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Biden: People have 'every reason' to believe Netanyahu is prolonging Gaza war

The US president said the Israeli prime minister seems to want the war in Gaza to continue for his political survival
US President Joe Biden proposed a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas in Gaza on 31 May, 2024 while delivering remarks in the State Dining Room at the White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

US President Joe Biden said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given people "every reason" to believe he is prolonging the war on Gaza to save his political career.

Biden's remarks, published on Tuesday in an interview with Time Magazine, echoed sentiments regularly voiced by analysts and western officials over Netanyahu's political future.

"There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion," Biden said, although his administration had just a day earlier laid the blame for a delay in a ceasefire squarely on Hamas.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader, heads a coalition that encompasses far-right parties. Leaders of these parties have expressed support for a forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza to Egypt and the reoccupation of the enclave, including reestablishing settlements.

After briefly leaving office, Netanyahu returned to power in December 2022, leading a coalition of six right-wing parties.

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Before 7 October 2023, his government was already at odds with Washington over its call to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, increase protections for conservative Jews in public life and, most controversially, strengthen elected lawmakers' power over Israel’s Supreme Court, which far-right and religious lawmakers view as a bastion of leftist and secular influence in Israel.

Biden made a rare move in 2023 to wade directly into Israel's judicial overhaul, suggesting it weakened Israel’'s democracy.

The overhaul has been overshadowed by the war on Gaza and escalating regional tensions, but Biden revived the topic on Tuesday.  

"And I would cite tha [sic] as - before the war began, the blowback he was getting from the Israeli military for wanting to change the constitu [sic] - change the court," Biden said, "so it's an internal domestic debate that seems to have no consequence."

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Biden also told Time it was "uncertain" if Israeli forces had committed war crimes in Gaza. The US president has previously criticised an International Criminal Court (ICC) request for arrest warrants against Netanyahu and said the US doesn't recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction over Israel or Gaza.

"But one thing is certain, the people in Gaza, the Palestinians have suffered greatly, for lack of food, water, medicine, etc. And a lot of innocent people have been killed," Biden told Time.

"But it is - and a lot of it has to do not just with Israelis, but what Hamas is doing in Israel as we speak."

Biden also told the magazine that he did not think Israel was intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, but that the Israelis have "engaged in activity that is inappropriate."

The war, now nearing its ninth month, has turned much of the enclave, which is home to more than two million Palestinians, into an uninhabitable hellscape.

More than 36,000 people have been killed, the great majority of them women and children. Thousands more are missing or presumed to be dead under the rubble.

Nearly the entire population is reported to have fled their homes, and those who remained in northern Gaza are on the verge of famine.

Hamas says it isn't hampering the deal

On Friday, Biden made the unprecedented decision of announcing from the White House podium what he described as an Israeli hostage exchange and ceasefire proposal to end the war in Gaza. Biden laid out in rare detail the specifics of the three-phase agreement, including a clause that calls for a “permanent cessation of hostilities” between Hamas and Israel.

Hamas responded "positively" to the proposal shortly after Biden’s speech.

Netanyahu's office also released a statement saying that Israel had authorised its negotiating team to present an offer to Hamas.

The statement didn't endorse or reject the proposal, which the White House attributed to Israel, but said the war would not end until the "elimination" of Hamas's capacity to govern Gaza and wage war. This language marked a departure from Israel's previous calls for a total elimination of Hamas, an objective that Biden said is unachievable.

However, over the past two days, Israeli officials, both on and off the record, have distanced Israel from Biden's proposal. NBC News cited an Israeli official who said Biden's speech did not accurately represent the deal.

Netanyahu also told lawmakers there were gaps between the proposal Biden described and the actual offer made to Hamas.

Earlier on Tuesday, Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri criticised Washington's characterisation of the proposal which suggested Hamas "is hampering the deal."

In comments reported by Hamas media, Abu Zuhri said Israel was not serious about reaching a deal and was still manoeuvring under US cover.

Later, mediator Qatar said that it was waiting for a "clear position" from Israel on the proposal, adding there was no "concrete approval" from either side.

"We have yet to see a very clear position from the Israeli government towards the principles laid out by Biden," foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said.

'Right to renew fighting'

According to reports of his meeting with Israeli lawmakers, Netanyahu appears to support the first phase of Biden's proposal but has said that Israel reserves the right to destroy Hamas’s military and governing capabilities in the later stages of the agreement. 

This stance suggests that Israel is hedging to restart the fighting, especially because Hamas still has fighters in the field and its top military officials in Gaza have not been killed by Israel.

"The proposal allows Israel to preserve the right to renew fighting at any time Israel senses that the negotiations are futile," the WSJ reported, citing an Israeli official.

The Israeli comments come after two top far-right lawmakers in Netaynahu's government, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, threatened to leave the government if Netanyahu agrees to the deal outlined by Biden.

Analysts and Israeli commentators say Netanyahu could face an inquiry into his handling of the surprise Hamas-led attacks on 7 October 2023 when the war ends.

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