Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (C) and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on October 28, 2023 amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (C) and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on October 28, 2023 amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian gr Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 8 minutes

Israel in Paralysis

A political crisis has gripped Israel as its Gaza campaign grinds on with no end in sight. Not only are more than 100 Israelis still captives of Hamas, but many feel held hostage by their own failed leadership.

Over three months into the Israel-Gaza war, Israel has neither a clear path to victory nor a feasible exit strategy. It appears far from accomplishing either of its two main war objectives: dismantling Hamas’s military and governing capacities and securing the release of its citizens held hostage. The roughly 200,000 Israelis displaced from the country’s borders with Gaza (and Lebanon, due to exchanges of fire with Hizbollah) have no prospect of going home soon. The Israeli military operation has killed only 20 to 30 per cent of Hamas’s military wing despite the heavy toll of 26,000 Gazan casualties, mostly civilians, and the loss of more than 200 Israeli soldiers and injury of another 2,700 since the ground operation began. Of the 136 hostages still held in Gaza, at least twenty are presumed dead, some likely killed by the Israeli army itself.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that Israel will continue fighting until it wins what today seems like an implausible “total victory” over Hamas because, as he says, “halting the war before our goals are achieved will harm Israel’s security for generations”. But Israelis are watching the gap between the leadership’s promises and the war’s results grow by the day. They endure regular if diminished rocket fire from Gaza and a steady stream of casualties even as the country’s global standing deteriorates and tensions with the U.S., its chief backer, increase. Perhaps more important, they are watching discord among top politicians and between the political and military ranks spill out into the open.

The war is at an inflection point that requires critical decisions. With thousands of Israeli reservists released for the first time since the ground offensive began, the operation in northern Gaza already has moved into what Israel calls Phase 3 – rolling, lower-intensity operations that in effect mean establishing a military occupation without providing for civilian needs. Operations in the south of Gaza are likely to follow suit, even if for now Israel has intensified pressure in Khan Younis. The army is at the point where it needs to decide what parts of Gaza it will continue to control and how to ensure Hamas does not reassert itself, who will fill the vacuum left by Hamas, whether and how to extend the ground campaign into Rafah and the Philadelphi corridor along the border between Gaza and Egypt, how to get displaced Israelis home, and whether to try getting the hostages back alive in a deal that could spell the end of war, or at least a significant pause, and Hamas’s survival.

Yet none of these essential decisions have been taken, a reflection of the division and disarray in Israel’s war cabinet. (The war cabinet comprises the prime minister, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, as well as Netanyahu political rivals Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who joined as part of a national emergency government a few days after the war broke out.) The military is publicly expressing its frustration with the paralysis of political decision-making and consequent lack of a clear framework for its continued operations. Open dissent by the army and criticism of the political echelon is virtually unheard of in Israel.

Israeli security officials and members of Netanyahu’s own cabinet have begun questioning, doubting and challenging the war effort in the media.

Israeli security officials and members of Netanyahu’s own cabinet have begun questioning, doubting and challenging the war effort in the media. Gantz, a former defence minister and Israel Defence Forces chief of staff under Netanyahu, released a list of crucial decisions he implored Netanyahu to take regarding the war and an exit strategy. Gantz’s fellow party member, Eisenkot, who is a former army chief of staff, then went on primetime TV and accused Netanyahu of deceiving the Israeli public about the achievability of Israel’s war objectives. He also challenged assertion by Netanyahu and Defence Minister Gallant that only military force and a continued ground offensive will compel Hamas to release the hostages. He emphasised that, to the contrary, negotiating a deal is the only way to ensure their safe return.

Gallant has warned that the military operation’s success is dependent on a day-after plan, the formulation of which Netanyahu has evaded. “The end of the military campaign”, he said, “must be accompanied by political action, for it is what leads the military accomplishments, and political indecision could harm military progress”. Gallant’s rapport with Netanyahu is on ice since he called in March 2023 for a halt to the government’s judicial overhaul plan, which would have removed the courts’ checks on power and had prompted weekly massive demonstrations, and which Gallant warned was undermining national security. He has disputed Netanyahu’s rejection of involving the Palestinian Authority (PA) that has partial control of the West Bank in post-war Gaza. To the contrary, Gallant asserted, Israel’s national security requires a strong PA, including in Gaza. Netanyahu has taken a strong stance against the PA, repeatedly insisting on Israeli security control over all territory west of the Jordan river and ruling out Palestinian statehood.

