Is Israel’s Netanyahu pursuing perpetual war in Gaza to save his political skin?

Israeli protesters call for a hostage deal with Hamas and the removal of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. (AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2024

Is Israel’s Netanyahu pursuing perpetual war in Gaza to save his political skin?

  • Critics in the war cabinet have accused the PM of lacking a ‘day after’ strategy for Gaza
  • Fragmentation within government and among the population raise specter of mass protests

LONDON: Last Wednesday evening, five Israeli soldiers were killed and seven others wounded in a “friendly fire” incident in northern Gaza.

The five paratroopers, aged between 20 and 22 and reported by The Times of Israel to have been part of an ultra-Orthodox company of paratroopers, died when an Israeli tank mistakenly fired on their position during confused fighting in Jabaliya.

They are not the first Israeli soldiers to have died at the hands of their comrades. According to the IDF, of the 279 personnel killed so far in Gaza since the start of ground operations on Oct. 27, 49 have died in similar incidents or accidents.

But after seven months of war, with Israeli troops fighting and dying over territory that had, ostensibly, already been cleared by the IDF earlier in the war, the stark futility of these latest deaths has struck a bitter chord in Israel.

A member of Israel’s security forces aims his rifle during an Israeli raid at the Nur Shams camp for Palestinian refugees near the occupied West Bank city of Tulkarm, on January 4, 2024. (AFP)

As Benjamin Netanyahu continues to evade making a deal with Hamas to bring home the remaining hostages — an ongoing national trauma emphasized by the recovery on Friday from Gaza of the remains of three of the victims of the Oct. 7 massacre at the Nova music festival — many fear the Israeli prime minister is pursuing a strategy of perpetual war solely in a bid to save his own political skin.

It has been no secret that over recent months Israel’s military has been pushing Netanyahu to develop a “day after” strategy. Last Wednesday, just hours before the deaths in Jabaliya, Israel’s defense minister broke rank to publicly criticize his prime minister.

In an extraordinary video address, Yoav Gallant, a former general, revealed that since October he had been consistently pressing Netanyahu in cabinet meetings to work toward a political solution in Gaza.

The end of the military campaign, he said, “must come together with political action. The ‘day after Hamas’ will only be achieved with Palestinian entities taking control of Gaza, accompanied by international actors, establishing a governing alternative to Hamas’ rule.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “this issue was not raised for debate. And worse, no alternative was brought up in its place.”

A protester speaks on a megaphone while holding up a sign depicting Israeli politicians during an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2024. (AFP)

Gallant then embarked on an unprecedented public attack on Netanyahu that at times veered close to open revolt. “Indecision is, in essence, a decision,” he said.

“This leads to a dangerous course, which promotes the idea of Israeli military and civilian governance in Gaza. This is a negative and dangerous option for the State of Israel — strategically, militarily, and from a security standpoint.”

In short, he said: “I will not agree to the establishment of Israeli military rule in Gaza.”

Then he issued a direct challenge.

“I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip, that Israel will not establish military governance in the Gaza Strip, and that a governing alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be raised immediately.”

Netanyahu did not immediately respond to the attack in public. But right-wing national security minister Itamar Ben Givr — part of the shaky coalition government Netanyahu must hold together to cling on to power, and who has called repeatedly for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza and its resettlement by Jews — demanded Gallant be sacked.

Israel’s defense minister said that since October he had been consistently pressing Netanyahu in cabinet meetings to work toward a political solution in Gaza. (AFP)

Then, on Saturday, Benny Gantz, the other member of Netanyahu’s three-person war cabinet and his main political rival, announced that he would withdraw his centrist National Unity party from Israel’s emergency coalition on June 8 unless the prime minister agreed to a six-point “day after” plan for Gaza.

Gantz’s plan includes securing the return of hostages, ending Hamas’ rule, demilitarizing Gaza and establishing an international administration with “American, European, Arab and Palestinian elements” to manage its civilian affairs.

“Personal and political considerations have begun to penetrate the Holy of Holies of Israel’s national security,” Gantz said.

“A small minority has seized the bridge of the Israeli ship and is piloting it toward the rocky shoal,” and steps have to be taken urgently to avoid a “long and harsh existential war.”

