accept the proposal presented to the group by Egypt and Qatar. In the meantime, Israel had embarked upon its long-discussed incursion into Rafah, where Israel claims four of Hamas’s remaining battalions are located. Along the southern border, the Philadelphi Corridor, a buffer zone established with Egypt’s agreement following Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, is seen as crucial to stopping Hamas smuggling in weapons. 

Israel officials, apparently caught off-guard by Hamas’s announcement, said the latest version of the agreement contained elements that Israel had not agreed to. According to a report on Axios, Israeli officials were also claiming that the US knew about this new version of the truce deal, but had kept Israel in the dark. On Tuesday, Israel sent a delegation to Cairo to discuss the latest proposal, but this was “a technical team who don’t have a mandate to do anything. That’s just buying time,” Gershon Baskin, a veteran negotiator who involved in the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, tells me. Indeed, in a video statement that day, Netanyahu accused Hamas of trying to “sabotage” the Rafah operation by accepting the deal, insisting that the operation would “bring back the hostages and eliminate Hamas.” 

The following day, on Wednesday 8th May, US State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller clarified that Hamas did not, in fact, accept the deal that Israel had agreed to previously, but had instead responded “with amendments or a counter-proposal, and we’re working through the details of that now.”

The constant briefing and will-they-won’t-they reporting is agony for Palestinians under fire in Gaza and the families of the hostages. While people rallied across Israel on Tuesday to demand that Netanyahu accept the deal, video footage showed Palestinians in Gaza jubilant at the prospect of an end to the fighting. But it’s in the “personal interest of Netanyahu to prolong the war,” says Baskin. For analysts and observers—including, reportedly, Israeli negotiators—Netanyahu’s named and anonymous statements show that he is trying to scupper the agreement.

An end to this war, after all, could shatter Netanyahu’s governing coalition, leaving him open to the public reckoning over the 7th October that will inevitably follow, as well as the resumption of his trial on criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. The threat of the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants for Israeli political and military leaders over war crimes in Gaza is of concern, too. In the US  And while the families of Israeli hostages are desperate to bring their loved ones home—and more Israelis, according to polling from last week, think a hostage deal should be prioritised over a Rafah operation—the more extreme right-wing elements of Netanyahu’s coalition are opposed to a deal and want the incursion. On 1st May, Orit Strock, a government minister, told Army Radio that if the government accepted the deal it would be “throwing the [war effort] into the trash to save 22 or 33” of the more than 130 hostages still in Gaza. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the Religious Zionist party, reportedly refused to meet Netanyahu to discuss measures to address the cost of living, saying: “First go into Rafah and then deal with the price of petrol.” 

“The gaps between the two sides are not bridgeable,” Baskin says. The current proposal includes an implicit end to the fighting, he explains, with assurances from the US that a temporary ceasefire would turn permanent. But Israel can’t agree, as that would “leave Hamas in place”, and Israel has so far prevented any serious discussion of a “political end game” for when the war ends.  

Netanyahu’s insistence on Rafah could be a sign, however, that the end is in sight. Netanyahu is putting on a show perhaps, a domestic display for his extreme coalition partners and part of his voter base, that Israel has indeed exhausted all military options, that it hasn’t given in to Hamas. Maybe then, when an end to this terrible war does come, Netanyahu can blame the US, the Egyptians, anyone but himself, as he faces a public so let down by its leadership.