What Israel’s Leaders Can’t—or Won’t—Say About Biden’s Ceasefire Announcement

Author: Editors Desk, Isaac Chotiner Source: The New Yorker
June 4, 2024 at 06:09

Netanyahu’s chief rival, Benny Gantz, has issued an ultimatum for the Prime Minister to come up with an exit strategy for the war. What options are available to him?

Benny Gantz with a hand on his mouth.
Benny Gantz with a hand on his mouth. Benny Gantz at a memorial event in Jersualem.Source photograph by Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty 

On Friday, President Joe Biden publicly called on Hamas to agree to what he said was an Israeli ceasefire proposal that would bring the war in Gaza to an end. Since then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given conflicting signals about whether he even supports the deal, which, if accepted, could cause right-wing ministers in the Knesset to leave Netanyahu’s coalition, resulting in its collapse. Moreover, last month, Benny Gantz, the retired army general and centrist Israeli politician, announced that he would leave Netanyahu’s war cabinet if the Prime Minister did not announce a plan for post-war Gaza by June 8th. (Biden’s publicly announced proposal mentions the need for reconstructing Gaza.) Israel’s military campaign has been going on for eight months, and despite an enormous number of Palestinian deaths—more than thirty-five thousand, by current estimates—Israel is continuing its invasion of the city of Rafah. Netanyahu has still offered no plan for what to do when the war eventually concludes. (Several members of his far-right coalition have spoken in favor of permanently occupying Gaza.)

I recently spoke by phone with Ofer Shelah, a military analyst and onetime member of the Knesset who helped lead the government’s coronavirus response in 2020. Shelah also helped found the Blue and White coalition, which tried to unseat Netanyahu in 2019; he was a co-founder of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a centrist party, which Shelah eventually left. He is currently at the Institute for National Security Studies, in Tel Aviv, where he analyzes political and defense issues.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. We started by discussing the political situation in Israel, and the prospects of dislodging Netanyahu from power, and then transitioned to discussing why Israeli society has seemed unconcerned with the death toll in Gaza.

How do you understand Gantz’s threat to leave the government?

Well, there’s been mounting pressure on Gantz from his electorate. In October, he and [the former I.D.F. chief of staff] Gadi Eisenkot joined the government, and this was a very popular move because we were all in shock by what had transpired on October 7th. There was a feeling that, really, the country was in danger. Gantz was, as we say in Israel, the one to step under the stretcher.

Now it has become more and more evident that the stretcher is really going nowhere. I can refer you to a poll that we’ve been conducting at the I.N.S.S., where the number of people who’ve been saying Israel is going to win the war, however you define that victory, has dropped from ninety-two per cent to sixty-four per cent. All of that creates mounting pressure on him to leave, and that is outside of the difference of opinion that he and definitely Eisenkot have with Netanyahu on the issues themselves. That’s why he put out this statement.

He placed the date at June 8th, which was three weeks from the day he spoke. A lot of people expected it to be a lot sooner. That reflects the kind of political crossroads he’s at. He and especially Eisenkot are not pleased with the way the war is going. They have real differences with Netanyahu about what we should do now, but [Gantz is] still reluctant to drop his position of being the responsible adult who stepped under the stretcher and moved into Netanyahu’s government. I think the bottom line is that he won’t be able to go beyond the June 8th date. If he does that, then he’ll be ridiculed in Israeli public opinion.

How would you characterize those differences with Netanyahu right now? What is Gantz’s criticism, and what message is he telling the Israeli public about his problems with Netanyahu’s government?

I dare say that his criticism is a little—I don’t know—convoluted? But, with your permission, I’d like to speak about the situation as it is. We’ve reached the crossroads. Since December, especially since the end of January, when the biggest part of the military operation ended and some reserves were being sent home, it was obvious that there were two paths for Israel. One is what the Biden Administration is suggesting, and that is creating a diplomatic framework for not only the future of Gaza but the future of the Middle East, creating a coalition, a partnership with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, which would entail some kind of defense agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and actually create a counterweight to Iran. If you want to create some kind of alternative to Hamas, any kind of regime or any kind of entity leading civilian life in the Gaza Strip, you need that.

On the other hand, there’s a road that leads us to—and nobody will say it explicitly, not Netanyahu, maybe the extreme right-wing of this government, maybe [Bezalel] Smotrich and [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, but Netanyahu won’t say it out loud—the de-facto Israeli occupation of Gaza. Gantz understands this. Eisenkot definitely understands this.

Netanyahu wants Israel to achieve normalization with Saudi Arabia, but he’s not ready to even utter the words “Palestinian Authority” or “two-state solution,” even as some kind of remote goal that will not happen now. Why Netanyahu does not do that has to do with his own political survival.

But Gantz himself is not saying that we need a two-state solution, either, correct?

