OPINIONS

Fri 01 Mar 2024 8:29 pm - Jerusalem Time

Israel Must Decide Where It’s Going—and Who Should Lead It There

By Ehud Barak

After more than four months of war in Gaza, two starkly different but equally accurate portraits of Israel have emerged. On the one hand, the war has showcased the tactical prowess of the Israel Defense Forces, inspired a high degree of unity among its troops, and promoted a sense of solidarity among Israeli citizens, who remain collectively traumatized by the barbarous October 7 terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas. On the other hand, the war has revealed the staggering strategic incompetence of the Israeli government and an astonishing leadership vacuum at the top. Members of the ruling coalition have dragged their feet on critical decisions, failed to cooperate with each other in navigating the war, attacked the IDF’s senior ranks, and appeared embarrassingly indifferent and unfocused when it comes to managing relations with Israel’s most important ally, the United States.

This is no way to govern during the most dangerous period in the country’s history since the War of Independence in 1948. What Israel needs is the sober, determined, and farsighted decision-making of David Ben-Gurion. What it has, instead, is the narcissistic, manipulative, shortsighted approach of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The leadership crisis has reached an acute stage. The Biden administration has presented Netanyahu with a proposal for a new postwar regional order that would end Hamas’s ability to threaten Israel and rule Gaza, place control of the territory in the hands of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority (with the assistance of Arab governments), normalize Israeli-Saudi relations, and establish a formal U.S.-Saudi defense alliance. All this would be conditioned on Israel agreeing to a political process with the long-term goal of a two-state solution, with the backing of Arab governments friendly with the United States and opposed to Iran and its partners and proxies. The vision is of a process that would eventually produce a strong and secure Israel living side by side, behind agreed and secure borders, with a viable, demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Since 1996, Netanyahu has accepted that goal, in principle, on four occasions but has always torpedoed it when the time came to act. Biden has now presented Netanyahu with a stark choice. He can get on board with the U.S.-backed plan for “the day after” in Gaza while still expressing Israeli reservations. Or he can capitulate to his racist, messianic far-right partners in his governing coalition, who seek to annex the Palestinian territories and thus reject any proposal, however conditional and long term, that involves the creation of a Palestinian state.

If Netanyahu acquiesces to Washington, he risks losing the support of those far-right figures, which would spell the end of his government. If he continues to reject Biden’s approach, Netanyahu risks dragging Israel deeper into the mud in Gaza; sparking a third intifada in the West Bank; entering another war with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia; deeply damaging relations with the United States, on which Israel relies for munitions, financial support, and crucial diplomatic backing; jeopardizing the so-called Abraham Accords that normalized Israel’s relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (and the hopes of Saudi Arabia joining the club); and even casting doubt on Israel’s long-standing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Any one of these outcomes would be dreadful; any combination of them would be a historic disaster.

Biden is waiting for an answer. Some of the American president’s advisers fear, based on experience, that Netanyahu will try to deceive both sides until after the U.S. presidential election in November. In English, he will publicly claim that he is ready to discuss Biden’s proposal and modify his own newly unveiled plan but privately ask that the White House appreciate his political difficulties and not disagree with him or criticize him publicly. Meanwhile, in Hebrew, he will whisper to his far-right allies: “Don’t leave. I fooled Obama, I fooled Trump, and I will fool Biden, too—and we will survive. Trust me!” That would be classic Netanyahu—and it would be bad for Biden and terrible for Israel.

There is only one way to prevent Netanyahu from leading Israel into a long regional war and probably deceiving both the administration and the Israeli public: general elections. Yair Lapid (the politician who leads the main opposition party) and Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot (the retired generals who became political opponents of Netanyahu before agreeing to serve in his emergency war cabinet after October 7) should call for general elections to be held no later than June 2024. A coordinated opposition should run on a promise to conditionally accept Biden’s offer, to answer it with a “yes, but.” And they should explicitly say “No!” to the racist, messianic fanatics with whom Netanyahu has cast his lot.

