In the aftermath of Hamas’ recent actions, President Joe Biden cautioned Israel against repeating post-9/11 mistakes. Despite this, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persists in a destructive path, rejecting peace talks and advocating for Gaza’s total destruction. The potential fallout includes radicalized Palestinian youth and a broader regional conflict. It’s crucial to differentiate Netanyahu’s interests from those of Israel’s diverse populace. A recent poll reveals 51% of Israelis supporting a US-brokered deal, emphasizing the urgent need for diplomatic solutions and a departure from Netanyahu’s perilous course.
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By Marc Champion
Right after Hamas bloodied Israel on Oct. 7, US President Joe Biden gave the Jewish state and its leaders some hard-won advice: Don’t make the mistake we made after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attack on America, more than 20 years ago. The time is overdue to impose costs on Israel’s government for roundly ignoring that counsel, as it chooses a path to lasting instability both for Israel and the wider Middle East.
Benjamin Netanyahu made clear in Washington last week and in the days since that he believes he has solid domestic support for continuing with the war in Gaza until “victory,” defined as the complete destruction of Hamas. Equally clear now is that he has zero intention of even cracking a door toward the creation of a Palestinian state, and that he considers indefinite military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank a viable path to Israeli security.
Not only is Netanyahu wrong on all counts, but the potential consequences are dire for Israelis and others. For non-combatant Palestinians, they are self-evidently catastrophic. The outlook for a parent in Gaza today is that if their children aren’t killed in the war, they will be radicalized and recruited in numbers Hamas could only previously have dreamed of. The consequences for the region are almost as bad. It is clear we are on the brink of a wider war in a part of the world that is critical to the global economy — in particular, the industrially developed West — because of its importance to energy supplies and trade routes.
The US and UK are already exchanging fire with Yemen’s Houthis, despite having little prospect of halting their missile attacks on international shipping through the Red Sea, which accounts for more than 12% of global trade, until the fighting in Gaza ends. On Saturday, missiles — likely Israeli — struck the headquarters of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Damascus. According to the IRGC, five people were killed, including the group’s intelligence chief for Syria and his deputy. Iranian proxies in Iraq, meanwhile, fired missiles into a US military base, wounding American servicemen. Never since the war in Gaza began have the US and Israel been as close to direct conflict with Iran.
On Friday, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also warned that an all-out war with Hezbollah, Iran’s largest proxy militia, may not be far away. He acknowledged that there will be fighting on the northern border with Lebanon so long as there’s war in Gaza in the south. But, according to Israeli media, he also said “there will come a moment when if we do not reach a diplomatic agreement in which Hezbollah respects the right of the residents to live here in security, we will have to ensure that security by force.” He is not wrong. This is the logic of any war that lacks a political framework to define achievable goals and therefore a basis for de-escalation and exit. In Washington last week, Netanyahu made public that no such plans exist.
What to do? The first thing is to separate the political interests of Netanyahu and the ultra-right coalition parties that keep him in power from those of Israel. They are not the same, and his claims to represent the views of all Israelis are false. This is one of the most politically polarized societies on earth, and polling suggests that if there were elections tomorrow, Netanyahu’s Likud party would be decimated. Most Israelis hold their prime minister responsible for the deadly security failures of Oct. 7.
It’s true that few Israelis or Palestinians want to hear the phrase “two-state solution” right now, because the trust that outcome requires has been incinerated on both sides. It’s true, also, that any progress on talks for a Palestinian state would be hobbled by Israeli demands for its demilitarization, even without Netanyahu at the table.
Still, the idea that all Israelis are opposed to any negotiated end to the war or to entertaining the prospect of a Palestinian state is a deception. A poll conducted this month and published on Monday found that 51% of Israelis would back a US-brokered deal to end the war that included the return of hostages, a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, and a future demilitarized Palestinian state. The survey, conducted by Israel’s Midgam market research company for the Geneva Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, had a 4.4% margin of error.
Just listen to the families of the remaining hostages and their many supporters, now protesting outside Netanyahu’s home, or to General Gadi Eisenkot, a former armed forces chief of staff and now a minister without portfolio in Netanyahu’s war cabinet, who has lost his son in the fighting. These people want a cease-fire. They see it as the only way the hostages can be safely returned home. It isn’t that Netanyahu and other Israelis don’t want the hostages released — of course they do. The question is what to prioritize. Eisenkot was especially blunt, telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week not only that the war cabinet prevented Netanyahu from invading Lebanon after Oct. 7, but that it’s impossible to get the hostages out alive any time soon except by cutting a deal with Hamas, and that anyone pretending otherwise was “selling stories” to the public. The alternative is to first get the hostages out, then figure out how to neuter Hamas.
The second vital distinction is between what a population backs now and what it will think later. This is why democracy consists of rule by representation and not by opinion poll. It’s why great statespeople sometimes make decisions their voters don’t like, knowing they’ll understand in time that it was in their best interests. That dynamic was at the heart of the friendly advice that Biden gave to Israel as it grieved over Hamas’ wanton slaughter of its citizens in the days after Oct. 7.
In 2003, the US administration was able to invade Iraq against the advice of some close allies and numerous regional experts, because most Americans also thought invading Iraq was necessary to ensure their security against further attacks by terrorists, only this time supplied by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It turned out they had been lied to and were wrong. By 2019, if not long before, opinion surveys showed that most Americans understood the invasion to have been a mistake.
The warnings about invading Iraq from leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac, citing missteps that his own country had made in Algeria, proved as prescient as they were obvious. Yet France, Germany and a then still friendly Russia were unable to stop the US because it was at the height of its power and no nation had the leverage to dissuade it. The US and the rest of the world continue to live with the consequences.
Israel, however, is not the US, let alone the US of 2003. It relies on Washington for diplomatic protection at the United Nations Security Council, as well as for vast sums of military aid — $3.8 billion in 2023 alone, with more given since Oct. 7. This is leverage the US should now use.
Nobody is joining Israel over what it’s doing in Gaza. Hypocrisy and enduring anti-semitism certainly play a role here. Yet the primary reason that the Israeli government finds itself increasingly isolated over its war is that it is making a strategic mistake that will benefit only Hamas, Iran, and perhaps Netanyahu himself, at vast cost to others, including Israel.
The great irony here is that this war was begun by Hamas precisely because the environment around Israel had become so accommodating to the country. Arab nations, most importantly Saudi Arabia, were lining up to normalize relations, imposing only lip-service to improving the conditions of Palestinians as a price. They still are willing to normalize and isn’t too late to defeat Hamas’s plan. But, as the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the UN told Bloomberg News on Saturday, the US needs to understand that regional stability won’t survive much more war of the war in Gaza.
Both the Biden administration and Israelis themselves need to distinguish their nations’ interests from those of Netanyahu and his far-right supporters. Israel’s prime minister is fighting corruption charges in court and will face a political reckoning over Oct. 7’s security failures as soon as the war in Gaza ends. Under cover of the country’s blinding rage and deep yearning for long-term security, Netanyahu is fighting to secure his own political survival and the dark Israeli future that his extremist allies demand to ensure it. These may be the nation’s current leaders, but they are friends to nobody but themselves.
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