Yes, because he knows Israeli public opinion. Therefore, his message was somewhat convoluted. He said in his six-point plan that he wants normalization and an American-European-Arab-Palestinian force in Gaza that is not Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Why won’t he say “two-state solution?” Because he knows it’s very unpopular in Israel, but there’s really no other way.

You are suggesting that Gantz and Eisenkot or whoever else is going to campaign against Netanyahu by saying, “Look, the problem is Iran. We need this regional alliance to counter Iran. We need to make this deal with the Saudis.” But a crucial part of the deal was always going to be a Palestinian state. So how would that work?

You’re right. Right now, no Israeli politician of any weight, not even Yair Golan, who was just elected to be chairman of the Labor Party, and supposedly the next leader of the Israeli left, is saying the words “two-state solution” or “Palestinian state,” even though everybody knows that you have to go for the whole package with this deal. In my mind the deal is crucial because Iran will be very problematic for Israel to face by itself.

Netanyahu understands this, and is actually planning to campaign on saying Gantz will bring you the Palestinian state and the Palestinian state is Hamas, so Gantz will bring Hamas to your homes. This is going to be his whole campaign. On the other hand, nobody is embracing fully and publicly the inherent outcome of normalization with Saudi Arabia—of bringing Saudis, Emiratis, and Palestinians to rule Gaza. Nobody goes the whole nine yards because they know how unpopular that sounds.

President Biden himself needs to present this as a plan, backed by M.B.S., backed by Egypt and so on, and create a situation where the Israeli people will have to ask their politicians, “Are you for or against the American plan?” Right now Gantz can say these things that don’t add up.

But if Biden is to announce some giant normalization plan and the Saudis formally get behind it, it’s just hard for me to imagine that the political situation in Israel will change such that anyone, especially while they are trying to win an election, is going to embrace the plan if it includes a Palestinian state.

No, but the question will be there. This is the whole thing in politics, and I was a politician for eight years, so I know this firsthand. In politics, you’re going to try to evade. You love the gray areas because once you state your mind on a topic like this, clearly you lose support. That’s why I think this should be posited by the United States. Otherwise, you will get all those very obscure, not-adding-up things that Gantz is saying, that anybody who tries to present himself as an alternative to Netanyahu had been saying.

In terms of this recent ceasefire plan, was it understood in Gantz’s circles to be a way for the Americans to put pressure on Netanyahu, and do a version of what you were talking about with the Saudi deal?

Yeah. The only problem is—and I don’t know why—Biden did not specify the whole plan. I was hoping for him to lay out the complete plan, the grand vision to stand against Iran and so on with a regional alliance, and Gaza is a part of that. What he specified outright only included how to end the war in Gaza and bring back the hostages. The problem is that if you don’t lay out the complete plan, what Israelis see now is only the end of the war in Gaza in return for an uncertain return of the hostages. What I fear is that Israel will now be left alone occupying Gaza and standing alone against Iran.

It’s confusing, because Biden said that it was an Israeli proposal, but Netanyahu is making conflicting comments about it, and Gantz doesn’t outwardly appear very supportive.

Well, Netanyahu did not deny it was put on the table with his knowledge. I had the dubious pleasure of seeing how he is prone to conflicting promises. What he likes most is to postpone decisions, and adding conditions so his coalition won’t fall. But this plan creates an almost unsolvable problem for Netanyahu, and I believe his hope is that Hamas will do what Palestinians have done many times in the past, and that is not accept the proposal and solve his problem for him. But if this proposal is brought to a vote in the Knesset, this will pass, and the coalition will fall. His political salvation will come either if Hamas says no, or if the situation becomes so murky and complicated that he can somehow wiggle his way out of it.

And Gantz will leave on June 8th, unless Netanyahu and Hamas accept the proposal?

If Netanyahu accepts, then maybe Gantz’s departure is postponed somehow, but he has reached the point where he has to get out of the government. The political damage to him has been done and will get worse.

You know Gantz well, and I know you’ve criticized him in the past when some of the previous efforts to unseat Netanyahu failed. When you look back at your efforts on this score in the previous years, and Gantz’s efforts, what do you think went wrong and why?

Politics in Israel centered around the Bibi question. When we had five consecutive election campaigns, the only issue at hand was Bibi or not Bibi. Amir Peretz, who was the leader of the Labor Party at the time, had a very famous mustache—this was his trademark since the eighties. And he shaved that mustache to guarantee that he will not go with Netanyahu. The only question was going to be, “Are you going to go with Netanyahu or not?” He didn’t shave his mustache so that people will believe that he will bring peace or change economics or society in Israel. The only question was Netanyahu or not Netanyahu, Bibi or not Bibi.

