Middle East crisis: Israeli Defense Minister holds talks in Washington on next phase of war

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Last week, Israeli soldiers adjusted the tracks of a tank near the Gaza border in southern Israel.Credit…Jack Guez/Agency France-Presse — Getty Images

The intense phase of Israel’s war against Hamas “is coming to an end,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Sunday evening interview on Israeli television, although he stressed that this does not mean the conflict is coming to an end.

After the operation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city and the latest hub of Israel’s ground offensive, the prime minister said, Israel will continue to “mow the lawn” – a term long used in Israeli security circles to denote the use of force aimed at limiting the resurgence of militant organizations.

Netanyahu’s remarks were the latest suggestion from senior Israeli officials that the war could soon enter a period of change.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was in Washington for meetings with Biden administration officials, which he said would include discussing the “transition to ‘Phase C’ in Gaza.”

While the Israeli military says it is close to dismantling or severely deteriorating Hamas’ military infrastructure, the government has proposed no clear plan for the administration of Gaza after the war.

Netanyahu suggested in the interview that a post-war civilian administration would involve local Palestinians, hopefully with the help of moderate Arab nations. The Israeli army should maintain overall security control of the enclave, he said.

The prime minister continued to rule out a proposal put forward by the Biden administration: handing Gaza over to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank.

Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, last week. The Israeli government has not proposed a clear plan for the administration of Gaza after the end of the war. Credit…Eyad Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To get to the “day after Hamas,” Netanyahu said, “first we must eliminate Hamas” — reiterating his long-standing position that the armed group must be completely eradicated, a goal many experts say is unattainable.

The prime minister’s remarks came in a 44-minute interview given to “The Patriots,” a populist and often controversial late-night talk show on Channel 14, a right-wing Israeli TV station that caters to Netanyahu’s voter base.

Since the start of the war, Netanyahu has rarely been interviewed in Hebrew for an Israeli audience. He has faced nationwide criticism for giving frequent interviews to American networks while interacting with Israelis primarily through sporadic televised statements and press conferences or via video clips.

During the interview, Netanyahu also spoke about the stalled ceasefire negotiations, suggesting at one point that he was willing to strike a “partial” deal for the return of only some of the 120 hostages held in Gaza – a statement that his office quickly moved back.

The prime minister said he was ready to accept a temporary truce and the release of some of the hostages, and then resume the war. This proposal appeared to contradict an Israeli proposal approved last month by Netanyahu and his war cabinet for a phased agreement that would release all hostages and usher in a permanent ceasefire – a proposal that was approved by President Biden and the Israeli cabinet . United Nations Security Council.

But elsewhere in Sunday’s interview, Netanyahu said he was committed to bringing back all remaining hostages, at least a third of whom Israel says died in captivity.

In a brief statement released after the interview, Netanyahu’s office said it was Hamas that opposed the deal, not Israel, adding: “Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that we will not leave Gaza until we return all 120 hostages, living and dead.”

The Forum on Hostages and Missing Families, which advocates for the hostages, condemned Netanyahu’s comments in the interview, saying that failure to advance the ceasefire proposal “abandons 120 hostages and violates the state’s moral obligation to the its citizens”.

“The families of the hostages will not allow the government and its leader to retreat from their fundamental commitments to the fate of our loved ones,” the group said in a statement. “The responsibility and duty to return all hostages lies with the prime minister.”

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