As Israel pursues strategic victory in Gaza, Netanyahu’s postwar aims open new political divide

Binyamin Netanyahu may be hoping his stance on what happens after the war will restore his damaged popularity before the next election

With the Gaza war now in its third month, Israel’s military advance has been demonstrably aggressive: the Israeli Defense Forces hopes to gain complete control over northern Gaza this week, enabling it to focus on Khan Younis in the south, where most of the Hamas leadership, and many of the remaining 137 hostages, are believed to be.

Hamas has been soundly defeated in every encounter with the advancing troops and Israel estimates that more than 7,000 militants have been killed, with many more wounded. However, despite the numerous tactical victories there is still no strategic victory for Israel. Hamas has not surrendered and the group’s senior leaders have not been killed or captured. Despite an unprecedented intelligence effort, only one hostage taken in Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel has so far been rescued by troops.

Hamas’s hopes that its attack in October would spark a wider regional conflagration have not come to fruition. Although there are daily clashes with Hizbullah along Israel’s northern border and Houthi rebels have fired a few long-range rockets from Yemen towards Israel, Hamas stands alone, despite the undoubted solidarity on the Arab street.

Hamas called for a popular uprising among West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians but it didn’t happen. And Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of the country’s population, have kept silent.

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Arab countries have condemned Israel’s attack on Gaza but have, by and large, failed to take practical steps against the Jewish state, although Jordan and Bahrain did withdraw their ambassadors, without cutting ties. The reticence to go furthercould be down to the scale of the atrocities committed on October 7th, or the fear that a Hamas success would boost radical elements across the Middle East, endangering many existing regimes.

The impact of the war on Gaza has been devastating for Palestinians. More than 18,000 people killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry; entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble; a massive population transfer to the south, reminiscent of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe); and a humanitarian crisis worsening by the day.

An Israeli taskforce, comprising senior political and military officials, has held a number of meetings to discuss the “Day After”, the postwar arrangements concerning Gaza, but has still not presented its recommendations to the war cabinet for approval. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has indicated in broad strokes only what Israel wants to happen as part of a postwar arrangement after Israeli troops withdraw.

He has made it clear that Israel has no desire to reoccupy Gaza and he has rejected the possibility, promoted by some of his far-right coalition partners, of re-establishing Jewish settlements in the coastal enclave, as was the case before the 2005 Israeli disengagement, when all 21 settlements were dismantled and IDF forces withdrew.

At the same time, Israel insists Gaza be demilitarised, with IDF forces maintaining the right to carry out cross-border interventions to thwart any attempt by Hamas fighters to re-establish a presence in the enclave. Such a scenario would be similar to the situation today in the northern West Bank, particularly in Jenin and Tulcarem, where IDF troops frequently enter areas ostensibly under Palestinian Authority (PA) control to engage militants.

Israel also wants to establish a security strip a few kilometres wide along the entire length of the Gaza Strip, on the Palestinian side of the border, to prevent hostile elements approaching the border fence. And Israel says it will no longer allow Gazan residents to enter Israel to work, or allow humanitarian trucks to cross into Gaza via Israel.

The Hamas invasion of southern Israel was the most traumatic moment in Israel’s history. Netanyahu, in contrast to most of the military and intelligence top brass, has refused to admit responsibility and there is no indication he intends to resign after the war.

The events of that day caused the prime minister’s popularity to plunge to unprecedented levels and since then, despite stressing that he is concentrating solely on defeating Hamas, he has been looking for an issue to restore his popularity.

The debate about the Day After, and specifically his objection to any role for the PA, may be that issue. Netanyahu wants the next election to centre around the claim that only he can prevent the PA from taking over Gaza, arguing that his rivals will cave in to US and international pressure to bring the PA into Gaza.

“The PA doesn’t fight terror, it supports it. It doesn’t educate for peace, it educates for the destruction of Israel,” he said. “This isn’t the entity that needs to enter Gaza.”

His position is in contrast to that of the Biden administration in the US, which is pinning its hopes on President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, playing the leading role in a postwar Gaza arrangement.

US vice-president Kamala Harris told reporters on the sidelines of the UN Cop28 climate conference in Dubai that the Palestinians had a political horizon that included the return of a revitalised PA to Gaza.

“The PA security forces must be strengthened to eventually assume security responsibilities in Gaza,” she said. “Until then there must be security arrangements that are acceptable to Israel, the people of Gaza, the PA and the international partners.”

Abbas said Gaza was “an integral part of the Palestinian state” and “any political solution” must include that enclave as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh says Ramallah is working with the US on a plan based on PA control with Hamas participation. He told Bloomberg that Israel’s aim of dismantling Hamas was unrealistic, and he believed Hamas should take part after the war in building a new independent Palestinian state.

“Hamas before October 7th is one thing and after it is another thing,” Shtayyeh said. “If they are ready to come to an agreement and accept the political platform of the [Palestine Liberation Organisation], then there will be room for talk. Palestinians should not be divided.”

This idea was rejected out of hand by Netanyahu.

“There will be no Hamas – we will eliminate it,” he said. “The mere fact that this is the Palestinian Authority’s proposal only strengthens my policy: the Palestinian Authority is not the solution.”

Most of Netanyahu’s political opponents have yet to state their views on the role of the Palestinian Authority in postwar Gaza, but the issue is already emerging as the new fault line in Israeli politics and it could also strain relations with the Biden administration, as the White House desperately seeks an endgame to the war.

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