That created a very strange situation, where the only government that was without Netanyahu recently, in 2021, actually was led by the Israeli right, by people who are much closer to Netanyahu in ideology. They just had issues with Netanyahu personally. The only watershed that existed was Bibi or not Bibi. But the unseating of Netanyahu didn’t last long because parts of that coalition were extreme right, and also because an Arab party was part of the coalition, and that was taken very badly by a lot of Israelis.

If you go back to the failures of trying to unseat Bibi in 2019, we had a chance to form a government with what was called the Joint List, the Arab parties of the time, which had thirteen seats, and that would’ve created the majority. Actually, I was in charge of the very hush-hush negotiations with them and brought to the table a coalition agreement. Blue and White ran away from it because they knew how identity politics works and what it would mean to join hands with Arab parties. And this is prior to October 7th, and of course is a hundred times more so now.

When the only issue becomes Netanyahu or not Netanyahu, then you get what you get right now.

Is your sense that the next election campaign will also just be fought around Netanyahu, and thus is your concern that—

Of course, of course, that’s going to be the only issue, after October 7th.

If Gantz steps aside from the coalition government, what more needs to happen for an election? That would still leave Netanyahu with sixty-four seats out of a hundred and twenty.

Gantz does not have a plan, and neither does Yair Lapid or Avigdor Lieberman or Gideon Sa’ar, who actually met recently and said that they formed a plan to unseat Netanyahu. They don’t have one. Theoretically, you could have five members of Likud, let’s say, led by Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, voting for elections. Theoretically, you could even have a different government within this Knesset without elections, but that’s very theoretical. It’s not going to happen.

The alternative to that is not in the Knesset but in the streets. If all the political machinations don’t bring about either a new government in this Knesset or elections, then it'll have to come from the streets. The sign for that, the symbol for that, would be Gantz and Eisenkot moving out of the government. Then you will see protests that will be like the protests before October 7th, but this time at the front row, there will be the bereaved families of more than a thousand Israelis. But I can tell you that the protests right now in Israel are much weaker than I thought they would be at this stage. There are various explanations for it. Once Gantz and Eisenkot move out of government, we’ll see about that.

Well, you seem to be saying about the internal situation within the Knesset that there’s not much chance, and the protest movement on the outside is weaker than you thought. It’s not exactly a hopeful picture.

I don’t know. You never know about these things. October 7th was the most shocking day of Israel’s existence as a state. This created such a shock to our system that the first response was, of course, to circle the wagons—“We’re going to go into war”—which was overwhelmingly supported.

We have not been successful in waging the war, and this is because of all the things that we’ve discussed. If you don’t have a policy for the day after, and you don’t have the continuation of policy by other means, which is what Clausewitz called war, then war is just killing and destruction. We have reached the point where this is very obvious to many Israelis. That shock to the Israeli psyche will manifest itself in Israeli politics. I don’t know how. Something may light this up if, let’s say, Gantz and Eisenkot move out.

On the other hand, even the strongest protest would not necessarily bring the government down because you still need at least five of the sixty-four to vote—I don’t think they’ll vote for an alternative government but to vote for new elections in Israel. New elections means that there won’t be a new government for at least five months because it’s at least ninety days from the vote to Election Day by law, and it’ll be at least two months, I think closer to three, until there’s the new government. So you will still have close to six months where the government will be the Netanyahu government at its present form.

And soon after that, there could be a new U.S. Administration that doesn’t even want a Palestinian state.

As you probably remember, there were talks of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia before October 7th. The question was, what was Israel going to “give” on the Palestinian issue? On October 7th, in fact, it was clear what Israel was going to give. Israel was going to defeat Hamas. Israel was going to remove Hamas as the ruler of the Gaza Strip, which is in the interest of Egypt and Jordan and the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. In the second week of the war, I said that we could build the new Middle East. But the Netanyahu government is not going that way.

You know way more about Israel and the Middle East than I do, but I never thought there was going to be a new Middle East at any point, including on October 7th or October 8th. I don’t want to claim some unusual prescience here, but I just don’t understand how anyone looking at Israel in recent years and the current Israeli government could have possibly thought any of that.

No. I’m not talking about the Israeli government. I was talking about the interest of Israel.

O.K. So you’re saying not that you thought this was going to happen but you just hoped it would happen?

I also led a group at the I.N.S.S. that wrote a very elaborate paper on this, which was actually presented to the Netanyahu cabinet. I still think, as I told you before, that the alternative to Netanyahu is a regional deal, but it’s a theory full of holes. It’s full of practical holes, but the alternative to it is the United States and Saudi Arabia and all those other countries basically saying, “O.K. You want Gaza? Take it. It’s your problem.” And Israel sliding toward a de-facto occupation of Gaza.

