November 27, 2023 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
Is Netanyahu personally invested in prolonging the war?
“He's in extreme trouble,” says Middle East expert Hussein Ibish.
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Today is the last full day of the US-brokered ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. The agreement was forged in order to exchange Israel hostages taken during the October 7 massacre for Hamas prisoners held in Israeli jails. According to Reuters, there are concerns about a list of people scheduled to be swapped, with Hamas being open to an extension while Israeli says it might agree in exchange for additional hostages. A four-year-old American girl was among those freed over the weekend.
The president told reporters last week that the ceasefire, negotiated by way of Qatar, was designed to be extended, perhaps leading to a lasting truce. Joe Biden said that “this deal is structured so that it can be extended to keep building on these results. That’s my goal. That’s our goal: to keep this pause going beyond tomorrow.” Pausing the conflict was also vital, he said, to getting humanitarian aid into Gaza.
According to Bloomberg, Israel is under mounting pressure to prolong the peace. More than 1,200 people, mostly Israeli, were murdered by Hamas on October 7. Israel, by targeting Hamas in Gaza, has killed more than 14,000 Palestinians, the vast majority women and children, according to the Times. Biden is facing blowback at home, especially among young people aligned with the Democrats. They are key to his reelection. He’s also facing accusations of supporting genocide.
“My sense is that he has concluded that the best way to stay out of prison is to stay in power, and that the best way to stay in power is to continue the war in its active phase as long as possible,” he said. “That’s very bad, because it gives him a personal vested interest in prolonging the conflict as much as possible.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he talked to Biden Sunday. He said a longer truce was possible, but that it would be conditioned on the release of more hostages. But he also implied that even that wouldn’t be enough. “At the end of the outline, we will go to realizing our goals with full force: Eliminating Hamas, ensuring that Gaza will not go back to being what it was,” Netanyahu said.
But that’s not an achievable goal, unless Israel wants to occupy all of Gaza again. That, according to Hussein Ibish, would give Hamas what it wants. Last month, in an interview with the Editorial Board, Hussein told me that Hamas wants most of all to launch a bloody, yearslong insurgency in Gaza against Israel with the potential of drawing Iran into the conflict, which could turn a regional war into a global one.
The other problem, Hussein told me in this second interview with the Editorial Board, below, is Netanyahu’s incentives. On the one hand, he’s responding to the need for Israel to defend itself. On the other is the need to stay out of prison. “My sense is that he has concluded that the best way to stay out of prison is to stay in power, and that the best way to stay in power is to continue the war in its active phase as long as possible,” he said. “That’s very bad, because it gives him a personal vested interest in prolonging the conflict as much as possible.”
JS: Calls for a permanent truce are getting louder in the US. Is it possible the current ceasefire, which ends Tuesday, might last?
HI: I do not believe so. Unless Hamas comes up with more hostages immediately that Israel will accept on exactly the same terms as the women-and-children exchange, then I do not think anything is going to prevent the Israelis from returning to combat after four days.
They were not enthusiastic about this deal, which was pushed through by Joe Biden, talking to Hamas through Qatar and talking directly to Israel, telling both sides this was the best that they were going to get and telling them to take it or leave it. Biden’s strategy worked.
But I’m not sure that there is room for an immediate extension of the ceasefire. It strikes me as more likely that the combat resumes and then another deal is struck, because every deal is going to be a bit different because of the higher values of the hostages or prisoners.
Israeli soldiers in uniform have the highest value for Hamas, because they think they can exchange them for fighters and cadres, and even possibly some leaders, of the organization in Israeli prisons. So every deal may have to be slightly different and take time to organize. This also assumes that both sides believe the other was more or less faithful to the terms. And they may not think that at the end of the day.
JS: Has Israel figured out its end-game? Could it just, I dunno, stop?
HI: Israel could stop and declare victory at any time, and I think at some point that’s what they’re going to do. But even the most sensible Israeli national security strategist wants to attack the tunnels beneath Gaza before they leave, and that means securing all the major above-ground areas, including Raffa, all the way in the south of Gaza.
