But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telegraphed his opposition to a deal throughout the week and outright rejected it Wednesday, casting Hamas’s demands as “delusional” and vowing to press ahead with Israel’s military offensives in Gaza. Blinken told reporters that there remained “space to continue to pursue an agreement … and we’re intent on pursuing it.” But Netanyahu made clear his priorities, claiming that “total victory” over Hamas was “within touching distance” and promised the “eternal disarmament of Gaza.”
When asked by a reporter to further explain what “total victory” meant in the current context, Netanyahu invoked a chilling metaphor, citing how one smashes glass “into small pieces, and then you continue to smash it into even smaller pieces and you continue hitting them.”
Israel has already done a lot of smashing. Israeli airstrikes and ground offensives leveled much of the densely packed Gaza Strip, made close to 90 percent of the population homeless and triggered a sprawling, unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. “If [Palestinian civilians] aren’t killed in the fighting, Palestinian children, women and men will be at risk of dying by starvation or disease,” said Bob Kitchen, vice president of emergencies at the International Rescue Committee, in a statement this week. “There will no longer be a single ‘safe’ area for Palestinians to go to as their homes, markets, and health services have been annihilated.”
That may be by design. “Israeli officials and ambassadors have themselves compared the air campaign to the bombing of Dresden,” journalist Tom Stevenson noted in a trenchant analysis. “The scale of the killing, extraordinary as it is, has been exceeded by the systematic destruction of civilian infrastructure.”
Netanyahu clings precariously to power with hostage deal in the balance
Yet Hamas remains entrenched. Its tunnel networks are probably too vast and complex for Israel to fully destroy. And a potential Israeli push against the last major redoubt at Rafah, on the southern border with Egypt, jeopardizes more than 1 million Gazan refugees who have been driven there over the course of the ongoing war.
Other prominent Israeli officials are more sanguine about the strategic complexities of the moment. In an interview on Israeli television last month, Gadi Eisenkot, a former commander of the Israel Defense Forces who is part of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, agreed that Hamas’s capabilities had been significantly degraded in the north of the Gaza Strip but stressed that “whoever speaks of the absolute defeat [of Hamas in Gaza] and of it no longer having the will or the capability [to harm Israel], is not speaking the truth.”
It was an obvious jab at Netanyahu, for whom Eisenkot has little affection. The former Israeli commander has lost both a son and a nephew in the fighting in Gaza and accused Netanyahu this week of dithering and avoiding the necessary deliberations about what postwar Gaza should look like. “With the prime minister taking his time and not making decisions on the important issues, Hamas is restoring some of its capabilities, returning to the north of the Gaza Strip, and taking over the humanitarian aid,” Eisenkot told colleagues in his political party, according to an Israeli news report.
Netanyahu is also fighting for his political future. Pandering, as ever, to a right-wing base, he has rejected U.S. and Arab proposals about the Palestinian Authority taking over the administration of Gaza. And he has done little to subdue far-right allies in his camp calling for the de facto ethnic cleansing of Gaza, as well as its possible resettlement by Israeli settlers.
Speculation is rife that Netanyahu is hoping to use the war to cling on to power until the U.S. presidential election, which could see former president Donald Trump, a closer friend than President Biden, return to office. Within Israel, though, there are mounting calls for his ouster and fresh elections.
“Polls show him winning only 16 percent of the vote in the event of new elections, with about a third of his Likud base having turned on the party,” my colleagues Loveday Morris and Shira Rubin reported. This leaves him “completely dependent” on far-right members of his government, they added.
“Netanyahu reads the polls. He knows that a majority of the Israeli public still believes in total victory over Hamas. He’s sticking faithfully to the public’s sentiment on that,” an Israeli government minister told Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer this week. “His problem is that he refuses to read something else that’s clear from the polls: that the public doesn’t want to hear from him any longer. Even though he’s saying the things they want to hear.”
Biden finds that ‘forever wars’ are hard to quit
There are tougher conversations that many Israelis, Netanyahu’s supporters and opponents alike, don’t want to hear. In the rubble of Gaza, U.S., European and Arab officials all see the need for the restoration of a political process between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu spent much of his career deliberately working against the prospect of a two-state solution, encouraging divisions within the Palestinian national movement while persuading the Israeli public and interlocutors elsewhere that the conflict could be “managed” indefinitely.
This worked for a long time: For years, the United States and other European countries barely lifted a finger to check the steady expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Flare-ups between Palestinian armed factions and Israel would lead to periodic exercises in “mowing the grass” — disproportionate Israeli campaigns against groups like Hamas that inflicted considerable civilian harm, put a brief lid on the militant threat and achieved little else. The absence of equal rights for millions of Palestinians was no impediment to the normalization deals brokered by the Trump administration between Israel and a clutch of Arab monarchies. In September, Netanyahu trumpeted the advent of a “new” Middle East, waving a map of a more-integrated region at the dais of the U.N. General Assembly where Palestine simply did not exist.
But in the wake of Oct. 7 and the ruinous Israel-Hamas war, the need for a lasting solution is on the front burner. Arab leaders, including the influential Saudis, now say a path to Palestinian statehood is a prerequisite for any engagement in a postwar scenario in Gaza. Some U.S. lawmakers concur. There are suggestions that a frustrated Biden administration could formally recognize a Palestinian state, even if, as an entity, it remains more theoretical than real.
That’s a tough sell to current-day Israelis, most of whom would prefer the status quo over any further concessions to Palestinians. But the status quo, warn some Israeli analysts, is untenable. “With or without Netanyahu, ‘conflict management’ and ‘mowing the grass’ will remain state policy — which means more occupation, settlements, and displacement,” Aluf Benn wrote in Foreign Affairs. “This strategy might appear to be the least risky option, at least for an Israeli public scarred by the horrors of October 7 and deaf to new suggestions of peace. But it will only lead to more catastrophe.”