A lot of the conversation in the United States and around the world since October 7th has been about the death toll in Gaza, and Palestinian civilians and children being killed. I understand that countries waging wars often see surges of nationalism, but I’m struck in our conversation, and just my reading from what I can tell of Israeli leadership and Israeli public opinion, that there seems to be almost no conversation internally about any of this. Countries at war, especially democratic countries, often see strong antiwar movements, particularly once those wars seem to not be accomplishing their objective and killing lots of people. Why has none of this happened?

Well, I’ll say this. First of all, Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan did not begin with—and this may sound like a cliché or propaganda—but it did not begin with mass killings and rape and kidnapping.

Re: Afghanistan, there were mass killings on 9/11, but go on.

Yes. O.K., and following 9/11, I think the analogy is pertinent. I don’t know that there were that many questions asked about going to Afghanistan. “How is this going to be different than what happened to us in Vietnam or to the Soviets in Afghanistan?” But the level of immediacy and shock, there’s not an Israeli that does not know somebody. I have friends who lost their sons on October 7th. This is very personal for me as it is for every Israeli.

I’m not ignoring the facts. We have removed, uprooted, millions of people. We’ve killed, I don’t know, definitely over ten thousand civilians, and in the background is the way Israel is viewed after sixty years of occupation, and we cannot ignore this. But you can’t expect Israelis right now in large numbers to express sympathy to what’s going on in Gaza because we are a nation in shock, and I’m not saying this is positive or negative. I’m just describing the way things are.

I would say it’s negative in the sense that the Israeli government is intentionally denying aid to starving people. I don’t know how anyone could deny that if they follow the news. I understand October 7th being just an absolutely traumatic and horrific day for so many Israelis, but fundamentally, if you pride yourself on being a democracy in a country that follows the rules of war, you can’t do this.

First of all, everything that you’re saying is very pertinent, of course, and there are all the automatic answers. Some of which are true. Do you want to go back to Tokyo? Do you want to go back to Dresden? I’m presenting it the way I’m presenting it in the Israeli internal discourse. This is a problem for us. O.K.? What I care about is that Israel has to be part of the liberal democratic camp. Therefore, I relate to it as a problem. I don’t think my opinion is very important on the question whether it’s right or wrong. It’s a real problem for us.

Out of curiosity, why don’t you think about it in terms of right and wrong?

Because I don’t know a way to fight an organization like Hamas, which spent billions of dollars entrenching itself within the civilian population. According to international law, if they fire rockets or even intend to fire a rocket from anywhere, it may be a kindergarten, you are allowed to strike that militarily.

Well, that’s not true.

Yes, it is. I'm sorry. Yes, it is.

You can’t just necessarily strike a kindergarten because someone has fired a rocket from there.

I don’t want to get into this argument here. I don’t know of an armed force that is going to such extremes to avoid collateral damage. [One basic feature of international law—the principle of proportionality—requires an assessment of whether civilian harm is likely to be excessive compared to the concrete military advantage anticipated. This holds true regardless of what your adversary is doing.]

Why are they denying humanitarian aid intentionally?

Because it became a political problem, but right now we are actually allowing any kind of humanitarian aid. [In May, the flow of aid into Gaza shrunk significantly, from rates that humanitarian organizations already considered grossly insufficient.]

You keep saying Israelis were attacked and feel vulnerable, and Hamas is awful, but you can imagine a Palestinian in Gaza saying, “We’re being denied aid. We're being bombed ‘indiscriminately,’ ” to use President Biden’s word about Israel’s campaign, which leads to the conclusion: “How can we fight an enemy like this? We have to be brutal.” And the cycle just goes on and on and on. But if you specifically are going to talk about democracy and international law, those principles are universal.

I understand. I agree. It goes against my core beliefs as a human being and an Israeli when they say there are no innocents in Gaza. I think I’m one of the staunchest critics of what Israel has been doing since October 7th. But I’m not criticizing, and I’m all for, the need to uproot Hamas as a military threat to Israelis.

You said earlier that if you don’t have a policy for the day after, then war is just “killing and destruction.” And you also say that Bibi has no plan for the day after. So why isn’t this just killing and destruction and why shouldn’t it immediately stop? That’s the cognitive dissonance I don’t understand when you defend the war. Biden even said in his speech that Hamas can’t launch another attack like October 7th.

Listen, Isaac, no country in the world can endure what Israel endured on October 7th and not retaliate forcefully.

The retaliation happened. Thirty-five thousand people are dead.

It is accepted by Israelis that the outcome of the war should be the removal of a security threat, be it Hamas or anyone else from Israel’s southern border. The objective is not debated. What you can debate is the strategy. We need an alternative strategy. If we don’t, we end up with a quagmire in Gaza, and standing alone against Iran, and we become an international pariah, and we will have lost the war because we did not present a clear vision to what comes after we kill and destroy. 

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