Jun 3, 2024 - World

Netanyahu remarks could damage Gaza hostage-ceasefire deal, Israeli officials say

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with the German Chancellor after their meeting in Jerusalem on March 17, 2024.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on Mar. 17, 2024. Photo: Leo Correa/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli officials are concerned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statements in recents days could sabotage the "constructive ambiguity" used by negotiators to draft a proposed Israeli hostage-ceasefire deal that could be accepted by Hamas.

Why it matters: Hamas wants to know the deal's commitment to a ceasefire in Gaza will ultimately lead to the end of the war, but Netanyahu is publicly saying he is still committed to continuing the war until Hamas is defeated.

  • The ambiguous language in the proposal could allow both sides to enter the first phase of the deal, which includes a release of a group of hostages and a 42-day ceasefire, while leaving for a later point the question of whether the agreement will actually lead to the end of the war.

Driving the news: President Biden presented in his speech last Friday the main points in an updated Israeli proposal for a hostage and ceasefire deal that was delivered to Hamas the day before.

  • Half a dozen Israeli officials, including three of Netanyahu's aides, confirmed to Axios over the weekend that Biden's speech described the main points in the Israeli proposal.
  • Netanyahu's radical right-wing coalition partners ultranationalist ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich attacked Netanyahu several times since Biden's speech and threatened to leave the coalition and topple the government if the proposal turns into an agreement.

The latest: Netanyahu on Monday said Israel will succeed in having hostages held in Gaza by Hamas returned and meeting the war's "first and foremost" objective of eliminating Hamas.

  • "This is part of the outline, not something that I have just added. It is not something that I have added because of coalition pressure. This is something that we agreed on in the War Cabinet unanimously," Netanyahu said in a statement minutes after another threat from Ben Gvir to topple the government.
  • Netanyahu told the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee on Monday that there were gaps between Biden's speech and the Israeli proposal and that the president left details out.
  • Some of Netanyahu's aides even went as far as distancing themselves from the proposal and saying Biden's description was "inaccurate."
  • White House spokesman John Kirby pushed back and told reporters "this is an Israeli proposal and the president characterized it accurately."

Biden spoke on Monday with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani and asked him to press Hamas to accept the Israeli proposal.

  • "He urged Emir Tamim to use all appropriate measures to secure Hamas' acceptance of the deal and affirmed that Hamas is now the only obstacle to a complete ceasefire and relief for the people of Gaza," the White House said.
  • The White House said Biden told the Emir that "the deal now on the table offers a concrete roadmap for ending the crisis in Gaza" and stressed Israel "is ready to move forward with the terms that have now been offered to Hamas."
  • G7 country leaders issued a statement on Monday endorsing the proposed deal. "We call on Hamas to accept this deal, that Israel is ready to move forward with, and we urge countries with influence over Hamas to help ensure that it does so," the statement said.

Zoom in: The "constructive ambiguity" appears in two clauses of the Israeli proposal titled "Israel response on 6 May 2024 proposal," according to a copy obtained by Axios.

  • One clause says: "No later than day 16 the commencement of indirect negotiations between the two sides to agree on the conditions for implementing stage 2 of this agreement, including those relating to the keys for the exchange of hostages and prisoners (soldiers and remaining men) and this should be concluded and agreed upon before the end of week 5 of this stage."
  • Another, which is almost identical to what Biden said in his speech, states: "All procedures in this stage including the temporary cessation of military operations by both sides, aid and shelter effort, withdrawal of forces, etc., will continue in stage 2 so long as the negotiations on the conditions for implementing stage 2 of this agreement are ongoing. The guarantors of this agreement shall make every effort to ensure that those indirect negotiations continue until both sides are able to reach agreement on the conditions for implementing stage 2 of this agreement."

Between the lines: A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu's remarks are "killing" the ambiguity by stressing the demands he will put on the table during the negotiations about stage two, even before the parties agreed to enter stage one.

  • "Instead of keeping things ambiguous, his statements are pushing Hamas to ask for more clarification, making it harder to get a deal," a second Israeli official said. He added this seems to happen because of Netanyahu's efforts to appease Ben Gvir and Smotrich and prevent the collapse of the coalition.
  • The Prime Minister's office didn't respond to a request for comment.

State of play: Qatari and Egyptian mediators told Israel and the U.S. they received "positive signals" from Hamas after Biden's speech, but the group hasn't said it accepts the Israeli proposal and agrees to resume negotiations.

  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday that "the eyes of the world and of those who are calling for a ceasefire should be focused on Hamas."

What to watch: A Hamas delegation is expected to arrive in Cairo on Tuesday for talks with Egyptian and Qatari mediators regarding the Israeli proposals, two sources with knowledge told Axios.

  • The Israeli war cabinet decided on Sunday night to wait for Hamas' response before taking further action. Israeli officials said they think Hamas won't reject the proposal out of hand and will give a "yes, but" response.

The Israeli military on Monday said it identified the body of one Israeli who was presumed to be held hostage in Gaza. His body was found inside Israel.

  • Israel Defense Forces also confirmed the death of four Israeli hostages who are held in Gaza. Three of them appeared alive several weeks ago in a video released by Hamas.
  • There are currently 124 hostages in Gaza, with at least 42 confirmed dead.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from G7 country leaders.

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