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6 May 2024

The dark reality of Netanyahu’s postwar vision

The “no endpoint” strategy is catastrophic for Gaza — and Israel too.

By Dahlia Scheindlin

There is little sense in waiting for Benjamin Netanyahu to unveil his plans for the future of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, because he isn’t telling. The Israeli media occasionally observes that he still won’t decide. Competing ideas emitting from his government – whether Israel envisions permanent occupation of Gaza and even new settlements; whether the Palestinian Authority will have control; if there will be an international presence, and if so, who – only muddy the picture.  

When Netanyahu finally issued a parsimonious document in February for his “day after” plan, it included some broad military aims, alongside indecipherable slogans such as “deradicalisation” of Gaza. Either Netanyahu himself hasn’t decided how this war ends, what happens with Gaza afterwards or Israel’s preferred policy for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or he just won’t say it. 

Dr Michael Milshtein, formerly the head of the Palestinian department in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence who now leads the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told me in an interview in mid-April that over the last few months he has come to think that “the state of Israel doesn’t have a strategy”. At the six-month mark of the war, the refusal to name an endpoint leaves a void filled with doubts. 

Anshel Pfeffer, senior columnist for Haaretz newspaper, wrote on 11 April that despite quantifiable achievements, such as the number of Hamas fighters the IDF claims to have killed (estimated at 10,000 to 12,000) and significant damage to the organisation’s military infrastructure, the costs have been tremendous: tens of thousands of dead civilians in Gaza, many of them children, the humanitarian crisis and the scourge of starvation, mass destruction of major cities in Gaza and searing damage to Israel’s global position.  

Perhaps most damning: Hamas is still in control. As Milshtein noted, “Hamas has suffered major blows, but it’s the only actual actor with power in the field.” Hamas is still the actor negotiating over hostages and running the war. And Israel’s unfocused attempts to find other actors – neither Hamas nor Fatah, as per Netanyahu’s insistence – to lead in Gaza ended badly: the hope that local clan-led businessmen could distribute humanitarian aid or even become a governing actor in Gaza was shattered with the killing of nearly 120 Palestinians in a chaotic stampede and IDF shooting near an aid convoy in February.  

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Milstein produces numerous historic comparisons  to Israel’s search for pliant proxies to run Gaza, which he said, “looks like the Bay of Pigs in Cuba”. He also mentioned Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam; and if Hamas was choosing comparisons, Milshtein noted, it would point to Biafra or Darfur. 

The Israeli public is still stunned by the attacks on 7 October, struggling to cope with loss, displacement and the horrible purgatory of waiting and watching as hostages die, while habituating themselves to wartime mentality. In the early phase, Israelis rallied around the flag, but the lack of an endpoint and the number of hostages still being held following the first wave of releases in late November is eroding people’s confidence in the war – especially under Netanyahu’s leadership. In late April, a survey by Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis do not believe Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel is just “a step away from victory.” The same poll found that a majority of Israelis (53 percent) think Netanyahu is not doing enough to release the hostages. In a survey for the Jewish People Policy Institute from March, the portion of Jewish Israelis who felt confident Israel would win the war fell twenty points from October through February, from 74 to 54 per cent, with a mild rise in March. Only 29 per cent of Palestinian citizens in Israel are confident about winning. 

Public pessimism extends beyond Israel’s prospect of winning the war. In the JPPI survey, optimism about the future of the country stood at 74 per cent in November, but fell to 56 per cent in March. There are ample reasons: beyond the dead and wounded in Israel, the costs of the war for economy, society, physical and mental health, primary and higher education are vast. In April, the popular news portal Ynet found that at the peak of the ground operation, each day cost the country NIS1bn (£214m). All told, the Bank of Israel estimated in mid-January that the war will cost Israeli taxpayers NIS270bn (£57.8bn), without even including the possible cost of a war with Hezbollah on the northern front. In January, the Bank of Israel analysts could not have predicted the military exchange between Israel and Iran, carrying the nerve-shredding prospect of a cataclysmic new front. 

With over 100,000 people still displaced from the north and the south, Israelis have begun to quip that the country’s borders have returned to the contours of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, before Israel was established in 1948. But by contrast to 1947, UN votes about the situation today do not end well for Israel, which is more internationally isolated than ever. In late March, the Security Council voted for a ceasefire, against Israel’s preference. In early May, Colombia announced it was cutting diplomatic ties, and Turkey threatened to shut down trade until a ceasefire is reached.  

Even Israel’s closest allies are deeply disturbed by the country’s actions in the war; the longer it drags on, the more incidents such as the IDF strike on aid workers on 1 April spark fury. Canada’s 19 March declaration that it would refuse to sell arms was alarming, but rumblings among American lawmakers about conditioning arms export would have a much more serious impact on Israel. Milshtein says that the greatest danger of Netanyahu’s “no endpoint” strategy is the damage to Israel’s international position and image. 

Back at home, there is a social cost too. Mazal Mualem, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse, a television presenter and the author of Cracking the Netanyahu Code, argues that the war has exposed the deepest divisions – and dysfunctions – in Israel in recent years. “It’s an X-ray: the war shows everything, you can’t hide it. After five years of political instability, the state can barely function; after five years of changing governments, you really can’t lead long-term processes.”  

The war has exacerbated Israel’s social controversies – such as the question of whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should still be exempt from conscription – which could generate further political instability. But building on her observation, it seems that Netanyahu has avoided a long-term plan by filling the gap with a long-term war.  

Some of these tensions, though certainly not all, could be alleviated if Netanyahu were to supply his endgame for the war. Citizens and allies could mark progress towards that day, and when it comes, hostages (or increasingly, their bodies) would be returned, and the killing of innocent Palestinians will stop. The US seems to hope that the war can end as part of a larger Middle East deal involving Israeli normalisation of relations with Saudi Arabia. The “day after” can begin, harrowing and troubled though it will be.  

But the kind of endpoint the government pursues is the crux of the matter. Maybe it’s a stretch to think that the prime minister supports the vision of his extremist coalition partners who wish to reoccupy and re-settle Gaza, effectively driving Palestinians out. Or not. After all, if Benjamin Netanyahu had an alternative, pragmatic, peace-oriented vision, he would probably have said so. 

[See also: The Arab “democracy dilemma” is a fallacy]

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