Netanyahu rallies against growing U.S. criticisms

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Tel Aviv (Israel), March 17, 2024 – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railed Sunday against growing criticism from top ally the United States against his leadership amid the devastating war with Hamas, saying the pressure won’t stop Israel from achieving “total victory.”

In recent days, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the country and a strong Israel supporter, called on Israel to hold a new election, saying Netanyahu had “lost his way.” 

President Joe Biden expressed support for Schumer’s “good speech,” and earlier accused Netanyahu of hurting Israel because of the huge civilian death toll in Gaza.

Netanyahu denounced Schumer’s comments as “wholly inappropriate,” telling Fox News that Israel never would have called for a new U.S. election after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We’re not a banana republic,” he said. “The people of Israel will choose when they will have elections, and who they’ll elect, and it’s not something that will be foisted on us.”

When asked by CNN whether he would commit to a new election after the war ends, Netanyahu said that “I think that’s something for the Israeli public to decide.”

The U.S., which has provided key military and diplomatic support to Israel, also has expressed concerns about a planned Israeli assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where about 1.4 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering, and support for a new round of talks aimed at securing a cease-fire in exchange for the return of Israeli hostages taken in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

The Israeli delegation to those talks wasn’t expected to leave for Qatar until after Sunday evening meetings of the Security Cabinet and War Cabinet, which will give directions for the negotiations.

Despite the talks, Netanyahu made it clear he had no plan to back down from the fighting that has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials. More than five months have passed since Hamas’ attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people and left another 250 hostages in Gaza.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu said that calls for an election now — which polls show he would lose badly — would force Israel to stop fighting and would paralyze the country for six months.

“If we stop the war now, before all of its goals are achieved, this means that Israel will have lost the war, and this we will not allow,” he said.

Netanyahu also reiterated his determination to attack Hamas in Rafah and said that his government approved military plans for such an operation.

“We will operate in Rafah. This will take several weeks, and it will happen,” he said.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Sunday reiterated his warning that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would have “grave repercussions on the whole region.” Egypt also says pushing Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula would jeopardize its peace treaty with Israel, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century.

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York and an outspoken critic of Netanyahu, said that the prime minister’s comments fit with his efforts to find someone else to blame should Israel not achieve its goal of destroying Hamas.

“He’s looking on purpose for a conflict with the U.S. so that he can blame Biden,” Pinkas said.

Both sides have something to gain politically from the dispute. The Biden administration is under increasing pressure from progressive Democrats and some Arab-American supporters to restrain Israel’s war against Hamas. Netanyahu, meanwhile, wants to show his nationalist base that he can withstand global pressure, even from Israel’s closest ally.

But pressure also comes from home, with thousands protesting again in Tel Aviv on Saturday night against Netanyahu’s government and calling for a new election and a deal to free remaining hostages.

Israel’s offensive has driven most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people from their homes. A quarter of Gaza’s population is starving, according to the U.N.

Airdrops by the U.S. and other nations continue, while deliveries on a new sea route have begun, but aid groups say more ground routes and fewer Israeli restrictions on them are needed to meet humanitarian needs in any significant way.

The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 31,645 Palestinians have been killed in the war. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count, but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

The Health Ministry on Sunday said that the bodies of 92 people killed in Israel’s bombardment had been brought to hospitals in Gaza in the past 24 hours. Hospitals also received 130 wounded, it said.

At least 11 people from the Thabet family, including five children and one woman, were killed in an airstrike in Deir al-Balah city in central Gaza, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and an Associated Press journalist. The body of an infant lay among the dead. (AP)

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