Israel: home truths and hard choices

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Israel: home truths and hard choices

Benjamin Netanjahu, Prime Minister of Israel and Itamar Ben Gvir, Head of Israel Otzma Yehudit Party (image created in Shutterstock)

Seven months on from the horrors of October 7 Israel is running out of options. What started out as a mission to annihilate Hamas has left Israel stuck without an endgame in sight, or a plan for the day after. It is time for some home truths.

Israel is fighting a war in Gaza it cannot win against an underground enemy it can barely see. Fierce battles are under way both in the north of Gaza and in the southern city of Rafah. Hamas may be badly mauled but it is still standing.

Israel’s relationship with the United States, its paramount protector, has turned sour. President Joe Biden has suspended some arms shipments. He wants the war to end. As civilian deaths mount in Gaza, world opinion is turning against Israel. The last surviving hostages endure their seventh month in captivity under unimaginable conditions.

Israel’s war aims are no longer clear. Is it to defeat Hamas, or is it to bring the hostages home? Both aims cannot be pursued simultaneously. Hamas understands that, which is why it is bargaining hard.

According to Haaretz, the left-of-centre Israeli daily, some IDF generals are unhappy with the lack of strategy and are briefing openly against the Prime Minister. Street protests continue by Israelis demanding that the government prioritises the return of the hostages.

The equation is simple. A deal to bring the hostages home requires a ceasefire. Attacking the southern city of Rafah, in the belief that one final push will destroy Hamas, precludes a ceasefire and therefore the return of the hostages.

The former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert believes that the war against Hamas is in any case effectively over. He sees the Rafah offensive as the last gasp of a campaign that has essentially failed in its primary objective. He thinks the only way forward is political.

Be that as it may, none of the choices Israel now faces are good ones. The assault on Rafah, in the face of widespread international protest and the Biden administration’s anger, suggests Netanyahu has chosen political survival over American approval.

Antagonising the US President in an election year is uncomfortable for any Israeli leader, but it’s manageable. Netanyahu does not, after all, answer to American voters. Besides, he knows that for any US president turning his face against Israel is politically inconceivable.

Going against his ultra-nationalist coalition partners, on the other hand, would be fatal for Netanyahu. His coalition would collapse. He would have to answer for his part in the failure to prevent the October 7 massacre. His trial on corruption charges would eventually resume.

Israel has been here before. In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the US threatened to withhold vital F15 combat aircraft. Israel was dragging its feet as America brokered a pull-back in Sinai with Egypt.  Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, warned that the US will not “isolate itself from the rest of the world to stand behind Israeli intransigence”.

But this is different. The October war was a clear victory for Israel against Syria and Egypt. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. The war in Gaza does not. The fact that Israel is still negotiating with Hamas on a ceasefire, long or short, is proof that “total victory”, the unconditional surrender Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalists seek, is unachievable.

All of which leaves Israel with a monumental problem. What happens now? Who governs Gaza? How is Israel kept safe? Is this the precursor to a permanent re-occupation of Gaza? Is this just another battle in a forever war?

Israelis are united in seeking retribution for the atrocities committed on October 7. They are equally unified in authorising the state to do whatever it takes to keep their country safe. Beyond that they are as varied in their views as you’d expect them to be.

The question at the heart of Israel’s national conversation has always been not whether you keep Israel safe but how. And at the core of that question is what do you do about other nations in the region, the Palestinians in particular.

Netanyahu and his religious settler partners answered the question emphatically with the 2018 Basic Law on the Jewish Nation-State. This states that the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people. Some have interpreted this to mean that when it comes to deciding what is in Israel’s national interest, only its Jewish citizens count. (About 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs.)

The law also states that Jewish settlements—without specifying where—are a “national value”, and promises to encourage and advance settlement efforts. This is creeping annexation of the territories occupied in 1967 by any other name.

Israel is often contrasted to its Arab neighbours as an isolated outpost of democracy. There is some truth to that. But a state whose constitution explicitly favours one group over all others is a democracy with limits.

Netanyahu’s partners — especially Itmar Ben-Gvir, his National Security minister — are clear in their vision of what Israel is and must become: a unified Jewish state for Jews from the River Jordan to the sea, preferably without non-Israeli Palestinians. In one respect this is no surprise. The Zionist project as a nationalist one, a land where Jews are safe from persecution, must by implication favour Jews.

Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, another government minister, marched on Gaza with several thousand settlers to mark Israel’s independence day on Tuesday, demanding that Israel reoccupy Gaza, “encourage the migration” of its Palestinian population and invite Jewish settlers to return. Ben-Gvir described this as the “true solution”. The contrast between competing visions of Israel’s future is now starker than ever.

Netanyahu does not endorse Ben-Gvir’s solution to Gaza — yet. But he has been in power for so long, nudging Israel towards ever more right-wing constitutional arrangements, that it’s easy to forget that others in Israel see the future differently.

History is written not by the victors, as the aphorism goes, but by survivors. Israel is the great survivor of the past 76 years. In that time it has pushed – with considerable success – a defining narrative about its existence. This comes in two parts.

The first part is that attacks on the state of Israel or Zionism (its founding creed) are thinly disguised anti-Semitism. Israel was founded on the graves of six million Jews. It must do whatever it takes to defend its existence. All other considerations are secondary.

The second part of Israel’s national narrative flows from the first. Because Israel’s security as a Jewish state is paramount, those who stand in its way are fundamentally inimical to its interests. If Israel is to be a home, first and foremost, for Jews not only must their interests come first, but they must also, by definition, override those of other faiths and ethnicities.

Ayelet Shaked, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and later Minister of the Interior, sums it with admirable clarity: “There are places where the character of Israel as a Jewish state must be maintained. This sometimes comes at the expense of equality. It cannot be a state for all nations.”

The odds of a peaceful settlement, let alone a two-state solution, remain vanishingly thin. In truth, a fully sovereign Palestinian state has never really been on offer in the past despite professions to the contrary by Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states and the international community. Israel has never quite offered a clean break – not at Camp David nor at Oslo — and the Palestinians have never been smart enough to capitalise on what was on offer.

A return to the status quo ante, in which Israel tries to maintain control of the territories it occupies by force, is the most likely outcome when the war in Gaza finally ends. But it will be faced with a new generation of militant Palestinians, radicalised by the war in Gaza.

The massacre on October 7 was so shocking that a brutal, unsparing response to deter any future attacks seemed like the only answer. But the events of October 7 should not define the future.

When Netanyahu finally runs out of time, Israelis will have to choose between a narrow but ultimately self-defeating nationalism and something broader and more imaginative. As will the Palestinians. The alternative is endless war.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 80%
  • Interesting points: 80%
  • Agree with arguments: 71%
58 ratings - view all

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