Gantz also called on Israel to “advance normalization with Saudi Arabia as part of a comprehensive process to create an alliance with the free world and the West against Iran and its allies.”

Benny Gantz’s 6-point Gaza blueprint

  • Bring the hostages home.
  • Topple Hamas rule, demilitarize the Gaza Strip and gain Israeli security control.
  • Alongside that Israeli security control, “create an international civilian governance mechanism for Gaza, including American, European, Arab and Palestinian elements — which will also serve as a basis for a future alternative that is not Hamas and is not (Palestinian Authority President) Abbas.
  • Return residents of the north (evacuated due to Hezbollah attacks) to their homes by Sept. 1, and rehabilitate the western Negev (adjacent to Gaza, targeted by Hamas on Oct. 7).
  • Advance normalization with Saudi Arabia as part of a comprehensive process to create an alliance with the free world and the West against Iran and its allies.
  • Adopt a framework for (military/national) service under which all Israelis will serve the state and contribute to the national effort. Gantz, a former general, wants an end to exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

Israel’s leadership is now so fragmented, and its population increasingly divided over Gaza and the wider issue of a Palestinian future, that there is even speculation that Netanyahu might be facing the unprecedented possibility of a military coup.

“As the war seems to have less of a point and less success, everything seems to be coming apart,” Shaiel Ben-Ephraim, analyst and host of the podcasts “Israel Explained” and “History of the Land of Israel,” told Arab News.

“Something has to give. The military is talking about a coup. I don’t think it is going to happen, but on Telegram and WhatsApp, military people who could do something are saying: ‘Someone should remove Netanyahu, someone should do something about Ben-Givr.’

“That’s very alarming. We’ve been hearing that from regular people on the left and the center for a long time. But now, even people in the Shabak (Israel’s internal security agency) are discussing the idea.”

An Israeli protester wearing a hat with a slogan against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on April 27, 2024. (AFP)

Netanyahu, said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations and founder of NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, “is leading us toward a never-ending insurgency.

“The entire military establishment opposes it,” Seidemann told Arab News. “The credible people in the government who are not racist and fanatics oppose it. But he’s adamant, and there are three reasons why.

“First, habitually Netanyahu is incapable of making a decision. He always procrastinates.

“Secondly, he doesn’t believe that peace exists. For him, life is eternal conflict, never decided, and the only goal is to be a bit stronger, a bit more sophisticated than your enemy and to contain them. But you’re not going to solve anything that way.”

But compounding these “predispositions” in the current situation in Gaza, he said, was Netanyahu’s overwhelming self-interest.

“An end of the war, a ceasefire, is the end of Netanyahu’s career and possibly jail for him, full stop,” he said. “That is why he has turned the hostages and their families into enemies of the state.”

There had, he said, been “an organized, sophisticated smear campaign against these people. It’s just remarkable. Why? Because you cannot prioritize returning the hostages and continue to fight in Gaza. It’s one or the other.

“Netanyahu knows that if the hostages are released, the price for that will be a ceasefire, and the ceasefire will be the end of him. So he is doing everything in his power to perpetuate this war. This is the way most people in Israel are talking today. His considerations are all personal.”

Soldiers killed in northern Gaza on May 15, 2024. Top row, left to right: Sgt. Ilan Cohen, Sgt. Daniel Chemu, Staff Sgt. Betzalel David Shashuah; bottom row, left to right: Staff Sgt. Gilad Arye Boim, Cpt. Roy Beit Yaakov. (Israel Defense Forces)

For Seth Frantzman, an adjunct fellow with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post, the lack of apparent direction over Gaza is rooted as much in systemic issues as in Netanyahu’s personality.

“I don’t think that they have invested the resources for long-term planning in terms of the strategy of what comes afterwards,” Frantzman told Arab News.

“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t voices that haven’t been calling for that — the Defense Ministry has been pushing for a day-after plan for many months.

“But Israel has spent 15 years or more ‘managing’ the conflict in Gaza with Hamas. Hamas became the devil that everyone is familiar with and therefore the idea of picking up some alternative kind of structure is a bit complicated — even though it’s obvious, after Oct. 7, that the murderous genocidal nature of Hamas means you just can’t live next to a group like that or continue to appease it.”

