Far-right ministers in Israel are piling pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to spurn a broader hostage-for-prisoner release deal with Hamas, even as talks continue in Qatar over extending the temporary truce in Gaza.
Two of the Israeli prime minister’s cabinet ramped up attacks on the ceasefire, warning that his coalition government was under threat if he pursued a more ambitious swap with the Palestinian militant group.
The current truce agreement, which took effect last Friday, has the potential to be extended to 10 days, but there have also been discussions about a broader deal that would probably require Israel to commit to a more lasting halt to hostilities against Hamas and release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including those convicted of murder.
In return, Hamas and other militant groups would release more hostages from Gaza, potentially including Israeli soldiers.
Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, warned late on Tuesday that broadening the current agreement was “not on the agenda, not even as a suggestion”. “There is no discussion about it at all,” he said on social media platform X.
“This is a plan to eliminate the State of Israel. We continue until absolute victory, God willing, and the destruction of the Nazis of Hamas,” he added.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, wrote: “Stopping the war = dissolution of the government.”
Far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition are particularly opposed to the release of Palestinian prisoners beyond women and children.
The far-right figures had already been part of the government before the outbreak of war in October, but their leverage was diluted with the formation of an “emergency unity” government after Hamas’ October 7 attack.
The emergency government brought in the centrist National Unity party, headed by former defence minister Benny Gantz, meaning that even if the far-right groups resigned in protest, the government could still survive.
Yet analysts say that Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving premier, would be reluctant to break with his traditional political allies as he aims to retain power in future.
Far-right members of Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party opposed the original agreement between Israel and Hamas, but remained in the government once it took effect.
That deal called for an initial four-day pause in the fighting and the release of 50 Israeli women and children seized by the Palestinian militant group during last month’s devastating cross-border assault on southern Israel, in which Israeli authorities say at least 1,200 people were killed.
In return, Israel committed to free 150 Palestinian women and children jailed on various security offences from its prisons, and to allow entry of increased amounts of aid into besieged Gaza.
The agreement was subsequently extended for two days, with an additional 10 Israeli hostages and 30 Palestinian prisoners released on Tuesday night. A final batch of hostages and prisoners is expected later on Wednesday.
Mediators were continuing talks on Wednesday in the hope of extending the truce by another 48 hours to facilitate the release of more women and children.
CIA director Bill Burns and the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency David Barnea were in Doha on Tuesday to hold talks with Qatari and Egyptian officials who had brokered the pause in hostilities.
The focus of their discussions was on how to build on the agreement, extend the pause in hostilities and secure the release of more hostages, said an official briefed on the talks.
More than 150 Israelis and foreign nationals are believed to still be held in Gaza by Hamas and other smaller militant groups.
In his only public comments since the war started, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, last month said the group was “ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal” with Israel, under which all the hostages would be released in exchange for all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. According to the Israel Prison Service, this number currently stands at more than 6,000 people.
Despite widespread support in Israel for the safe return of all the hostages from Gaza, such an “all for all” agreement, as it is known, would prove highly controversial, and not only on the ultranationalist right.
Israeli officials have made clear that the deal reached with Hamas, which included an option to extend to 10 days, was only a “pause” in the fighting, and that the offensive in Gaza would be resumed immediately after its completion.
The war, now in its eighth week, has reduced swaths of the densely populated territory to rubble and claimed the lives of 14,800 Palestinians, according to health authorities in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
Relatives of Israelis held hostage have been campaigning publicly, through mass rallies and in the media, for the government to “pay any price” to return their loved ones home.
Foreign ministers from G7 countries expressed support on Tuesday for “future pauses as needed to enable assistance [for Gaza] to be scaled up, and to facilitate the release of all hostages”.
Meeting Israeli troops inside Gaza on Sunday, Netanyahu said: “We are continuing until the end — until victory. Nothing will stop us.”
Read the full article here