The Gaza war is about more than Binyamin Netanyahu’s political fortunes

Out in July

By James M. Dorsey

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s refusal to end the Gaza war is about much more than avoiding a reckoning that could end his political life and potentially land him in prison.

No doubt, Mr. Netanyahu has a personal interest in prolonging the war. But reducing the drivers of Israeli policy to the prime minister’s interests neglects the far greater stakes invested in a permanent ceasefire.

Agreeing to a permanent ceasefire and an end to the war would shape international and Palestinian efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways much of the Israeli polity rejects, despite the public clamour for the prioritizing of bringing Hamas-held hostages home.

Source: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA)

Mr. Netanyahu’s vow to continue the war until Hamas is defeated militarily and politically, irrespective of one’s attitude towards the group, is an attempt to break the backbone of Palestinian rejection of more than half a century of occupation and weaken Palestinian national identity.

It also is an effort to reconstitute the Palestinian polity in ways that would allow for the emergence of a leadership that would be subservient to Israel rather than represent Palestinian national aspirations.

Mr. Netanyahu recognises that ending the war without destroying Hamas would constitute a victory for the group.

A recent CIA assessment suggested that Mr. Netanyahu sees “completing major military operations” and the killing or capture of a senior Gaza-based Hamas leader like Mohammed Deif, the commander of the group’s military wing, as his opportunity to declare victory.

This week, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to indicate that Israel was about to achieve his first benchmark. The “intense phase of the war with Hamas is about to end,” Mr. Netanyahu said in his first sit-down interview on Israeli television since the war began. 

“It doesn’t mean that the war is going to end, but the war in its current stage is going to end in Rafah. This is true. We will continue mowing the grass later,” Mr. Netanyahu added.

Retired Israeli military officers said the war would evolve into a counterinsurgency campaign with Israel maintaining a more limited presence as well as its blockade of Gaza and Hamas waging a low-intensity, hit-and-run guerrilla war.

Even so, Hamas, much like Mr. Netanyahu, is unlikely to escape a domestic political reckoning for its part in provoking and prolonging Israel’s war that has cost tens of thousands of innocent civilians, ruined the lives of many more, and reduced Gaza to a pile of rubble.

“Hamas is aware that the October 7 war is seen by some of the Palestinian public as a dangerous gamble that harmed the Palestinian cause – a bet that has caused the death and injury of over 118,000 Palestinians,” said Shaul Bartal, a Middle East scholar who served in the Israel military in the West Bank.

Ironically, Hamas could emerge from the reckoning in better shape than Mr. Netanyahu.

Irrespective of what Hamas’ post-war standing is among Palestinians, it is unlikely to ease Mr. Netanyahu’s predicament or enhance his ability to shape the Palestinian polity in ways that would secure Israeli control and preclude the creation of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Even so, Mr. Netanyahu’s determination to shape the Palestinian polity explains his refusal to produce a definitive plan for the governance of Gaza as well as the West Bank once the guns fall silent, his rejection of allowing a return to Gaza of the West Bank-based, internationally recognised Palestine Authority, and his vague references to unaffiliated technocrats and Gazan tribal and clan leaders as potential alternatives.

Credit: The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey

"We have made efforts with local clans. We know Hamas has slaughtered them. This isn't the forum to give more details on this. But we are making efforts to advance this matter," Mr. Netanyahu said in a Cabinet meeting earlier this month.

In his television interview, Mr. Netanyahu said “The question is if we want to establish a civil administration, if possible, with locals, maybe with backing from countries in the region, so that they can deal with handing out the humanitarian aid and then, afterwards, expand its responsibilities of civilian administration of Gaza."

Tzachi Hanegbi, Mr. Netanyahu’s national security advisor, said two days later he expected a "local leadership that is ready to live alongside Israel and not dedicate its existence to trying to kill Israelis" to be in place in northern Gaza within days. “It will put Hamas under great pressure," Mr. Hanegbi said.

Palestinian sources said the Israeli military had advised some displaced Palestinian businessmen that they would be allowed to return to northern Gaza provided they agreed to cooperate with the military.

A 28-page policy paper, written by academics and circulating at senior levels of the Israeli government, argues the envisioned post-war Gaza administration would be a transitionary phase towards “an autonomous Palestinian entity” or “demilitarized Palestinian self-rule” rather than statehood.

