As he ponders his next step, Netanyahu is wagering Israel’s future

As he ponders his next step, Netanyahu is wagering Israel’s future

As he ponders his next step, Netanyahu is wagering Israel’s future
Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Nahalat Yitshak Cemetery in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (AP Photo)
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Israel’s beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has painted himself into a corner. In the wake of the surprise Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the 74-year-old seasoned politician, emerging from months of unprecedented domestic divisions over his controversial judicial reforms, believed that waging full-scale war on Gaza would give him a proverbial get-out-of-jail-free card. This would at first deflect attention from his gross failure to anticipate and prevent the bloodiest breach of Israel’s national security in decades and, second, deliver a resounding victory against one of the state’s most obstinate enemies.
But after eight horrific months of indiscriminate and deliberate bombardment of the heavily populated enclave, he now faces the moment of truth: his once-undefeated army is exhausted, humiliated and blemished. With almost 40,000 Palestinian fatalities so far and millions now facing famine, his war has no definite finishing line. He has failed to deliver a postwar plan and, in the process, he has damaged ties with the White House and with all of Israel’s Western allies. Weeks have given way to months and the army has run out of strategic goals. At least 120 Israeli hostages remain captives and the Israeli public is deeply divided and angry and now wants his head.
In the meantime, Hezbollah has become Israel’s gadfly. Since Oct. 8, the pro-Iran militant group has been attacking northern Israel with vigor and determination. More than 5,000 missiles and drones have been launched from south Lebanon against various targets in northern Israel, turning tens of thousands of Israelis into refugees and incinerating thousands of hectares. Israel’s stellar air defense system has been compromised and Hezbollah has warned that it is ready for an all-out war.
With no decisive conclusion to what has become an existential war, the next few days will be crucial for Israel, Gaza, Lebanon and the region. Netanyahu is now facing a daunting choice: expanding the war and risking all by bombing Lebanon into submission or bowing to international and domestic pressure and stopping the military campaign in Gaza. Both are high-risk options and they remain linked.
But he is becoming increasingly isolated at home and abroad. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting on an almost daily basis, demanding that he accept a deal to bring back the hostages. But Hamas, which has accepted President Joe Biden’s three-phase plan in principle, wants guarantees that Israel will end the war, withdraw from Gaza and allow Gazans to return to what is left of their homes in the center and north of the Strip. That is tantamount to a resounding defeat for Netanyahu and his far-right partners.
Moreover, pressure is mounting on him to call for early elections, which he will undoubtedly lose. On Monday, thousands of settlers marched in West Jerusalem, demanding his resignation. His ultrareligious and ultranationalist partners want him to pursue the war on Gaza and open a second front against Lebanon. Meanwhile, the West Bank is on the brink of all-out chaos as Jewish extremists spread death and terror against Palestinians, while the Israeli army raids refugee camps in an attempt to nip militant Palestinian groups in the bud.
Netanyahu’s Israeli critics are lining up. His far-right government has driven a wedge deep into Israeli society. While a demoralized army is fighting an open-ended war in Gaza and sustaining severe casualties, his coalition supports a law that exempts Orthodox Jews from serving in the military.
And when the army announces tactical daily pauses in Gaza, ostensibly to allow humanitarian convoys to enter the famine-ridden enclave, Netanyahu issues unprecedented attacks on his generals, as does his defense minister. Israel has never seen such public bickering between the prime minister and the army — the state’s symbol of pride and unity.
Pressure is building on Netanyahu to agree to a deal with Hamas. At the same time, the hawkish flank of the government wants him to restore Israel’s shattered deterrence by striking deep into Lebanon. Israel has never been so divided, isolated and paranoid, which makes it highly unpredictable and equally dangerous.
In a desperate attempt to prevent an all-out war, the US has dispatched Amos Hochstein, Biden’s special envoy, to both Lebanon and Israel in a bid to defuse the situation. Hochstein had tried to separate Gaza and Lebanon before but has finally accepted that the two are permanently linked. Despite stern Israeli warnings to Lebanon that peace in northern Israel will be restored through diplomacy or war, Hezbollah seems to be aware of Netanyahu’s precarious position at home.
The White House is clear about wanting to prevent an open war between Israel and Hezbollah, fearing regional fallout that could get out of hand. Biden is struggling in his reelection bid and the war on Gaza has become a centerpiece in his campaign’s strategy to unify Democratic voters. Having to manage another war between Israel and Lebanon is something that he and his aides do not want.
Netanyahu, who has managed to waste time and prolong the war in Gaza, is now seeing his options dissipate. After Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot left the war Cabinet last week, Netanyahu was forced to disband it in order to avoid having to allow an unhinged partner, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to join. He is now alone and has the final say on how to conduct the war in Gaza and whether to launch a new front against Lebanon.

Israel has never been so divided, isolated and paranoid, which makes it highly unpredictable and equally dangerous.

Osama Al-Sharif

After more than eight months of war in Gaza, it is unlikely that the Israeli army will deliver a decisive victory in Gaza anytime soon. Also, Hezbollah has been escalating its attacks against military targets in Israel as it takes northern Israel out of the equation. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Israel to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza while dealing with a diplomatic and legal onslaught abroad.
It is now all about Netanyahu’s character and state of mind. He may choose to escape by implicating Israel in another military adventure against Lebanon. At the same time, his army is exhausted and demoralized, or he may succumb to the bitter reality that his gambit has failed miserably. He stands to pay a high price but, more importantly, Israel will go through a challenging phase of reckoning and self-examination that goes beyond its failed and shameful war on Gaza.
What Netanyahu must come to grips with is that his war on Gaza will never deliver victory. That has now been eroded by the tragic death toll incurred by Palestinians. Netanyahu has managed to divide Israel in a way that will take years to overcome. He has damaged Israel’s image of itself and now he stands alone as he ponders how to proceed. He is wagering Israel’s future and his next step will be crucial.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. X: @plato010
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