Netanyahu uses hostage rescue to justify Rafah strikes as his support dwindles

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Reports of a fractured relationship with Joe Biden and collapse in public support are isolating Israeli PM

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is deploying the successful rescue of two Israeli hostages to justify continued military pressure on Rafah, even as Israel has come under intense international pressure not to launch a ground offensive against the southern Gaza city.

In the immediate aftermath of the rescue, which took place in the early hours of Monday, Netanyahu said it demonstrated the need for continuing pressure on Hamas in order to secure the release of the remaining hostages.

Others, however, may draw different lessons from the raid, which stands as a grim metaphor for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

The Israeli military has rescued just three hostages in more than four months of fighting, fewer than the number of hostages who have been killed in Israeli efforts to free them.

Instead, the vast majority of hostages who have been released have had their freedom secured in negotiations with Hamas, with more than 100 freed during a week-long ceasefire last year. More than 30 more are confirmed to have died in captivity, with fears for the lives of at least 20 others.

At least 67 Palestinians were killed during the raid, according to the Gaza ministry of health, as Israeli aircraft bombarded the neighbourhood with bombs, and the high death toll will be seen as telling its own grim story in the ratio of dead to rescued. It also underlines the enormous risk to civilian life in the event of an Israeli offensive against Rafah.

Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, suggested it was unlikely that Hamas would not learn from the rescue to ensure it was not repeated.

He said: “It was a rare achievement … it will be hard to repeat this success despite the pressure that the army is exerting on Hamas, which will certainly learn from the experience by identifying weak points in the rescue that it can exploit and order its units holding the rest of the Israeli hostages to be more vigilant.”

The Israeli threat to launch a ground offensive against Rafah, where more than 1.3 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering in a city with a prewar population of about 300,000, defines the bigger picture: one where international patience with Netanyahu is fast running out.

With almost 30,000 Palestinians killed since the campaign began after the 7 October Hamas attacks, mounting international anger with Netanyahu is boiling into the open.

Confirming other reporting last week about the fraught relationship with the US president, NBC reported on Monday that Joe Biden had described Netanyahu as an “asshole” and “this guy” on three separate occasions. “He just feels that enough is enough. This (referring to war) needs to stop,” one source told the channel.

At the centre of the growing friction between Biden and Netanyahu has been Netanyahu’s refusal to contemplate an end to the fighting and his rejection of a two-state solution.

While the White House last week denied a report in Politico that Biden had called Netanyahu “a bad fucking guy”, the accumulation of recent reports of Biden’s private remarks points to a relationship at rock bottom despite regular calls between the two leaders.

Last week the Biden administration issued an executive order requiring countries receiving US arms to provide written assurances that they are not breaking international law, seen by some as aimed at Israel, a major recipient of US weapons.

That announcement followed US sanctions against four Israeli settlers implicated in acts of violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Discontent over Israel’s policies, enacted by Netanyahu’s government that is held up by two far-right parties, has also been seen elsewhere.

On Monday the British government issued its own sanctions against four settlers accused of violence while, in perhaps the most significant move, a Dutch court issued a ban on the export of parts for Israeli F-35s over concern they could be used to commit war crimes.

Coming on top of the complaints against Israel’s conduct in the war, including an allegation by South Africa of “genocide” at the international court of justice, the politics surrounding a large-scale Israeli assault on Rafah have become more complicated by the day, explaining why Monday’s rescue mission – although a small moment of limited significance in the wider context of the war – has taken on the meaning that it has.

Faced with collapsing public support for continuing in office, Netanyahu finds himself in a bind, amid evidence that after months of war governments are prepared to take concrete and consequential steps, even if they are small for now.

Set against that is the knowledge in Netanyahu’s inner circle that an end to the war in all likelihood will mean the end of his political career, a reckoning that an assault on Rafah is now unlikely to deflect even if it resulted in the killing or capture of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, and other senior figures from the militant group.

While in the past Netanyahu has used the pretext of political pressure from Washington in particular as an excuse for avoiding difficult decisions, it is far from clear whether that logic still holds amid his preoccupation with survival.

As Netanyahu ponders his next move – whether to attack Rafah in force – the rescue of two hostages is at best a momentary diversion amid the continuing bloodshed and Israel’s increasing isolation.