But Netanyahu’s “decisive indecision” is proving to be a gift for Hamas, Ben-Ephraim said.

“I think that at first Hamas was unpleasantly surprised by how Israel banded together and struck back so strongly, and the amount of support it got from the US.

“But because the Israeli strategy since has been so horrifically bad, they’re now very pleasantly surprised and indeed stunned to see Israel destroy its international standing, and its internal cohesion and solidarity, to no end besides Netanyahu’s surviving.”

Protesters lift national flags and portraits of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza since October 7, during a rally demanding their release outside Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence on January 27, 2024. (AFP)

Even before his boss Gallant spoke out, Herzi Halevi, the IDF chief of staff, was reported to have taken Netanyahu to task over his failure to develop a long-term strategy.

On May 12, Hebrew-language television station Channel 13 reported what it said was a verbatim account of a heated meeting between Halevi and the prime minister.

“We are now operating once again in Jabaliya,” Halevi, a paratrooper and former head of Israeli military intelligence, reportedly said.

“As long as there’s no diplomatic process to develop a governing body in the Strip that isn’t Hamas, we’ll have to launch campaigns again and again in other places to dismantle Hamas’ infrastructure.” 

It would, he added, “be a Sisyphean task” — a reference to the ancient Greek myth about a king condemned by the gods to spend eternity repeatedly pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again every time.

A whiff of unprecedented dissent, if not outright revolt, is in the air.

“I don’t think you’re going to be seeing large-scale conscientious objection,” Seidemann said. “That’s not how it works here. But what you will see are tens of thousands of army reservists going home and leading the protests.”

Israeli police disperse a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem, on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

Such protests have brought about political change in the past in Israel, most notably the toppling of Prime Minister Golda Meir in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in the run-up to which she had repeatedly rebuffed peace overtures from Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people in the streets already,” Seidemann said. “And there have been two kinds of protests — for the release of the hostages and for elections for a new government.

“Initially the hostage families distanced themselves as a group. They wanted to appear to be apolitical. But that’s over. They’ve joined forces. There will be an event of some kind at some time over the next month or two, which will bring out millions of Israelis.”

It would, he believes, be impossible for Israel to reoccupy and resettle Gaza, as right-wingers in Netanyahu’s cabinet have demanded.

Quite apart from the uproar such a move would provoke among Israel’s staunchest allies in the West, Gaza “is going to be a lunar landscape,” he said. “Just to maintain some semblance of normality, Israel would have to harness so much of its resources, energies, money, just to be on this fool’s errand of running Gaza.”

Smoke plumes from an explosion billow in the Gaza Strip, as seen from Israel’s southern border with the Palestinian territory, on May 21, 2024. (AFP)

In the meantime, millions are being traumatized, not only in Gaza, where the death and suffering are on such a shocking scale, but also — and crucially for Netanyahu’s future prospects — in Israel.

“The day after, both societies are going to be totally traumatized,” Seidemann said.

“A friend of mine sees the police records, and in Tel Aviv the police are receiving dozens of reports weekly of people who think they can hear digging under their apartment buildings.

“That’s the level of trauma that you’re dealing with and there’s a growing sense that this can’t go on.”

Whatever the eventual solution, and however the war in Gaza is finally brought to an end, one thing is certain, he believes.

“Nothing is possible with Netanyahu at the helm. The only thing that can be done until he’s gone is damage control.”


UKMTO receives report of incident 126nm east of Yemen's Aden

Updated 1 min 30 sec ago

UKMTO receives report of incident 126nm east of Yemen's Aden

DUBAI: The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said on Friday that it had received a report of an incident 126 nautical miles east of Yemen’s port city of Aden, adding that authorities are investigating. 


