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10 January 2024

The chaos of Israel’s postwar plan

No one in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can agree what “the day after” should look like.

By Lawrence Freedman

Hamas gave no impression of having thought through the implications of the vicious attacks on 7 October, other than to force the plight of the Palestinians back on to the international agenda, and perhaps using hostages to extract Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Israel rushed into a strategy with objectives that were going to be difficult to achieve, though the effort would have dire consequences for the Gazan population. At the outset, the only outcome I could imagine that might resolve the conflict, at least in the short term, would take the future of Gaza out of the hands of both Israel and Hamas. That remains my view (and for many others), although it is hard to identify the mechanisms that could allow it to happen.

I had for years been sceptical of Israel’s claim to have the Palestinian issue under control, but with no evidence to the contrary. As Arab states sorted out their relations with Israel, leaving the Palestinians behind, I was beginning to wonder if that Israeli assumption was correct. The piece I was planning to write on Israel was going to be on the deep divisions that had opened up in the state as a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s self-serving judicial reforms, which will curb checks on his power. In this I would have noted the determination of those regularly demonstrating against the government’s proposals not to get side-tracked by the Palestinian issue, even though the extremists brought into the coalition to give Netanyahu his slight majority in the Knesset were deliberately stirring up the West Bank and Jerusalem.  

The 7 October attack caught everyone by surprise. The combination of Israeli fury and the collapse of its security concept for Gaza, which relied on threats and bribes, meant that its response was going to be unrestrained. The logic of Israel’s new security concept, that Hamas as a military entity must be eliminated and no longer operate out of Gaza, required the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to fight their way through the Strip. Despite some hesitation, that is what they tried. The four considerations that might have encouraged hesitation – the fate of the hostages seized on 7 October; the economic strain of a long war; the prospect of a wider regional war involving Hezbollah; and the humanitarian distress bound to accompany a hard fight – are still pertinent, even as the IDF appears to have shifted to a less intensive strategy.

Heavy civilian casualties in Gaza were always likely because of how integrated Hamas’s military assets are with civil society – including the alleged use of mosques, schools and hospitals as cover, and the underground tunnel network. But also because of the relaxed rules of engagement adopted by the Israelis. These casualties, along with people being pushed out of their homes into desperate conditions in the south of the Gaza Strip, albeit so that they did not get caught up in the direct fighting in the north, inevitably created pressure for a ceasefire. This would be part of a UN Security Council resolution, had it not been prevented by an American veto. In return for this cover, the Biden administration has demanded serious efforts to protect civilians and allow humanitarian relief to enter. This has had some response, but the issue remains severe. Some hostages were released before a temporary truce collapsed. Hezbollah, as anticipated, has been torn between not wanting to abandon Hamas while avoiding a full-scale war of their own. This tension has yet to be resolved.

Then there is the complicating role played by the Houthis in Yemen. Their interference with shipping in the Red Sea, which makes little difference to Gaza, has led to the formation of an international grouping prepared to take it on. And last week there was a deadly bombing attack on Iran by Islamic State, which has even less to do with Gaza, but is a reminder of how unsettled the region has become.

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In my piece for the Financial Times a week after the Hamas attack I concluded with the following observation:

“There are no good options for Israel. If there were good options they would already have been tried. Israel is trying to develop a military strategy to deal with the Hamas threat while it lacks a political strategy. For the moment it is impossible to identify a future modus vivendi with Gaza. No deals with Hamas will be trusted but nor is there a certain route to eliminate Hamas.”

In a later piece for the same paper I explored the difficulties of a political deal, while noting the problems with my own preference:

“The only way to get a political process in place quickly is to internationalize the issue, getting the leading Arab states, as well as the US and Europeans, to agree on next steps. This approach, widely canvassed since the start of this war, is not greeted with enthusiasm by the likely participants. The issue is not so much the funding for reconstruction, but the difficulties of forging a consensus on what needs to be done, and the potential for a long-term commitment that will be thankless, onerous and possibly hazardous, especially if it involves peacekeeping forces. The Egyptians and Jordanians have resisted large numbers of Palestinian refugees being pushed in their direction.”