The transition would involve “the creation of a positive horizon for the defeated nation,” deradicalization of the population through “education for peace,” defined as “eradicating jihadist ambitions,” and nurturing a popular disavowal of violence and embrace of effective governance.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini. Source: Google Images

To achieve, these goals the paper recommends removing from Gaza the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main humanitarian organisation in the Strip, “purifying the education system” by replacing teachers, rewriting textbooks, and ensuring supervision of schools and the media.

Another plan under discussion involves creating geographical "islands" or "bubbles" where Palestinians who are unconnected to Hamas can live in temporary shelter while the Israeli military mops up remaining insurgents.

Yet a third plan envisions slicing up Gaza with two corridors running across its width and a fortified perimeter that would allow Israel's military to mount raids when it deems them necessary.

Arab countries have indicated that they will not run the risk of being seen as doing Israel’s bidding. To avoid that, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates insist that any possible engagement would have to be based on a credible and irreversible pathway to an independent Palestinian state.

The irony is that Mr. Netanyahu was in a better position to manipulate Palestinian politics, keep Palestinians divided, and undermine the credibility of the Palestine Authority as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people as long as he could play Hamas against Al Fatah, the Authority’s backbone, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Hamas deprived Mr. Netanyahu of his ability to play divide-and-rule with the Palestinians with its October 7 attack that killed more than 1,100 people, the majority civilian Israelis and foreigners, and kidnapped 250 others.

Mr. Netanyahu has, over the last decade, become more unambiguous about his rejection of a Palestinian state.

"Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel," Mr. Netanyahu charged in 2015.

This year, Mr. Netanyahu conceded that Israel’s demand that it permanently control security between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean “contradicts the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty.

Bezalel Smotrich’s leaked tape. Credit: Middle East Eye

A recently leaked recording of remarks by ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich suggested that Mr. Netanyahu was on board with his endeavour to take authority over the West Bank out of the hands of the military and turn it over to civilians working for Mr. Smotrich in the defense ministry.

Critics charge the move amounts to de facto annexation aimed at preventing the West Bank from becoming part of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Netanyahu’s long-standing rejection of a Palestinian state and acquiescence in Mr. Smotrich’s endeavour suggests a more fundamental meeting of the minds between Mr. Netanyahu and the ultra-nationalists, despite the prime minister’s greater dependency on his far-right coalition partners following the resignation of war cabinet member Benny Gantz.

Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to achieve his war goals – the destruction of Hamas, the release of the remaining Hamas-held hostages, and ensuring that Gaza will no longer provide a launching pad for Palestinian resistance – compounds his predicament.

Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Daniel Hagari drove the point home when he last week declared that "The idea of destroying Hamas is simply throwing sand in the eyes of the public…Hamas is an idea, Hamas is a political party…whoever thinks we can eliminate Hamas is mistaken.”

As a result, Mr. Netanyahu is left with no good options.

Even worse, his rejection of any equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Gaza war conduct, alongside the impact on Israelis of the brutality of the Hamas attack and the group’s torturous internal struggle to come to grips with the reality of an Israeli state, has made bridging a century-old divide more elusive.

Healing the wounds on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take a generation, if not more. The impact of the Holocaust on survivors and the next two generations is Exhibit A.

The issue here is not whether one can compare the more than 100,000 dead and wounded in Gaza to the Nazi extermination of six million Jews. However, it is to say that there is a comparison in terms of Jewish perceptions of the Holocaust and Palestinian perceptions of the Gaza war and what they term the Nakba, the 1948 creation of Israel, and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians.

“The Israel-Hamas war is a generation scarring trauma. It will bring Israelis and Palestinians to one realization. It’s not that we don’t understand one another; it’s that we understand one another only too well. Changing that will require leadership of heroic proportion,” said former US Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller.

Credit: UNICEF

Establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel would disentangle the two sides but hardly constitute a panacea.

Strained relations comparable to India and Pakistan that erupted at times into armed conflict may be the best Israel and Palestine can hope for.

Nevertheless, disentanglement would constitute a major step towards creating an environment where wounds may heal aided by the prospect of a better future if relations are managed in good faith.

That may be a tall order.

Even so, in the words of Yonatan Zeigen, whose mother, peace activist Vivian Silver, Hamas killed on October 7, “You can’t cure killed babies with more dead babies.”

Recognising that requires the kind of Israeli and Palestinian leadership that is nowhere in sight in either Israel or Palestine.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.


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