Netanyahu Weighs Risks of Rafah Assault as Hostage Dilemma Divides Israelis

 Families of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, demonstrate outside the US embassy branch in Tel Aviv calling for the war to continue and for the Israeli army to keep on fighting inside Rafah in the south of the besieged Palestinian territory on May 7, 2024. (AFP)
Families of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, demonstrate outside the US embassy branch in Tel Aviv calling for the war to continue and for the Israeli army to keep on fighting inside Rafah in the south of the besieged Palestinian territory on May 7, 2024. (AFP)
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Netanyahu Weighs Risks of Rafah Assault as Hostage Dilemma Divides Israelis

 Families of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, demonstrate outside the US embassy branch in Tel Aviv calling for the war to continue and for the Israeli army to keep on fighting inside Rafah in the south of the besieged Palestinian territory on May 7, 2024. (AFP)
Families of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, demonstrate outside the US embassy branch in Tel Aviv calling for the war to continue and for the Israeli army to keep on fighting inside Rafah in the south of the besieged Palestinian territory on May 7, 2024. (AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces competing pressures at home and abroad when he weighs how far to push the operation to defeat Hamas in Rafah that complicates hopes of bringing Israeli hostages home.

Street demonstrations against the government by families and supporters of some of the more than 130 hostages still held in Gaza have become a constant fixture, with protestors demanding a ceasefire deal with Hamas to get them back.

Others are demanding the government and the Israeli Defense Forces press ahead with the Rafah operation against the remaining Hamas formations holding out around the city which began this week with air strikes and battles on the outskirts.

"We applaud the Israeli government and the IDF for going into Rafah," said Mirit Hoffman, a spokesperson for Mothers of IDF Soldiers, a group representing families of serving military personnel, which wants an uncompromising line to pressure Hamas into surrender.

"We think that this is how negotiations are done in the Middle East."

The opposing pressures mirror divisions in Netanyahu's cabinet between centrist ministers concerned at alienating Washington, Israel's most vital ally and supplier of arms, and religious nationalist hardliners determined to clear Hamas out of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas handed Netanyahu a dilemma this week when it declared it had accepted a ceasefire proposal brokered by Egypt for a halt to fighting in return for an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli officials rejected the offer, accusing Hamas of altering the terms of the deal. But it did not break off negotiations and shuttle diplomacy continues, with CIA chief Bill Burns in Israel on Wednesday to meet Netanyahu.

Internationally, protests have spread against Israel's campaign in Gaza, which has so far killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, and spread malnutrition and disease in the enclave.

Seven months into the war, surveys show opinion in Israel has become increasingly divided since Netanyahu first vowed to crush Hamas in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies, took more than 250 hostage, and triggered the campaign in Gaza.

"I understand that it's necessary to defeat Hamas but I think that can wait, and the hostages cannot wait," said Elisheva Leibler, 52, from Jerusalem. "Every second they're there poses immediate danger to their lives."

For the moment, Netanyahu has kept the cabinet together, rejecting the latest Hamas proposal for a ceasefire but keeping the negotiations alive by dispatching mid-ranking officials to Cairo, where Egyptian mediators are overseeing the process.

But the risks he faces by holding out against a deal, as his hard-right partners wish, were highlighted on Tuesday when Washington paused a shipment of weapons to signal its opposition to the long-promised Rafah assault.

DIVIDED OPINION

Despite his image as a security hawk, Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister, has struggled with a widespread perception that he was to blame for the security failures that allowed Hamas to overwhelm Israel's defenses around Gaza.

That has fed a mood of distrust among many Israelis who otherwise support strong action against Hamas.

A survey published on Wednesday for Channel 13 suggested that 56% of Israelis thought Netanyahu's chief consideration was his own political survival against only 30% who thought it was freeing the hostages.

A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found just over half the population believed a deal to rescue the hostages should be the top government priority, over the aim of destroying the remaining Hamas formations.

But a separate poll by the Jewish People's Policy Institute (JPPI) found 61% thought the military must operate in Rafah no matter what. The Channel 13 poll found 41% in favor of accepting the deal and 44% opposed.

"I don't trust Hamas at all," said 81-year-old David Taub, from Jerusalem. "The only solution is to conquer Rafah, and then maybe, we hope, we pray, the hostages will come back to us."

For the moment, Netanyahu depends on the two hardliners from the nationalist religious bloc, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, both of whom reject any suggestion of compromise.

Both have clashed repeatedly with Benny Gantz, the centrist former army general who joined the emergency wartime cabinet in the wake of Oct 7, and who is the leading contender to replace Netanyahu after new elections.

Gantz and his ally Gadi Eisenkot, another former army chief, are both sworn enemies of Hamas, but both have been alarmed at the deterioration in relations with the United States.

For the increasingly desperate hostage families, a mood of deepening exhaustion at the endless uncertainty has settled in, with hopes of a safe return overcoming any other consideration.

Niva Wenkert, mother of 22-year-old hostage Omer Wenkert, said she had no choice but to trust Israeli leaders but that not enough had been done.

"The hostages are still in Gaza, the military actions almost stopped and the feelings are very, very bad. I want Omer back."



What Are the Implications of the Visit by 4 Arab Leaders to China?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
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What Are the Implications of the Visit by 4 Arab Leaders to China?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)

The leaders of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Tunisia are conducting a visit to China this week to attend the China-Arab Cooperation Forum, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing announced on Monday.

From Tuesday to Saturday, the presidents will “pay state visits to China and attend the opening ceremony of the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, diplomats and experts in Chinese affairs said the participation of Arab heads of state was aimed at conveying a message about efforts to strengthen relations with China, which in return is seeking to engage more in political affairs related to the Middle East.

According to the Chinese statement, the Arab delegation includes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Tunisian President Kais Saied and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

During a press conference, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Deng Li said China’s President Xi Jinping will attend the Forum and deliver a speech on Thursday, adding that he will hold separate talks with the four Arab leaders to discuss bilateral relations and exchange views on regional and international issues of common interest.

Former Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister Ambassador Ezzat Saad told Asharq Al-Awsat that Chinese-Arab relations have witnessed a boom in recent years, specifically since Xi came to power in 2013.

“There are about 12 Arab countries that currently maintain comprehensive strategic partnership relations with China,” he said, noting that Chinese investments in Arab countries almost reached $250 billion dollars, while the volume of Chinese trade with Arab countries is close to half a trillion dollars.

He interpreted the high-level Arab participation as “a message to the West, reflecting the development of Arab relations with eastern powers, such as China and Russia, in light of those countries’ respect for the United Nations Charter and the rights of peoples to self-determination and non-interference in the affairs of others, in contrast to existing Western double-standard policy.”

Asian affairs expert at the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs Diaa Helmy said China is interested in the region, demonstrated in its involvement in political issues and its effort to create “global balances”, in wake of the war on Gaza and the possibility of its spillover into the region and impacting international trade.

China is interested in joining the mediation efforts and help in taking just and urgent decisions to preserve peace and security in the Middle East, he added, noting China’s balanced position towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its support of legitimate Arab rights.