So there is more fighting to be done above-ground and then below-ground before any Israeli strategist is going to say “mission accomplished, we can go home now, Hamas is destroyed for all practical purposes,” which would be the sensible thing to do.
JS: Some say Netanyahu is in trouble, politically. Is he really?
HI: He’s in extreme trouble. He was already highly unpopular with many Israelis because of the attempted “judicial reform” coup against Israel’s ethnically specific but otherwise well-functioning “Jewish democracy.”
Now there are the extreme governance failures and national security calamity on October 7 and also October 8 and October 9 – because it took the Israeli security forces three days to regain full control of the villages in the south that were attacked by Hamas and other groups.
Netanyahu has to take the blame for that both because he is the prime minister (he is deemed responsible by definition), but also because the extreme political unrest prompted by the “judicial reform” coup effort was a terrible distraction that made Israel weak, and its enemies noticed, as all the Israeli security establishment was warning Netanyahu was taking place for months, and he didn’t care.
So he’s in very big trouble. But my sense is that he has concluded that the best way to stay out of prison is to stay in power, and that the best way to stay in power is to continue the war in its active phase as long as possible. That’s very bad, because it gives him a personal vested interest in prolonging the conflict as much as possible.
However, the Israelis may get rid of him anyway at some point, and they should. His policy of divide-and-rule towards the Palestinians was directly responsible for Hamas staying in power in Gaza, and it set the stage predictably and, arguably, inevitably for October 7.
In a very indirect way, Netanyahu and the other Israeli rightwingers were the authors of that massacre, because many of us kept predicting that there would be an explosion of violence somewhere in the occupied Palestinian territories precisely because of these policies.
JS: The US and its allies seem to be containing the war to Gaza so far. Are you seeing anything that might change that situation?
HI: I don’t think so. All of violence is peripheral and it is mostly pro-Iranian groups in the “axis of resistance” pecking at the conflict like little birds. But they’re all being very careful not to provoke Israel or the United States – or anybody else – to take radical action.
The reason the war is not spread is that from the outset, on October 7 itself, one of the few things that all four parties that could make this a regional conflict – Israel, Iran, the United States and Hezbollah – agreed that it was imperative that the war did not spread. And that is why the war didn’t spread and why it is likely not going to spread.
In addition, if it were going to spread, it probably would have already. The wildcard is the Muslim holy places in occupied East Jerusalem, particularly the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. Fighting in or around those holy places could change calculations drastically.
But that hasn’t happened, and it looks like the Palestinians in the West Bank also want nothing to do with this war on a collective basis. So nobody is joining Hamas’s initiative to instigate what they call “a permanent state of war” with Israel, and they also made it clear that if October 7 had not produced this result, they were willing to attack again and again and again until they got the Israeli response they were looking for. This is exactly what they wanted.
JS: The hardest question: are we seeing genocide?
HI: I don’t believe so. There are many competing definitions of genocide, but in my view this term is thrown around too casually. Israel’s intention is not to kill all or most of the civilians in Gaza, or even as many as possible. Yes, this is a war of vengeance, among other things, and Netanyahu has not been shy about saying so. There is a conscious Israeli desire to inflict pain on all Palestinians in Gaza, but the main targets are Hamas and groups involved in October 7.
That said, Israel’s policies are deliberately inflicting mass suffering. But hyperbole is a terrible thing. Everybody does it, but it’s very damaging. There were even Israelis accusing Hamas of genocide. But it boils down to this: every murder is not an atrocity, every atrocity is not a massacre, every massacre (or massacres) is not a genocide, and so on.
I don’t believe what Israel is doing constitutes genocide in any meaningful sense, although we have seen a series of truly vicious war crimes committed, apparently deliberately. There is a genocidal sentiment afoot in Israel after the October 7 attacks, and it’s expressed all the time. But the sentiment doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening.
My answer is no, and I wish people would stop throwing around hyperbolic language. What’s happening in Gaza is unbelievably horrible, and there is no need to exaggerate how bad it is.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.