That “but” is crucial. Before agreeing to Biden’s plan, Israel would need to insist on a number of conditions, mainly related to security, some of which would be difficult for Washington to accept. Biden’s approach, however, is the only feasible way to return Israel to a realistic, practical, and sustainable course of action and to allow it to retake the moral high ground—an essential attribute that has been lost during the Netanyahu years.


WORSE THAN A CRIME: A MISTAKE

In the early days of the war, a strategic assessment could have defined Israel’s goals and allowed for coherent planning and execution. But to this day, Netanyahu has neglected to carry out such an assessment. As Eisenkot, who served as chief of staff of the IDF, recently complained in a letter to his fellow war cabinet members, “No determinative decisions have effectively been made in three months. The war is conducted in accordance with tactical objectives, without meaningful moves to achieve the strategic objectives.”

The results of this failure are clear in two crucial areas: negotiating to secure the release of the hostages Hamas took on October 7, and controlling the border between Egypt and Gaza, both at the crossing point at Rafah and in the strip of land that runs along the border, which the Israelis refer to as the Philadelphi Route. On both issues, the war cabinet should have determined a course during the first week of the conflict. The IDF chief of staff and some members of the war cabinet repeatedly demanded deliberation, decisions, and guidance. But Netanyahu refused—not because of any national security considerations but because of his need to preserve his fragile governing coalition with the fanatical far right, which prioritizes the full conquest of Gaza ahead of hostage deals, seeks to transfer Gazans out of the territory, and even wants to restore settlements for Jewish Israelis there.

Today, Israel believes that only about half of the 136 hostages that have not been released remain alive. Freeing them is a moral duty. It is not more important than eliminating the threat from Hamas, but it is more urgent. A failure to do so would be a collective disgrace for Israel’s leadership and a stain on Israeli society for generations to come.

A deal remains possible, although Hamas’s demands have hardly been reasonable so far, and no goal is worth achieving at any cost. Israel is a sovereign country with the right to reject an offer that would do more harm than good—especially an offer from a bloodthirsty terrorist organization such as Hamas. At the same time, however, it makes no sense to constantly proclaim an intention to kill those leaders, as Israeli officials are doing on a daily basis, while also trying to make a deal, knowing that some of the hostages are being used as human shields. It is absolutely legitimate for Israel to strive to kill senior Hamas figures. But as Eli Wallach’s character in the classic Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly puts it: “When you have to shoot, shoot—don’t talk!”

I do not doubt that Netanyahu wants to see the hostages released. But his compulsive need to look like a strong leader surrounded by weak generals and ministers encourages his counterproductive grandstanding. Given his record, his tough talk rings hollow. Six times in the past 12 years he has rejected plans proposed by the heads of Israel’s secret security agency, known as Shabak, to eliminate the Hamas leadership. And while he postures, the peril that the remaining hostages face grows and the odds of completing a deal shrink.


WHERE TO?

For several weeks now, Biden’s proposal for “the day after” has been in front of Netanyahu’s government. Most observers assume that, given the realities of the U.S. electoral calendar, the offer may expire in a couple of months. There is no guarantee that the rest of the players in the region will accept the proposal; it is not even clear whether Biden can win support for it in the U.S. Senate, which would have to approve a treaty with Saudi Arabia. It is also possible that, just as the Hamas attack on October 7 was intended to thwart an emerging trilateral deal between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, the new Biden initiative could eventually spur Iran to consider urging its proxies, including Hezbollah, to step up their attacks on Israel or initiate a wider scale war in a bid to derail any progress.

A deal like the one Biden has proposed might have been happily embraced two years ago by an Israeli government led by Lapid or the conservative leader Naftali Bennet, but it would be a tough sell now for the Israeli public, which still feels sharp pain, enormous anger, humiliation, vengefulness, and a sense that “all Palestinians are Hamas.” These are understandable human reactions. But in time, Israelis must move past them. Recall that we once thought this way about Egypt and Jordan. An entire generation of Israelis (of which I am a member) fought bitter wars against those countries. But an effective (if cold) peace with those countries has now lasted for nearly 45 years and nearly 30 years, respectively. Imagine how much worse Israel’s situation would be today if those agreements did not exist—and consider how important it is not to undermine them as part of an ill-considered response to the events of October 7.

