In an opinion article published in the Washington Post on Nov. 18, President Biden described how far his ambitions stretch beyond the four-day pause in fighting just agreed upon.
“Our goal should not be simply to stop the war for today,” he wrote. “It should be to end the war forever, break the cycle of unceasing violence, and build something stronger in Gaza and across the Middle East so that history does not keep repeating itself.”
Now the four-day pause, or cease-fire, has been extended two days, and optimists hope for an indefinite extension that will lead not only to the release of all hostages but also to a lasting solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
That’s very unlikely to happen, and the principal obstruction is Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He has short- and long-term goals, only a few of which accord with Biden’s. Netanyahu announced three short-term goals on November 26 while meeting with soldiers in Gaza:
“Eliminate Hamas, return all of our hostages and ensure that Gaza will not go back to being a threat to the State of Israel. I am here to tell the soldiers, who all tell me the same thing, and I repeat it to you, citizens of Israel: We are continuing until the end – until victory. Nothing will stop us, and we are convinced that we have the force, the strength, the will and the determination to achieve all of our goals for the war, and this is what we will do.”
Motivations in Plain Sight
But Netanyahu’s long-term goals are more ambitious, and more troubling: to remain in power and prevent a two-state solution. He sees the war as an exit from the battle over judicial reform that consumed Israel prior to October 7 and threatened his hold on power.
The far right’s proposals to gut the essential powers of Israel’s supreme court were under daily assault from Israeli society across the board, including military reservists. Then came the Hamas atrocities and an opportunity to again be a wartime leader.
Netanyahu knows full well from opinion polls that the great majority of Israelis want him to step down after the war. He has every reason to postpone that day, and the improbable war aims he has set—the elimination of Hamas and the release of all the hostages, which includes about 70 soldiers—provide justification for staying in office for some time to come.
Then there is Netanyahu’s characterization of the war—as an epoch struggle for Israel’s very existence. He is using language borrowed from George W. Bush after the 9/11 attack: The war is not just against terrorists, it is to preserve civilization itself.
Netanyahu first made that argument in a meeting with the Netherlands prime minister, saying “we are in a battle of civilization against barbarism.” In a commentary for the Wall Street Journal on October 30 entitled “The Battle for Civilization,” Netanyahu expanded on the point, insisting that unless Hamas and Iran are defeated, America will be next. Bush used 9/11 to conduct a “war on terror” that engulfed the US in Middle East conflicts for years after.
Netanyahu’s purpose seems to be to solidify his rule and bring the US, the European Union, and others around to the view that Israel’s fight is theirs, requiring political and military support well into the future.
The Blocked Road to Peace
In a cruel sense, Netanyahu’s goals coincide with those of Hamas: long-term warfare to gain one’s objectives of eradicating the enemy. As I have noted before, Hamas leaders see this war as just one cycle of several to eliminate Israel.
They, like Netanyahu, don’t want the war to end in a way that ensures their irrelevancy. With two adversaries each seeking an all-or-nothing solution to the fighting, a long-term cease-fire seems out of the question. (Israel reportedly has put a limit of 10 days on any cease-fire.)
And so long as that is so, any discussion of a new approach to Gaza’s political future cannot begin. That suits Netanyahu just fine; he has long favored keeping the West Bank and Gaza divided.
Thus, when talking these days about postwar Gaza, Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials are vague. First, they say, Hamas must be defeated; only then might a “reconstructed civilian authority” (Netanyahu) or an international “coalition or joint forces” (Israeli president Isaac Herzog) be installed.
No one in Tel Aviv wants to accept the Biden-Blinken idea of having the Palestinian Authority preside over Gaza, since giving the PA that new authority might be the prelude to Palestinian statehood. (The American idea is a bad one anyway, given the PA’s corruption and unpopularity.)
So while we celebrate every day that’s added to the rolling cease-fire and to the list of freed hostages, we also need to reflect on the realities of this war. Both Israel and Hamas have given every indication that the cease-fire is temporary while the fighting is permanent.
The Gaza death toll stands at around 13,000, about half the buildings there have either been badly damaged or destroyed, and some 40 hostages are apparently being held by forces other than Hamas. Many of the young men in Gaza who have lived through Israel’s attack will be recruited into a revived Hamas.
And in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is still in command, blocking roads to peace.