Analysis: For Netanyahu, Gaza’s ‘day after’ must wait

Thousands of Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and call for the release of hostages held by Hamas on May 4. MUST CREDIT: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post

Israel marked a somber Independence Day and Memorial Day this week, with commemorations subdued by the toll of the ongoing war in Gaza and political fractures within the country that are only getting more pronounced. A customary torch-lighting ceremony was prerecorded instead of being broadcast live, technically because of security considerations but possibly to avoid scenes of hecklers berating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ministers in his government. Many of the leader’s domestic critics cast blame him and his allies for presiding over the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust: Oct. 7, when militant group Hamas shocked Israel in an unprecedent terrorist attack.

A segment of Israeli society is furious with Netanyahu over his seeming unwillingness to prioritize the release and repatriation of dozens of Israeli hostages remaining in Hamas captivity in Gaza, where Israel has carried out more than a half-year-long relentless military campaign. Families and friends of the hostages staged an alternative “torch-dousing” ceremony to convey their rage and disquiet.

As Israeli forces further their incursion into Rafah, the southern Gazan city that was the last refuge for more than a million Palestinians already displaced by the conflict, Netanyahu found himself the target of reproach and reprisals far closer to home. His top military commander, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Herzl Halevi, was quoted in local media bemoaning Netanyahu’s lack of commitment to a “day after” plan in the Gaza Strip that would help reckon with the security and political vacuum in the war-ravaged territory. Halevi echoed the frustrations of many Israeli security officials, who see Hamas fighters resuming operations in areas of Gaza where they were supposed to have been neutralized.

“As long as there’s no diplomatic process to develop a governing body in the Strip that isn’t Hamas, we’ll have to launch campaigns again and again in other places to dismantle Hamas’s infrastructure,” Halevi was quoted by Israel news network Channel 13 as saying during private meetings over the weekend. “It will be a Sisyphean task.”

The sentiment has been echoed by Israel’s staunchest foreign allies. “Military pressure is necessary but not sufficient to fully defeat Hamas,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a news briefing Monday, May 13. “If Israel’s efforts are not accompanied by a political plan for the future of Gaza, and the Palestinian people, the terrorists will keep coming back.” It’s already happening in Gaza City, he added.

Netanyahu and others in his right-wing camp have vowed the total defeat of Hamas and the dismantling of its military infrastructure. But a growing body of experts, as well as senior diplomats, doubt that Hamas can be fully vanquished – and fear the excruciating toll exacted on Gaza’s civilian population as Israel attempts to do so. That appears to be the hardening consensus within the Biden administration.

“Sometimes when we listen closely to Israeli leaders, they talked about mostly the idea of some sort of sweeping victory on the battlefield, total victory,” Kurt Campbell, deputy secretary of state, said at a NATO event Monday in Miami. “I don’t think we believe that that is likely or possible.”

Despite U.S. misgivings, the war is grinding on in the manner Netanyahu appears to favor, as Israel moves to “eliminate” the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah. In the process, it has forced roughly half a million Palestinians to flee for safety elsewhere and deepened an already catastrophic humanitarian emergency in Gaza. It has also stalled prospects for a negotiated truce.

“Right now, we are in a status of almost a stalemate,” Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Tuesday in reference to the rounds of indirect talks that his and other governments attempted to mediate between Israel and Hamas. “There is no clarity of how to stop the war from the Israeli side,” Mohammed pointedly added, while warning that the scale of destruction in the territory was so vast that it could lay the grounds for a “new wave of radicalization” if not enough is done to rebuild and invest in Gaza.

For months, Netanyahu has either rejected or shrugged at talk of bringing in the Palestinian Authority to administer Gaza, which has been under Hamas’s sway since the militant group takeover of the territory in 2007. In an unusual interview last week with U.S. daytime television psychologist Dr. Phil, the Israeli prime minister suggested vaguely that “we’ll probably have to have some kind of civilian administration by Gazans who are not committed to our destruction,” and said countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia could help foot the bill for reconstruction.

In private, U.S. and Arab officials have fitfully tried to press Netanyahu over possible interim arrangements in Gaza, which could include the revamping of the Palestinian Authority with some kind of technocratic entity, a regional Arab peacekeeping force, and major infusions of investment and aid from the Middle East’s wealthy monarchies.

All such measures, though, appear to be contingent on a revival of a track toward an independent Palestinian state. That’s something Netanyahu has spent his career working to undermine – indeed, critics argue that he specifically enabled extremist Hamas to entrench itself in Gaza to discredit and weaken the Palestinian cause – and his far-right allies in government explicitly oppose.

On Tuesday, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir appeared among other far-right leaders at a rally on Gaza’s border, calling for the settlement of Gaza by Israel and encouraging the “emigration” of its Palestinian population. Such rhetoric is reviled in Washington and other Western capitals, but informs Netanyahu’s own political calculations. The wily politico’s chances for survival after the hostilities cease look slim and are dependent on support from the Israeli far right.

“Netanyahu has made sure that not only is there no alternative force getting ready to take control of parts of Gaza, but until now, in the eighth month of the war, there has not even been any serious discussion on it and talks with the potential candidates (the Palestinian Authority, relatively moderate Arab states or Western allies),” Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote.

Pfeffer added that the Israeli security establishment was also at fault for the prevailing situation and should have anticipated the need for a political solution before launching their full-scale ground invasion of Gaza. “They have grounds to blame [Netanyahu] now for squandering the tactical gains, but they also shoulder part of the blame,” he wrote. “The debate on the ‘day after’ is an essential one, but it’s taking place seven months too late.”



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