Qatar working to ‘bridge the gap’ between Israel and Hamas

Updated 57 min 12 sec ago

Qatar working to ‘bridge the gap’ between Israel and Hamas

  • Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement that the Palestinian Islamist movement was open to “any document or initiative that ensures the foundations of the resistance’s position in ceasefire negotiations”
  • Israel has killed at least 37,431 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry

MADRID: Qatar said Friday it was pursuing efforts to “bridge the gap” between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas to reach a ceasefire in Gaza and release Israeli hostages held there.
The Gulf emirate, the United States and Egypt, have been engaged in months of negotiations for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war that erupted on October 7.
There has been one seven-day pause in November which led to the release of more than 100 hostages. Efforts since have been deadlocked.
“We have continued our efforts without interruption over the last few days,” Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told a news conference in Madrid with Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares.
“There have been several meetings with the Hamas leadership to try to bridge the gap between the two parties and reach an agreement that will lead to a ceasefire and the release of the Israeli hostages,” he added.
The talks are based on a plan US President Joe Biden laid out on May 31 calling for an Israeli withdrawal from “major population centers” in Gaza and a six week ceasefire, which could be extended if negotiators need more time to seek a permanent deal.
“Efforts are continuing, but so far we have not reached a formula that we feel is the most appropriate and closest to what has been presented,” the Qatari prime minister said.
“As soon as this is done, we will communicate with the Israeli side to try to bridge the gap and reach an agreement as quickly as possible,” he added.
Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement that the Palestinian Islamist movement was open to “any document or initiative that ensures the foundations of the resistance’s position in ceasefire negotiations.”
Hamas has insisted on the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and a permanent ceasefire before the release of all hostages sought by Israel. The Israeli goverment has rejected the demands.
Haniyeh said “the priority is to stop the criminal war on our people.”
The Gaza war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 251 hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza, including 41 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,431 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


German foreign minister to visit Beirut as fears rise of wider conflict with Israel

Updated 21 June 2024

German foreign minister to visit Beirut as fears rise of wider conflict with Israel

  • Lebanon counts on success of US diplomatic efforts to prevent full-scale war
  • Former ambassador to US tells Arab News: ‘No one has an interest in open war’

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib met with French Ambassador Herva Magro, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, and US Ambassador Lisa Johnson on Friday.

The minister reiterated Lebanon’s call for the full implementation of UN Resolution 1701.

Hennis-Plasschaert said there was “no inevitability (to wider conflict with Israel)” during her visit to UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon.

Also on Friday, it was announced that German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will make shuttle visits to Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank.

Concerned at the risk of Israel’s war on Gaza spreading across the region, US President Joe Biden sent his special envoy Amos Hochstein to embark on a new round of diplomacy last week. Hochstein called for “urgent” de-escalation during talks with Lebanon and Israel on Tuesday, informing both sides that “the threat of a full-scale war persists and must be avoided.”

It is widely believed in Lebanon that Hochstein convinced Israel to refrain from escalating its military actions against Lebanon for the time being.

In a meeting with visiting Israeli officials including National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer in Washington on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the importance of “avoiding further escalation in Lebanon and reaching a diplomatic resolution that allows Israeli and Lebanese families to return to their homes,” according to a statement.

According to his spokesperson, Matthew Miller, Blinken also stressed America’s “unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

During his talks in Beirut, Hochstein reportedly reassured Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati that Biden’s proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza was being viewed positively, and that Qatar was working to make it happen.

Hochstein also reportedly told Mikati that “things are under control and positive when it comes to the war between Lebanon and Israel.”

Former Lebanese Ambassador to Washington, Riad Tabbarah, described threats of war as a “mere outburst.”

He told Arab News: “Since military operations began on the southern front about nine months ago, the Lebanese have been hearing that war is coming, but it never arrives.

“During diplomatic negotiations, it is common for both sides to face pressure and threats,” he continued. “It appears that there are numerous and diverse negotiations happening behind the scenes, including discussions between the Americans and Iranians, as well as between the Americans and Hezbollah.”

Tabbarah acknowledged the recklessness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said the Israeli leader “has two options — either war or prison. And there is significant pressure on him, especially from the families of the hostages.”

Tabbarah noted that there are limits to what military action can achieve. “We still recall the time when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon crossed those limits in 1982 when he set the Litani Line as his target. However, he went beyond that and reached Beirut. As a result, international powers united to bring him back to the Litani Line.