Nothing that has happened over the past weeks make the situation look any better.

The military situation

What of the prospects for a political deal? It is important to note that Hamas has been hurt by the Israeli campaign, but is not beaten. Netanyahu framed the objectives in an article he wrote for the Jerusalem Post: to “demolish” Hamas, that its military capabilities must be “dismantled”, and its political control over Gaza concluded. These aims have yet to be met, and are likely to prove elusive.

What is inescapable is that going hard against Hamas will badly hurt the population of Gaza. But allowing relief to reach the population will help Hamas, because it eases the pressure on the group to end the war, and because it will likely make sure it gets supplies first. Many Israeli commentators find the constraints this imposes on the IDF’s freedom of action infuriating. They are particularly irritated with the Biden administration’s readiness to agree that Hamas must be eliminated without accepting the logic of the situation, then rebuking Israel for harming civilians. These concerns are seen to represent a soft naivety in Western countries, a misplaced idealism that is easy to embrace when not facing an existential threat from an enemy deliberately using civil society as a base from which to mount attacks.

But this is not a new dilemma for counter-insurgency campaigns. If, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, the guerrillas are to the population like fish to the sea, you need to separate them from the people. Israel has never really done “hearts and minds” to win the population over, and while extremists in the government hanker after mass expulsion – draining the sea – that is not going to happen. So the sea remains and the fish will keep swimming. The naivety lies in the belief that even supporters of Israel would find the sort of losses experienced by the Palestinians an acceptable price to pay, or agree that there are no alternative strategies. The fact that Hamas is so embedded in Gaza, whatever one may think of the cynicism of its tactics, is part of the strategic reality that Israel must address.

Moreover, as the fighting has become more difficult, the IDF’s losses are starting to increase. This adds to public impatience in Israel about the course of the war and concern for the remaining hostages. In its latest briefing, the IDF reported that it had dismantled Hamas’s operations in northern Gaza, killing top commanders, including those responsible for the 7 October attacks, and some 8,000 fighters, as well as seizing caches of arms and vital intelligence. (Some 12 Hamas battalions – around 15,000 men – were stationed in northern Gaza and Gaza City at the start of the war, it was claimed.) The IDF is also targeting Hamas in central Gaza, and in the city of Khan Yunis, where much of the leadership is believed to be hiding out and many of the 130-plus hostages are thought to be held. The battle for Khan Yunis has been going on since early December. Here Israel has suffered serious losses, and though the IDF claims to have significantly damaged Hamas there, and destroyed parts of its tunnel network, the group is still functioning. Further steps into southern Gaza will be harder. Having encouraged the population to move from north to south, and there being nowhere else for them to go, the areas into which the IDF might want to move are even more crowded.

This appears to have led to a shift in Israeli strategy. It has been marked by the announced demobilisation of five brigades of reservists. This will have the benefit of easing the strain on the Israeli economy, though they may be needed if the fighting escalates on the northern border with Lebanon. The implication is that instead of clear and hold operations the future may see more opportunistic intelligence-based strikes. One possible indication of the shift in tactics might have been the 2 January assassination of Saleh al-Arouri, a senior figure in Hamas, along with some senior aides in an apartment building in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The assassination is not a major departure in Israeli practice. If Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, and the man behind the 7 October attack, was found and killed, that would enable Israel to claim a victory of sorts, although Hamas has replaced assassinated leaders in the past.

None of this suggests that Hamas is close to being demolished. Using more cautious language than the prime minister, the IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi has observed: “This war has goals that are essential and not simple to achieve, and is taking place in a complex area. Therefore, the war will continue for many more months and we will utilise different methods – so that the achievement will be long-standing. There are no magic solutions, no shortcuts in the thorough dismantling of a terrorist organisation, but tenacious and determined fighting. And we are very, very determined.”

His promise at the end of this statement was more security and stability, but that may end up disappointing those who really did expect to see Hamas eliminated as a fighting force and incapable of reconstitution.

