Netanyahu escapes political revolt over Hamas prisoner swap but faces ally’s ‘immoral’ accusation

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu - Getty Images

The Israeli prime minister is under strain from various quarters amid criticism that the truce deal is insufficient.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has prevented a major rift in his far-right coalition over the Gaza deal with Hamas, despite the strong objections of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the hawkish national security minister.

Ben-Gvir and two other ministers from his extremist Jewish Power party opposed the deal, but their allies in the similarly hardline Religious Zionist party backed it after a tense Israeli cabinet meeting on Tuesday night.

The deal with Hamas involves the release of 50 women and children held captive in Gaza in exchange for a four-day ceasefire and the release of 150 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, with the possibility of further swaps for each additional day of calm.

The deal came after weeks of Netanyahu’s vocal resistance to any halt in Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, but also amid growing political pressure on the prime minister, whose popularity has plummeted since the 7 October massacre by Hamas.

Ben-Gvir denounced the deal on Wednesday, saying: “We have no right to agree to split them and only bring some of them back. And we certainly cannot accept a plan that releases female and underage terrorists when we don’t get everyone back”, adding that the ceasefire favoured Hamas.

According to leaks from the cabinet meeting, Ben-Gvir also warned that the decision to support the deal would cause “generational damage that will come back to haunt us badly”.

The endorsement of Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, and his Religious Zionist party, however, was a win for Netanyahu and his senior partners.

They were swayed by the support of Yoav Gallant, the defence minister, and by top officials in the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, who backed the deal even at the cost of slowing down the offensive.

“The Religious Zionist party’s ministers were persuaded that this is a success that aligns with and furthers the goals of the war and does not harm them,” the party said in a statement after the vote. “It is a deal with low costs that stems from the pressure on [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar, a deal that will free many women and children, and a step that is limited in time and has clear mechanisms to prevent deterioration. Right after that, the war will resume until Hamas is wiped out.”

The proposed truce that would secure the release of hostages held by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza has posed a dilemma for Netanyahu and his cabinet. They have to weigh the public demand for freeing the captives, which has been fueled by the relentless efforts of their families, against the fear that a lasting ceasefire would signal the end of Israel’s campaign against Hamas, a fear that Netanyahu dismissed as “nonsense”.

Netanyahu defended his endorsement of a deal that he had previously rejected, saying: “Let me be clear: we are at war, and we will not stop the war until we accomplish all our goals – eliminating Hamas, retrieving all our hostages and MIAs, and ensuring that no one in Gaza poses a threat to Israel.”

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, however, admitted that the deal – while ethical – would evoke “understandable, painful and difficult reservations”.

He said: “It is a moral and ethical obligation that reflects the Jewish and Israeli value of redeeming captives, and I hope that it will be a significant first step towards bringing all the captives back home.”

Leading Israeli commentators on Wednesday echoed the political challenges that Netanyahu faces as he tries to sell the deal, with Nahum Barnea, a reporter for the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, arguing that “Israel has no choice but to pay the price” while linking the deal to the failures of 7 October.

He said: “The alternative to abandoning the hostages a second time, after they were already abandoned on October, would have been much worse and much more risky. Besides the price it could cost in blood and lives, it would have stained the Israeli government and the IDF forever.”

Others were even more critical. Yossi Yehoshua, also writing in Yedioth, warned that Israel risked losing “an historic opportunity to fundamentally change the Gaza situation, and will not only pay for that in soldiers’ lives but by missing out on a better deal”, adding “we are endangering our most important war in recent decades. One man has to take responsibility for all of this: Binyamin Netanyahu.”

On Kan Radio, Gadi Shamni, a former high-ranking military officer, said: “I’m not sure that Netanyahu wants to win this war. This wavering might suit him.

“Netanyahu already knows that he will go down in history as the man who created this crisis with his own two hands. The prime minister postponed the IDF [ground] operation for weeks – he didn’t trust the IDF’s abilities, and he chose to waste his time.

“What Netanyahu wants, above all, is to minimise the damage to himself,” he said