Netanyahu back in partisan form in first Israeli TV town hall of war

Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -It was vintage Benjamin Netanyahu: a friendly interviewer, raucous applause from a supportive audience, and an overt appeal to his right wing supporters against the return of the Israeli left.

During an interview on Israel's Channel 14 television on Sunday, the prime minister made headlines by announcing that the most intense fighting in Gaza would come to an end soon, but that Israeli forces would still fight on until they eradicate Hamas.

He repeated a longstanding position that he was willing to agree only to temporary pauses in fighting to release some hostages, not the full end to the war that Hamas has demanded before agreeing to any truce.

That drew denunciations from families of hostages who have long accused him of delaying their release by prolonging the war, and from Hamas which says he has not upheld a ceasefire proposal touted by Washington and backed by the U.N.

On Monday, in a speech in parliament, Netanyahu said that Israel remained committed to its ceasefire and hostage deal proposal as presented by U.S. President Joe Biden last month, but that it would not end the war until Hamas was eliminated.

But as remarkable as anything Netanyahu said Sunday night was the venue he chose to say it: before a friendly studio audience that cheered him on, in his first interview on live Israeli TV since the attack by Hamas-led fighters that precipitated the Gaza war.

This was Netanyahu back in his natural element, a TV format he is known to relish from the 10 national election campaigns he has fought as leader of the rightwing Likud Party over the past three decades, winning power or keeping it in eight of them.


"This is a right-wing government and if it falls it won't take long before there will be a left-wing government that will do one thing immediately - establish a Palestinian terrorist state," Netanyahu said.

While it is too early to suggest Netanyahu may be gearing up for a snap election - which would be the sixth in just over five years - his return to his familiar campaigning style shows his need to shore up his coalition, said political scientist Gideon Rahat, of the bi-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.

"He was speaking to his base," Rahat said. "He is sustaining his government ... that's the main goal. And he is succeeding, he is buying time."

Over the past eight months, Netanyahu has given interviews to U.S. television but avoided them at home. Instead of his familiar partisan pugilism, he has tried to portray himself as a consensus figure at the helm of a national unity emergency government that included his centrist rival Benny Gantz, who joined after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

Two weeks ago, Gantz quit, accusing Netanyahu's government of lacking a long-term plan for Gaza after the war. Since then Netanyahu has focused more openly on shoring up the rightwing coalition that brought him back to power a year and a half ago.

He has pushed back against pressure from far-right and ultra-Orthodox religious partners over a raft of contentious laws related to rabbinical appointments and military conscription. Last week Netanyahu said such initiatives risked dividing the coalition, and must be set aside during war time.

Still, there has been little sign of an organised effort by his political opponents to force a new election soon. For now, his most vocal opposition comes from family members of the hostages, who pounced on his comments on Sunday that he would consider only a "partial" truce to release "some" of the hostages before fighting on to defeat Hamas.

"I don't understand the prime minister's strategy," Ruby Chen, father of soldier Itay Chen whose body is being held by Hamas, told Army Radio. "How does this chatter help?"

The main hostage family group said in a statement: "The families of the hostages will not allow the government and its leader to back away from their fundamental commitments to our loved ones' fate. The responsibility and duty to return all hostages lies with the prime minister."

Netanyahu issued a late-night clarification that said Israel will "not leave Gaza until we return all 120 of our hostages, living and deceased".

(Additional reporting by Steven Scheer; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Peter Graff; Editing by Edmund Blair and Peter Graff)