Divided Israel

It is perhaps not surprising that only 40 per cent of Israelis were optimistic about the country’s future security, according to one recent poll. The sense that the fight may not have a quick or satisfactory ending has led to a revival of internal debates in Israel. The country’s supreme court has ruled against those government measures that would have reduced the power of the judiciary. Crowds are returning to the streets demanding the resignation of the government and fresh elections. The trauma of 7 October, for which Netanyahu is largely blamed, continues while the fate of so many hostages remain uncertain, and pressure is building up as a result of growing casualties at the front and the impact of mobilisation on the economy and society.

Divisions inside the government were thrown in sharp relief on 4 January when two competing visions for “the day after” – what Gaza will look like after the war – were presented in one of the first serious cabinet-level discussions held on the topic. Netanyahu is desperate to avoid this discussion because he knows there is no consensus and he dare not disappoint the right-wing members of his coalition whose support he needs if he is to stay in power.

On one side is the opposition leader and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who joined the government to demonstrate unity and now plays a key role in running the war. He has long urged the development of an exit strategy from Gaza, warning of the costs and dangers of getting stuck in the Strip indefinitely and for the IDF to know what it is fighting for. As he is well ahead of Netanyahu in the polls, Gantz is essentially the prime-minister-in-waiting. The defence minister Yoav Gallant had already fallen out with Netanyahu over the effect of the judicial reform controversies on the IDF.

The Gantz/Gallant view is that Israel dares not ignore the demands of the Biden administration for a credible plan for the long-term future of Gaza. They are ready to at least engage with proposals for some sort of restored Palestinian Authority. This was the key feature of Gallant’s plan as presented on 4 January: “Hamas will not rule Gaza, and Israel will not exercise civil control over Gaza. It’s Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip, which is why Palestinian players will be responsible for it – on the condition that they are not hostile towards Israel and will not operate against it.”

On this basis he ruled out any Israeli civil presence and therefore the acceptance of any responsibilities as the occupying power. Israel will want to continue to monitor what goes in and out of the Strip but will look to a multinational force, led by the US, western European countries and moderate Arab states, to rebuild and run Gaza, using the existing Palestinian administration. Over time, the largely depopulated northern Gaza Strip will be made habitable (again this will largely depend on foreign assistance) so that people can return. None of this will happen until all hostages have been returned.

This, it should be noted, is the moderate side of the debate. A readiness to consider serious proposals for a Palestinian state alongside Israel is confined to the depleted left, including the Labor Party. The alternative view in the cabinet comes from the right, represented by the finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and the security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. They have proposed the far more radical remedy of encouraging “voluntary” emigration of Gazans, while Israel takes control of the Strip, building new settlements. Smotrich justified his plan on the grounds that “a small country like ours cannot afford a reality where four minutes away from our communities there is a hotbed of hatred and terrorism, where two million people wake up every morning with aspiration for the destruction of the state of Israel, and with a desire to slaughter and rape and murder Jews wherever they are”.

Such language confirms the claims of Israel’s critics that it seeks the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, inviting international condemnation. The idea has already been dismissed by other members of the government, including from Netanyahu’s Likud party. The US State Department has described these proposals as “inflammatory and irresponsible”. There is no practical basis for taking such schemes forward given the intense opposition of Egypt and Jordan. Even Smotrich has acknowledged the difficulty of finding countries keen to absorb thousands of Gazans.

Netanyahu has argued that there is no point talking about the “day after” until the “day” is reached when Israel’s military objectives have been realised. His problem is that this day may never come, and he is being pressed now for a political strategy to match his military strategy. He is aware how important American largesse is, and how the Smotrich/Ben-Gvir line harms Israel’s international image at a time when it is short of friends and admirers. But his own instincts are more with the right. He wants to limit the role of outsiders, including foreign peacekeepers, so that the IDF is in a position to ensure that Gaza stays demilitarised.

Netanyahu presented his views in that Jerusalem Post article, which was timed to appear after the cabinet meeting. His main pitch, after the need to demolish Hamas, was that Gaza be demilitarised, requiring a “temporary security zone on the perimeter of Gaza” and an “inspection mechanism” on the border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent weapons being smuggled into the territory. The main thrust of his article was to dismiss the idea that the Palestinian Authority (PA) could take over in Gaza. It would not demilitarise nor “deradicalise” Gaza. He demands a transformation of Palestinian civil society “so that its people support fighting terrorism rather than funding it”. Netanyahu does not reflect on whether there was anything Israel did that might have contributed to the radicalisation of Palestinian opinion.