But instead of urging Israelis to overcome their fears, Netanyahu is exploiting them, playing into the hands of his extreme right-wing allies, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir (the minister of national security) and Bezalel Smotrich (the finance minister). If they get their way, the result would be a disaster. Netanyahu knows this but believes he can placate and outmaneuver them, avoiding the worst-case scenario by avoiding a decision altogether.


THE TIME HAS COME

Last week, Netanyahu announced his own plan for “the day after” in Gaza. Among other things, it calls for “civil management by local groups which do not identify with terror organizations.” In practice, this would mean empowering a number of influential Gazan families, some of which are involved in organized crime, to become the providers of services and civil order for citizens—an approach to governing the territory that Israel tried several times decades ago and that consistently failed. Netanyahu also envisions the “deradicalization of the Gazans,” which is a fine goal but would take decades. His plan also calls for the replacement of UNRWA, the UN agency that controls the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. This is a good idea, since UNRWA has been compromised by Hamas terrorists who penetrated its work force. Netanyahu, however, does not identify what would replace it.

The problem with all of Netanyahu’s proposals is that his plan never explains who could legitimately rule Gaza. Whether we like it or not, Israelis must accept three basic facts: Hamas cannot be allowed to threaten Israel or rule Gaza, Israel should not stay in Gaza for the long term, and the Gazans are there to stay—they are not going anywhere. Thus, Israel has to decide what could be a legitimate entity to which it can hand over control of Gaza. Israel has legitimate security demands that should be recognized by the United States and its Arab allies. But the entity cannot be made up of foreign forces: Norwegians or South Africans cannot govern Gaza. The entity should be Palestinian. The only legitimate body is a revitalized Palestinian Authority that would gradually take responsibility for the civil management of Gaza, with the United States and its Arab allies pushing it toward higher standards of governance, transparency, education, and counterterrorism activities. Of course, Israel would maintain its right to act whenever a threat to its security arises.

Netanyahu’s plan rejects any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state and all international diktats regarding the terms of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement. It is clear what he does not want. What remains unclear is what he wants, and the Israeli people have a right to know and a right to weigh in.

Netanyahu is focused on his political survival, and he will never step down willingly.

October 7 was the worst event in the country’s history since independence. Israelis have been fighting for over 140 days, longer than in any war since 1948. The IDF can take credit for some impressive achievements, but its main objectives—as defined by the war cabinet—are far from being accomplished. A stopgap deal to exchange hostages for prisoners might lead to a reprieve of 45 to 90 days. But that might be followed by another long fight. And in the meantime, Netanyahu has already lost the trust of most voters. According to recent national polls, around four out of five Israelis see him as the person most responsible for the blunders that allowed the October 7 attacks to occur. Around three out of four want him to resign.

Those who object to a change in leadership during a war should study Israeli history. In 1973, the IDF was still fighting Syrian forces in the Golan Heights when Prime Minister Golda Meir stepped down in the face of massive demonstrations and amid accusations that she had failed to foresee the surprise attack launched by Arab countries six months earlier, in October 1973—even though her party had won reelection after the attack and the official investigation into the security failures had blamed military leaders and mostly absolved Meir herself.

Public resentment, the rage of the families and communities of the victims of the October 7 attacks, and frustration among many of the IDF reservists are all growing. Netanyahu is focused on his political survival, and he will never step down willingly. The time has come for the people of Israel to stand up and bring about a change of course. Eisenkot, Gantz, and Lapid should lead this effort and demand general elections so that the Israeli people can decide where we are heading and who will lead us there. This is a crucial moment. It calls for leadership and action, before it is too late.

 

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Israel Must Decide Where It’s Going—and Who Should Lead It There

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