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3 April 2024

Benjamin Netanyahu’s war games

The prime minister is staking his political survival on a war Israel can’t win.

By Alona Ferber

Nearly six months after Hamas attacked southern Israel on 7 October and Israel started bombing Gaza, Benjamin Netanyahu’s office made a sudden announcement about the prime minister’s health. On 31 March, the 74-year-old would be undergoing surgery for a hernia. With the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) still pounding Gaza, and during the largest anti-government protests in the country since the war began, Israel’s leader would be placed under full sedation.

The operation to treat the hernia was a success, and came at a time when the Middle East crisis is deemed to be escalating gravely. On 1 April, Iran vowed revenge after it accused Israel of killing a commander from its Revolutionary Guards (a branch of the Iranian armed forces) in a missile strike in Syria. Soon after 7 October, the terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman told me that if Israel ended up fighting a war on multiple fronts – in Gaza, on the northern border with Hezbollah and perhaps even in the West Bank – then Israel would “likely target Iran, the puppetmaster”. He predicted this would “have dire repercussions and, much like the 9/11 attacks changed national, regional and international security, this will have a similarly seismic impact”. The strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus looks like Israel is trying to take advantage of the conflict in Gaza to attack enemies elsewhere.

A week earlier, on 25 March, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, as well as the immediate and unconditional release of hostages held in the Strip, and increased humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The United States abstained from the vote rather than vetoing it. Israel appears increasingly isolated.

That same week, the cover of the European edition of the Economist, the house journal of the liberal world order, showed a dusty and wind-blown Israeli flag beneath the headline: “Israel alone.” Israel was not only losing international support, the Economist declared, but it could soon be “locked in the bleakest trajectory of its 75-year existence, featuring endless occupation, hard-right politics and isolation”.

Yet as the former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon Jasmine El-Gamal wrote in a column for the New Statesman, public spats between the Israeli and American leaderships will not impact US policy towards its Middle Eastern ally. Nor will the US’s abstention at the UN, the death toll in Gaza surpassing 30,000 people (according to the Hamas-run health ministry), or weekly protests around the world calling for an immediate ceasefire.

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US military aid and arms transfers to Israel continue, even as there is increasingly a global consensus that the war on Gaza looks more destructive and crueller by the day. On 1 April, the Israeli army declared its two-week raid on Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital – which Israel said was a Hamas base – a success. Harrowing footage showed the hospital razed to the ground, with bodies scattered inside and outside the facility. That same night, an Israeli drone strike killed seven aid workers, including three Britons and a Palestinian, from the charity World Central Kitchen. The Israeli military has since said that the strike was “a mistake that followed a misidentification”.

But for Netanyahu, Israel’s apparent isolation is politically useful. He must fear an end to the war. Facing criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust that could see him imprisoned, as well as a public reckoning over his government’s failure to prevent the 7 October attack, Netanyahu knows that his political demise is deferred as long as the fighting continues.

He has much to be anxious about. The war continues with few meaningful gains for Israel, only more dead soldiers – 600 according to government figures, with 3,181 wounded. The West Bank is as unstable as it has been in years, with increasing numbers of settler raids, IDF detentions of Palestinians, and Palestinian attacks against Israelis, according to UN numbers from last year. As many as 100,000 Israelis remain displaced from the southern towns that were attacked on 7 October, and from northern communities under threat from Hezbollah missile fire. Meanwhile, Israel’s religious-secular divide is threatening to split the country. Israelis who serve in the army are outraged by a proposed law that would continue to exempt the ultra-Orthodox from military service.

At the end of March, the largest rallies against the government since the 7 October attack took place, galvanised by widespread anger over the government’s failure to free the more than 100 hostages still in Gaza (the precise figure is unknown). Demonstrators set up a tent encampment outside the Knesset parliament, demanding a ceasefire deal to free the hostages as well as early elections. And yet most Israelis, despite the trauma of 7 October, despite their anger with the government, broadly support the war.

So far, no amount of pressure from the US government or the world has forced Benjamin Netanyahu into defining a realistic post-war plan for Gaza, with its cities destroyed and its population terrorised and starved. “Total defeat of Hamas,” whose leadership is scattered across various countries in the Middle East, was never realistic. In November 2023, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign secretary, told me that a ceasefire wasn’t the answer. Six months of indiscriminate bombing certainly hasn’t been, either.

[See also: Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal: reaching a peaceful solution in Gaza is easy]

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