The 4 January cabinet meeting ended with the government looking even more broken than before. The proximate cause was Halevi’s decision to appoint a panel to probe the military’s failures ahead of 7 October and identify shortcomings that might need to be rectified. This is another issue that Netanyahu, for understandable reasons, does not want to discuss until after the war is over. The former chief of staff and defence minister Shaul Mofaz, who is to chair the panel, was involved in the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, which the right now considers a big mistake. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir attacked Halevi, who was defended by Gantz and Gallant. After the meeting Gantz was forthright: “The cabinet was supposed to discuss strategic processes that will affect the continuation of the campaign and our security in the future. That didn’t happen, and the prime minister is responsible for that. It is his responsibility to fix this, and to choose – between unity and security, or politics. If what is important now is security and unity, then we need to hold the essential meeting on the continuation of the fighting, and soon.”

This is only one of several issues that might lead the government to collapse. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have threatened to leave if the war was ended before the full defeat of Hamas, or if individuals charged with serious terrorist offences were released in return for hostages.

The most immediate issue is whether tax revenues are transferred to the PA. As finance minister, Smotrich has been withholding the tax revenues Israel collects on the PA’s behalf, which pays for services and salaries in Gaza as well as the West Bank. There is a complicated plan involving Norway to get funds to the PA in a way that ensures that they do not reach Hamas, but Smotrich has shown no interest in compromise. If one is not found then the PA will soon collapse financially, adding to the instability in the West Bank. Biden has reportedly demanded of Netanyahu that this matter be resolved quickly, reminding him how much he has done for Israel even though Netanyahu continues to make it hard for him.

Smotrich has shown no interest in compromise, observing how much he “appreciates the support of the United States and President Biden very much but as long as I am the finance minister, we will not transfer a single shekel to the Palestinian Authority that will go to the families of the terrorists and Nazis in Gaza”.

While attention has naturally focused on the dire situation in Gaza, the West Bank has not been tranquil. More than 260 Palestinians have been killed, thousands arrested and another 1,000 displaced from their homes. The PA has been helpless in the face not only of IDF operations but also settler vigilantes who have been acting with the support of elements within the Israeli government, including Ben-Gvir. If it can no longer pay the bills then the security situation will become even more difficult, which is why the IDF – still stuck in Gaza and with tensions with Hezbollah still high – want to keep this area as calm as possible. Netanyahu is desperate to keep the right-wingers in his government, but at some point choices will have to be made.

The return of the Palestinian Authority?

The views of Biden complicate Netanyahu’s task. The US president has dealt with the issue over many years, including as Barack Obama’s vice-president, and knows Netanyahu well. He made a calculated gamble that by showing generous support to Israel in the aftermath of 7 October he could push it towards sensible responses. His critics question whether he has done much more than offer cover to the Israelis, fending off pressure for a ceasefire, and showing scant concern for the plight of the Gazans. The counter argument is that his administration has got Israel to accept the need for more relief to enter Gaza than it was inclined to allow, to accept a pause in fighting for some hostages to be freed and provided firm opposition to those pushing for the mass expulsion of Palestinians.

Biden had accepted the general view prior to 7 October that there was no peace process worth the name, and that the best option was to complete the normalisation of relations with the major Arab states – particularly Saudi Arabia. They would then be able to speak up for Palestinian rights. His conclusion after 7 October was that Israel would have to show that it accepted the Palestinian case, otherwise it would be left even more isolated and insecure. Palestinian grievances must be addressed. As a start, the PA must be part of Gaza’s future, though the authority will need help to reform itself.

