Growing dissension in Israel as Netanyahu hopes to keep the war going
By Paul Scham
- Israelis know and are increasingly angry that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is strongly incentivized to keep this war — or any war — going as long as possible, and so he is becoming ever more reliant on maintaining support from his far-right coalition partners.
- Though support for the war remains widespread, Israeli society is splitting along left-right lines into those who see bringing home the hostages as its primary aim, including some senior army commanders, versus those who still believe that Hamas can be destroyed.
On Friday morning, Jan. 19, several international radio stations, including the BBC, reported with apparent surprise that, in his Thursday night press conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ruled out the establishment of a Palestinian state after the war in Gaza. As recounted by the Times of Israel, “ ‘[I]n any future arrangement, or in the absence of an arrangement,’ he [Netanyahu] said, Israel must maintain ‘security control’ of all territory west of the Jordan River — meaning, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.” As Israelis were not surprised. The proclamation was a predictable, unvarnished, negative response to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken restating the US commitment to a Palestinian state and ruling out Israeli control of Gaza after the war. Over the weekend, Biden reiterated his position that Israel must withdraw after the war — and Netanyahu again insisted it would not, while steadfastly refusing any “day after” plan or discussions. Given his coalition’s composition, he cannot even consider allowing a Palestinian state.
In the weeks before the war began on Oct. 7, as Israel and Saudi Arabia were apparently getting close to normalizing their relationship, the expectation was only that, as part of this extension of the Abraham Accords, the Palestinians might receive some “minor concessions” and “lip service” toward a two-state solution, but would likely “find themselves with even less leverage and fewer options than before.” That was then. Now, there is general agreement among Western and Arab governments that the only way to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is with genuine movement on a credible track toward two states. However, although a recent representative poll indicates Netanyahu’s popularity among Israelis is around 15%, their support for a two-state solution is only slightly higher, 25%. Netanyahu’s boast is that only he can prevent the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Israelis know and are increasingly angry that Netanyahu is strongly incentivized to keep this war — or any war — going as long as possible, since when it is over, new elections may be impossible to avoid, in which he will likely lose his post as prime minister and thus be liable to be sent to jail if found guilty in his interminable trial for fraud. Gadi Eisenkot, an ex-Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff and an opposition member of the war cabinet, stated at a news conference immediately after Netanyahu’s that the goal of destroying Hamas was now unreachable and called for new elections. Bibi’s only chance of staying in office if Eisenkot’s (and Benny Gantz’s) party, National Unity, leaves the war cabinet is to hew to the demands of his far-right coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, whose unconcealed aims are to empty Gaza of Palestinians and annex the West Bank. A ruinous war with Hezbollah is increasingly seen as inevitable by the right, which would also serve to keep Netanyahu in office. Recent Israeli assassinations of senior Hezbollah officials in Lebanon may be goading it to attack, though, so far, its longtime leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is avoiding taking the bait.
Increasingly, though support for the war remains widespread, Israeli society is splitting into those who see bringing home the hostages as its primary aim, including some senior army commanders, versus those who still believe that Hamas can be destroyed. That is largely a left-right split. While it is generally agreed that the war has moved Israelis to the right, 60% of Israelis now want to see a pause in the fighting in return for a release of hostages. Given Netanyahu’s manifest unpopularity, if Gantz and Eisenkot leave the war cabinet and call for an emphasis on freeing the hostages rather than destroying Hamas, a goal increasingly seen as unreachable, Israel might be plunged into another wrenching internal struggle as it was before Oct. 7, but this one playing out in the midst of a brutal war.
A report in the Wall Street Journal Monday morning, taken seriously by Ha’aretz’smilitary reporter, Amos Harel, stated that Israel and Hamas are in negotiations on a plan that would free the hostages in return for thousands of Palestinian prisoners Israel holds, and also involve a 90-day ceasefire, with the intention of that ending the Hamas-Israel war. Meanwhile, again according to Ha’aretz on Monday, Ben-Gvir told his supporters that “if it’s decided to stop the war, I will not be a part of this government.” Clearly setting up a confrontation, the Labor Party announcedhalf an hour later that it would submit a no-confidence motion to bring down the government, citing the “failure in its policy and duty to return the hostages.”
Paul Scham is president of Partners for Progressive Israel and a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.