JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday rejected calls from the United States to scale back Israel's military assault on the Gaza Strip or take steps toward establishing a post-war Palestinian state, drawing immediate criticism from the White House.
The back-and-forth tension reflects what has become a widespread disagreement between the two allies over the scope of the Israeli war and its plans for the future of the besieged region.
“Obviously, we see it differently,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.
Netanyahu spoke just one day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel would never enjoy “real security” without a path to Palestinian independence. Earlier this week, the White House also declared that this was the “right time” for Israel to reduce the intensity of its devastating military offensive in Gaza.
In a nationally televised news conference, Netanyahu struck a defiant tone, repeatedly saying that Israel would not stop its offensive until it achieved its goals of destroying the Hamas militant group in Gaza and returning all remaining hostages held by Hamas.
He rejected claims by a growing group of Israeli critics that these goals were unachievable, and pledged to press ahead for several months. “We will not settle for anything less than absolute victory,” Netanyahu said.
Israel launched the attack after an unprecedented cross-border attack by Hamas on October 7 that killed 1,200 people and took about 250 others hostage. Israel believes that approximately 130 hostages remain in Hamas captivity. The war has raised tensions across the region, threatening to ignite other conflicts.
The Israeli offensive, one of the bloodiest and most destructive military campaigns in modern history, has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities, caused widespread destruction and uprooted more than 80% of the enclave's 2.3 million residents from their homes.
The high cost of the war has led to increased calls from the international community to stop the offensive. After initially providing blanket support to Israel in the early days of the war, the United States, Israel's closest ally, began to voice its concerns and urged Netanyahu to clarify his vision for post-war Gaza.
The United States said the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which governs semi-autonomous areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, should be “activated” and returned to Gaza. Hamas expelled the Authority from Gaza in 2007.
The United States also called for steps toward establishing a Palestinian state. The Palestinians seek to establish their state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel occupied these areas in 1967.
Speaking Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Blinken said a two-state solution is the best way to protect Israel, unite moderate Arab countries and isolate Israel's arch-enemy, Iran.
He added that without “a path leading to a Palestinian state,” Israel will not “obtain real security.”
At the same conference, the Saudi Foreign Minister said that the Kingdom was ready to establish full relations with Israel as part of a larger political agreement. He added: “But this can only happen through peace for the Palestinians, through the Palestinian state.”
Netanyahu, who leads a far-right government opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, reiterated his continued opposition to the two-state solution. He said that the Palestinian state would become a starting point for attacks on Israel.
He said that Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” adding, “This contradicts the idea of sovereignty. So what can we do?”
He said: “I say this truth to our American friends, and stop trying to force us into a reality that would endanger the State of Israel.”
These comments sparked an immediate rebuke from the White House. Kirby said President Joe Biden “will not stop working” toward a two-state solution.
Before October 7, Israeli society was deeply divided over Netanyahu's plan for judicial reform. Since the attack, the country has rallied behind the war. But divisions are beginning to surface again over Netanyahu's handling of the war.
The hostages' families and many of their supporters called for a new ceasefire that could bring them home. Hamas released more than 100 hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners during a week-long ceasefire in November.
Dozens of people participated in a sad gathering in Tel Aviv in solidarity with the family of Kfir Bibas, the youngest Israeli hostage, on the occasion of his first birthday. The red-haired baby and his 4-year-old brother, Ariel, were taken hostage along with their mother, Sherri, and father, Yarden. The four are still in captivity.
Commentators have begun to question whether Netanyahu's goals are realistic, given the slow pace of the attack and mounting international criticism, including charges of genocide at the UN World Court, which Israel vehemently denies.
Netanyahu's opponents accuse him of delaying any discussion of post-war scenarios to avoid imminent investigations into government failures, preserve his coalition and postpone elections. Opinion polls show that the popularity of Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, declined during the war.
Medicines intended for hostages enter Gaza
There was no news Thursday on whether the medicines that entered the Palestinian territories as part of a deal brokered by France and Qatar had been distributed to dozens of hostages suffering from chronic diseases held by Hamas.
This agreement is the first reached between the warring parties since November. The deal includes large shipments of medicine, food and humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians as well.
Qatar confirmed late Wednesday that the medicine had entered Gaza, but it was not yet clear whether it had been distributed to hostages held in secret locations, including underground bunkers.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which helped facilitate the hostage release, said it was not involved in distributing the medicine.
Fighting in Gaza
Hamas continued to fight throughout Gaza, even in the most devastated areas, and to fire rockets at Israel. It says it will not release more hostages until a permanent ceasefire is reached, which Israel and the United States, its major ally, have ruled out.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians responded to Israeli evacuation orders and crowded into southern Gaza, where UN-run shelters were filled and huge camps were set up.
Israel has continued to strike what it says are militant targets throughout Gaza, often resulting in the deaths of women and children. Early Thursday, medics said an Israeli air strike on a house killed 16 people, half of them children, in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
Israel blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because it is fighting in dense residential areas. Israel says that its forces killed about nine thousand militants without providing evidence, and that 193 of its soldiers were killed since the start of the ground attack on Gaza.
The Israeli military said on Thursday that it had destroyed the “heart” of Hamas' weapons industry near a main north-south road in central Gaza. She added that the complex includes weapons factories and a vast network of tunnels used to ship weapons throughout Gaza.
The war reverberates throughout the region
The war has spread across the Middle East, with Iranian-backed groups attacking American and Israeli targets. Low-intensity fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon threatens to turn into an all-out war, and Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to target international shipping despite US-led air strikes.
The Israeli military said it fired an interceptor missile at a “suspicious air target” — likely a drone or missile — approaching over the Red Sea on Thursday, setting off sirens in the southern city of Eilat. The Houthis launched drones and missiles towards Israel, most of which failed or were intercepted and shot down.
At the same time, Iran launched a series of missile attacks targeting what it described as an Israeli spy base in Iraq and militant bases in Syria.
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