The problem is the PA is in a poor condition. Constitutionally, it should be running Gaza. It still has some role in paying public sector bills, left over from when it governed both the West Bank and Gaza, before Hamas was able to gain its monopoly on political control. But Netanyahu, as part of his divide-and-rule policy, has worked hard to weaken the PA over the years. He allowed Hamas to convey the impression of greater strength. The 88-year-old PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has little to show for his 19 years in office. In a poll before the war, only 12 per cent in Gaza indicated he was their preferred president. Nor did the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh score highly, with 24 per cent. The most popular option was the imprisoned political leader Marwan Barghouti at 32 per cent. He is occasionally touted as the best hope for a Palestinian Nelson Mandela. Other than having spent a long time locked away, and therefore not associated with the PA’s dismal record, it is not clear if he has the competence or broad-based support to play a unifying, peace-making role – even assuming the Israelis were prepared to release him.

There would be no point in the PA just turning up in Gaza and expecting to run the show. To acquire legitimacy it needs to demonstrate that it has a path to Palestinian political independence, including a commitment to elections. This would only work if the Israeli government also made a political commitment to move in this direction. Netanyahu may well be out of office soon and Gantz, if he does become prime minister, might be open to more imaginative proposals. But it would be unwise to assume that any solutions requiring trust in Palestinians will command popular support in Israel.

That explains Gallant’s preference for a multinational authority, including the leading Arab states, but with a Palestinian council and technocrats. Arab governments view this as a non-starter, unless it can be shown that it will lead to a two-state solution. The United Arab Emirates has stated that if it is expected to finance the Gaza Strip’s reconstruction it would need to “see a viable two-state solution plan, a road map that is serious, before we talk about the next day and rebuilding the infrastructure of Gaza”. Even accepting that the PA is in no position to take over in its current enfeebled and corrupt form, any plan must include its revitalisation.

All of this assumes that Hamas is out of the picture. It isn’t. Proposals tabled by Egypt just before Christmas envisaged three stages to move forward: an extendable two-week halt to the fighting that would see more hostages released in return for more Palestinian prisoners; an Egypt-sponsored “Palestinian national talk” aimed at ending the division between the Fatah party (which dominates the PA) and Hamas, leading to the formation of a technocratic government in the West Bank and Gaza to oversee the reconstruction of the Strip and eventual Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections; a comprehensive ceasefire, involving the release of all hostages in return for more prisoners, including some held for more serious terror offences, Israeli withdrawal of its forces from Gaza, and the return of Gazans to their homes in the north.

Whether or not Israel could be convinced to engage with this plan, Hamas could be tempted. Indeed, Haniyeh, chairman of Hamas’s political bureau in Qatar, did show interest. He is aware that Hamas will struggle to stay in sole charge of the Strip, not least because it lacks the funds and capacity for the huge reconstruction task ahead. To retain influence, it would make sense to come together with Fatah, even though that could mean, in effect, recognising Israel and abandoning thoughts of its elimination.

But Hamas is also divided. Yahya Sinwar, the head of the military wing and de facto leader, has shown disdain for Haniyeh in the past (and did not inform him of what was planned for 7 October). He has rejected any new working arrangement with Fatah as “outrageous”. He wants to be in charge of Gaza and, like Netanyahu, would prefer that all talk of Gaza’s future be put off until the fighting is over. As far as Sinwar is concerned the war is going fine and he will be content if it ends with Hamas still present and able to continue as before, whatever the wretched state of the territory. For now, Hamas looks stronger than the ineffectual PA, daring to attack Israel and then getting prisoners released in return for hostages. In practice, if Hamas remains active but excluded, it can cause trouble for whoever tries to run Gaza, even if the Israelis have left.

After three months of war, Israel has weakened Hamas but not eliminated it. And it cannot promise that elimination can be achieved quickly, if at all. The Israeli government is close to breaking, and perhaps only if that happens will there be an opportunity for a serious consideration of options in addressing the Palestinian issue. There are, however, reasons why this issue has proved to be intractable in the past. Even in the mid-1990s when the peace process was at its most active and promising, Hamas was doing its utmost to derail it using terrorist attacks, encouraging the Israeli right to denounce the whole process as a sham. If the US, Europeans and Arabs really want to get a grip on this situation they are going to have to go beyond attempts to mediate between recalcitrant parties and engage more directly with the situation. Gallant wants them to take responsibility for the governance and reconstruction of Gaza. It is not clear who else could play this role, but if they do so, it should be on their terms, with Palestinian aspirations fully addressed.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. A version of this piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

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