The military wants a clear vision and direction from the war cabinet, but that depends on a political decision on a plan for the day after, which they are still waiting for. Many believe this is primarily due to Netanyahu’s own political interests – to remain in power by dragging the war out and pandering to his far-right base, which rejects Palestinian governance or statehood. Military leaders have other issues with Netanyahu, too. They hold him responsible for undermining Israel’s military preparedness through his judicial reforms and his overall polarising, incendiary approach and accuse him of deflecting all blame for the unfolding disaster onto the military while he manoeuvres to evade personal accountability in a future state probe. The display of enmity between the military and prime minister is unparalleled in Israeli history.

From the war’s start, it was apparent that completely eliminating Hamas was impractical, given its entrenchment in Palestinian society and politics, the inevitable mass casualties and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the global indignation those would provoke, and Israel’s own domestic and economic challenges. U.S. intelligence estimates now show that Hamas not only is far from being incapacitated, but could also begin to reassert control in areas of northern Gaza once the Israeli army withdraws. Israel’s chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, issued a similar warning. It also seemed evident after the week-long hostage/prisoner exchanges and humanitarian pause in late November 2023 that the two main war objectives – destroying Hamas’s leadership and freeing the hostages – were incompatible, an assessment Israeli security officials now are openly articulating.

The last few months, starting at 6:30am on 7 October 2023, have been a disaster for everyone. Over 1,100 Israelis are dead, many thousands more are traumatised and Israel’s hostages are dying in captivity. More than 1 per cent of Gaza’s population has been killed and more than 85 per cent displaced at least once, most more. More than half of the strip’s buildings are destroyed. Hamas’s popularity in the West Bank and the region appears to have surged. A multi-front escalation across the Middle East continues to threaten regional stability, leaving, in addition to people in Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Israelis displaced. Attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on cargo vessels in the Red Sea threaten the global shipping industry and economy.

The Israeli military and security establishment, which was humiliated on 7 October, remains intent on redeeming its reputation.

The Israeli military and security establishment, which was humiliated on 7 October, remains intent on redeeming its reputation. It is looking for tangible accomplishments or at least a plausible victory narrative, an objective that might have influenced its decision to carry out several assassinations of Hamas, Hizbollah and Iranian officials in Lebanon and Syria. But in Gaza, though Israel has weakened Hamas, it has not achieved a strategic breakthrough. In this sense, the current war so far resembles more than anything the “mow the lawn” approach Israel applied in all previous rounds in Gaza, though on a far larger and deadlier scale. In that sense, the change in Israel’s approach to Gaza since 7 October has been one of degree, not kind.

Outside pressure on Israel is mounting. On 26 January, the International Court of Justice deemed in an interim ruling that it is “plausible” Israel has committed acts in Gaza that violate the Genocide Convention. The court ordered six provisional measures for Israel to prevent genocidal acts; prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to genocide; and take immediate and effective steps to ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza. Although the court stopped short of calling for a ceasefire, it is hard to see how Israel would comply with the ruling without ending or dramatically scaling back its military operations. The court also called on Israel to report back to the court within a week and then according to a schedule determined by the court. Israel was quick to dismiss the ruling, which further damages its image and undermines its own insistence that international law is being upheld.

For now, however, the Israeli government is feeling stronger pressure from domestic opinion. Israelis across the political spectrum fear that their current leadership and war strategy will not lead them to victory. The question at this point is the way forward. For some on the far right, the answer is to double down – to employ more force to eliminate Hamas and rebuild the settlements that were evacuated in 2005. But others are looking for a more realistic path forward, both on the ground in Gaza and in the diplomatic arena with allies. Taking this route would mean affirmatively outlining a vision of what Israel wants to do and achieve – and not just what it refuses to do and wants to destroy – in order to smooth cooperation with Washington and regional partners. For the political opposition, represented most clearly by Eisenkot, the way forward is a hostage release deal, which many Israelis see as the only viable accomplishment right now.

Beyond that, Israel’s path is unclear. A hostage release deal would offer relief from the pervasive sense of futility surrounding the war, begin a healing process for the families, alleviate the public pressure and shift the debate to an exit strategy. But it would not settle the disagreement between the two prevailing views on what needs to come first for the country: that Israel continue on its mission to overthrow Hamas in Gaza or that Israel go to elections. For now, Hamas itself rejects any deal that involves a temporary pause and hostage releases but no permanent ceasefire. Whatever the path forward, the answer does not appear likely to come from an adversarial, paralysed war cabinet or the government that produced it. Nor is the U.S. going to save Israel from itself. If the drift continues, the only way out would be for Israelis to demand a political reset. But since Palestinians in Gaza and the hostages cannot afford to wait any longer, the hope is that somehow, the sides will reach a deal imminently.

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