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Netanyahu says he told U.S. that he opposes Palestinian state in any postwar scenario

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Thursday, Jan.18, 2024.
Ohad Zwigenberg
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AP
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Thursday, Jan.18, 2024.

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday rejected calls from the United States to scale back Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip or take steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state after the war, drawing an immediate scolding from the White House.

The tense back and forth reflected what has become a wide rift between the two allies over the scope of Israel's war and its plans for the future of the beleaguered territory.

"We obviously see it differently," White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said.

Netanyahu spoke just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel would never have "genuine security" without a pathway toward Palestinian independence. Earlier this week, the White House also announced that it was the "right time" for Israel to lower the intensity of its devastating military offensive in Gaza.

In a nationally televised news conference, Netanyahu struck a defiant tone, repeatedly saying that Israel would not halt its offensive until it realizes its goals of destroying Gaza's Hamas militant group and bringing home all remaining hostages held by Hamas.

He rejected claims by a growing chorus of Israeli critics that those goals are not achievable, vowing to press ahead for many months. "We will not settle for anything short of an absolute victory," Netanyahu said.

Israel launched the offensive after an unprecedented cross-border attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people and took some 250 others hostage. Roughly 130 hostages are believed by Israel to remain in Hamas captivity. The war has stoked tensions across the region, threatening to ignite other conflicts.

Israel's assault, one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history, has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities, caused widespread destruction and uprooted over 80% of the territory's 2.3 million people from their homes.

The staggering cost of the war has led to increasing calls from the international community to halt the offensive. After initially giving Israel wall-to-wall support in the early days of the war, the United States, Israel's closest ally, has begun to express misgivings and urged Netanyahu to spell out his vision for postwar Gaza.

The United States has said the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which governs semi-autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, should be "revitalized" and return to Gaza. Hamas ousted the authority from Gaza in 2007.

The U.S. has also called for steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians seek Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem for their state. Those areas were captured by Israel in 1967.

Speaking Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Blinken said the two-state solution was the best way to protect Israel, unify moderate Arab countries and isolate Israel's arch-enemy, Iran.

Without a "pathway to a Palestinian state," he said, Israel would not "get genuine security."

At the same conference, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said the kingdom is ready to establish full relations with Israel as part of a larger political agreement. "But that can only happen through peace for the Palestinians, through a Palestinian state," he said.

Netanyahu, who leads a far-right government opposed to Palestinian statehood, repeated his longstanding opposition to a two-state solution. He said a Palestinian state would become a launching pad for attacks on Israel.

He said Israel "must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River," adding: "That collides with the idea of sovereignty. What can we do?"

"This truth I tell to our American friends, and I put the brakes on the attempt to coerce us to a reality that would endanger the state of Israel," he said.

Demonstrators hold orange balloons at a rally in solidarity with Kfir Bibas, an Israeli boy who spent his first birthday Thursday in Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.
Oded Balilty / AP
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AP
Demonstrators hold orange balloons at a rally in solidarity with Kfir Bibas, an Israeli boy who spent his first birthday Thursday in Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

The comments prompted an immediate rebuke from the White House. Kirby said that President Joe Biden would "not stop working" toward a two-state solution.

Before Oct. 7, Israeli society was bitterly divided over Netanyahu's plan for a judicial overhaul. Since the attack, the country has rallied behind the war. But divisions have once again begun to surface over Netanyahu's handling of the war.

Families of the hostages and their many supporters have called for a new cease-fire that could bring them home. Hamas released over 100 hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a weeklong cease-fire in November.

Dozens of people attended a somber gathering in Tel Aviv in solidarity with the family of Kfir Bibas, the youngest Israeli hostage, marking his first birthday. The red-haired infant and his 4-year-old brother Ariel were taken hostage along with their mother, Shiri, and their father, Yarden. All four remain in captivity.

Commentators have begun to question whether Netanyahu's objectives are realistic, given the slow pace of the offensive and growing international criticism, including genocide accusations at the United Nations world court, which Israel vehemently denies.

Netanyahu's opponents accuse him of delaying any discussion of postwar scenarios to avoid looming investigations of governmental failures, keep his coalition intact and put off elections. Polls show that the popularity of Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has plummeted during the war.

Medicines bound for hostages enter Gaza

There was no word Thursday on whether medicines that entered the territory as part of a deal brokered by France and Qatar had been distributed to dozens hostages with chronic illnesses who are being held by Hamas.

The agreement was the first to be brokered between the warring sides since November. The deal includes large shipments of medicine, food and humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians as well.

Qatar confirmed late Wednesday that the medicine had entered Gaza, but it was not yet clear if it had been distributed to the hostages, who are being held in secret locations, including underground bunkers.

The International Committee for the Red Cross, which helped facilitate the hostage releases, said it was not involved in distributing the medicine.

Fighting in Gaza

Hamas has continued to fight back across Gaza, even in the most devastated areas, and launch rockets into Israel. It says it will not release any more hostages until there is a permanent cease-fire, something Israel and the United States, its top ally, have ruled out.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have heeded Israeli evacuation orders and packed into southern Gaza, where shelters run by the United Nations are overflowing and massive tent camps have gone up.

A Palestinian woman flashes a V-sign toward Israeli troops during an army raid in the Tulkarem refugee camp, West Bank, Wednesday, Jan.17, 2024.
Nasser Nasser / AP
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AP
A Palestinian woman flashes a V-sign toward Israeli troops during an army raid in the Tulkarem refugee camp, West Bank, Wednesday, Jan.17, 2024.

Israel has continued to strike what it says are militant targets in all parts of Gaza, often killing women and children. Early Thursday, medics said an Israeli airstrike on a home killed 16 people, half of them children, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

Israel blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because it fights in dense residential areas. Israel says its forces have killed roughly 9,000 militants, without providing evidence, and that 193 of its own soldiers have been killed since the Gaza ground offensive began.

On Thursday, the Israeli army said it had destroyed "the heart" of Hamas' weapons manufacturing industry near a major north-south road in central Gaza. It said the complex included weapons factories and an extensive tunnel network used to ship arms throughout Gaza.

War reverberates across the region

The war has rippled across the Middle East, with Iranian-backed groups attacking U.S. and Israeli targets. Low-intensity fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon threatens to erupt into all-out war, and Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to target international shipping despite United States-led airstrikes.

The Israeli military said it fired an interceptor at a "suspicious aerial target" — likely a drone or missile — approaching over the Red Sea on Thursday, triggering air raid sirens in the southern city of Eilat. The Houthis have launched drones and missiles toward Israel that mostly fell short or were intercepted and shot down.

Meanwhile, Iran has launched a series of missile attacks targeting what it described as an Israeli spy base in Iraq and militant bases in Syria.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press