“No one has an interest in war,” he continued. “Americans, Europeans, and Iranians are working in the opposite direction. The general trend is to avoid escalating to open war.”

Military operations on the Lebanese front decreased significantly on Friday, although the outskirts of Naqoura in the western sector were targeted by Israeli artillery, causing a fire in a house. In the morning, an Israeli military raid targeted the town of Wazzani.

Hezbollah made a series of announcements about their operations, which were “focused on specific targets within the rules of engagement.”

Hezbollah attacked the sites of Ramtha and Samaka in the occupied Lebanese Kfar Shouba Hills, the Zabadin site in the occupied Lebanese Shebaa Farms, and carried out an air attack using drones on the Ras Al-Naqoura naval site, aiming at locations containing Israeli military personnel.

The Lebanese Ministry of Health said that, up to June 19, it has recorded a total of 1,774 casualties, including 432 fatalities, caused by Israeli attacks.


2 Palestinians killed in West Bank

Updated 21 June 2024

2 Palestinians killed in West Bank

  • The Wafa Agency reported that eyewitnesses saw Israeli special forces firing live ammunition at a vehicle on Friday afternoon as it passed along the main street of Qalqilya in the northern West Bank

QALQILYA: Israeli and Palestinian authorities said at least two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli operation in the occupied West Bank city of Qalqilya on Friday.
The Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs reported the death of the two men.
“The General Authority of Civil Affairs informed the Ministry of Health of the martyrdom of Mahmoud Hassan Abdul Rahman Zaid, 28, and Ihab Abdul Karim Musa Abu Hamed, 29, by Israeli gunfire in Qalqilya,” it said in a statement.
The Wafa Agency reported that eyewitnesses saw Israeli special forces firing live ammunition at a vehicle on Friday afternoon as it passed along the main street of Qalqilya in the northern West Bank.
Images taken by an AFP journalist on the ground showed the destroyed storefront of a downtown shoe shop and blood stains in front of it.
Police forces have killed 2 “wanted terrorists in Qalqilya,” Israeli authorities said.
In a joint statement, the Israeli police, army, and Shin Bet security service said that Israeli forces “attempted to arrest two terrorists” from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, one of whom “was planning to carry out an attack in the area.”
“During the arrest, fire was opened on our forces, who returned fire and neutralized the terrorists,” the statement read, adding that the forces found handguns on the Palestinians.
The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, has experienced a surge in violence for more than a year, particularly since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7.
At least 549 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces or settlers across the West Bank since October 7, according to Palestinian officials.


Lebanon cannot become another Gaza, UN chief warns

Updated 21 June 2024

Lebanon cannot become another Gaza, UN chief warns

  • UN chief's comments come amid escalating tensions between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah
  • Iran-backed Hezbollah has been firing rockets at Israel in solidarity with Palestinian ally Hamas

UNITED NATIONS: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday he is profoundly concerned by escalating tensions between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and that UN peacekeepers are working to calm the situation and prevent miscalculation.
“One rash move — one miscalculation — could trigger a catastrophe that goes far beyond the border, and frankly, beyond imagination,” he told reporters. “Let’s be clear: The people of the region and the people of the world cannot afford Lebanon to become another Gaza.”
Iran-backed Hezbollah has been firing rockets at Israel in solidarity with its Palestinian ally Hamas since the Gaza war erupted in October, forcing tens of thousands to flee homes in Israel, where political pressure is building for tougher action.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese have also fled their homes following Israeli strikes in south Lebanon.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations said on Friday that Hezbollah has the capability to defend itself and Lebanon against Israel, warning that “perhaps the time for the self-annihilation of this illegitimate regime has come.”
“Any imprudent decision by the occupying Israeli regime to save itself could plunge the region into a new war,” Iran’s UN mission posted on X.
A UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL, as well as unarmed technical observers known as UNTSO, have long been stationed in southern Lebanon to monitor hostilities along the demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel, known as the Blue Line.
“UN peacekeepers are on the ground working to de-escalate tensions and help prevent miscalculation,” Guterres said.
“The world must say loudly and clearly: immediate de-escalation is not only possible – it is essential,” he said. “There is no military solution.”