On Hold: Israel’s Leadership Stuck on Major Decisions

As Israel grapples with an ongoing conflict and internal divisions, Prime Minister Netanyahu faces unprecedented pressures

By Keren Setton/The Media LineThe Media Line

Israel’s war on Hamas entered its sixth month last week. While the Israeli military has scaled down its operations there significantly, there are still troops inside the Gaza Strip operating against the terrorist organization after it launched a surprise offensive against Israel on October 7, 2023. Simultaneously, Israel’s northern border is also simmering, as constant fire is exchanged between the Lebanese-based Hizbullah organization and the Israeli army. In both the north and south of the country, tens of thousands of residents who were evacuated at the beginning of the war have yet to return, essentially shrinking the country and creating buffer zones within it.

The war erupted after a tumultuous year in Israel in which the government’s attempt to reform the judiciary sparked a massive protest movement. The divide was set aside temporarily as Hamas stunned the nation, but as the war drags on, what divided the nation has resurfaced.

“What began as a consensual matter has now become a political one,” said Prof. Tamar Hermann, academic director of the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Leading Israel during this turbulent period is its longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His years in office have been marred by scandal, yet he has managed to maintain public support and aside from a short period outside of office, he returned for his sixth term in December 2022.

In a piece published Friday in the Haaretz daily newspaper, known for its opposition toNetanyahu and the right-wing bloc, the headline summarized Netanyahu’s latest years inpower.

“The Netanyahu legacyfailure after failure, disaster after disaster,” it read.

Support for the Israeli premier has plummeted since the beginning of the war. On Saturday, thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv, calling for new elections. Netanyahu has so far rejected those calls and the political arena awaits the developments on the front lines and elsewhere.

One of the most divisive issues is the blanket exemption given to ultra-Orthodox Jews from otherwise compulsory service. As the deadline approaches to pass a law that extends the exemption, the debate in Israel is raging. The impending deadline could lead to a major rift within Netanyahu’s coalition, whose senior members are representatives of ultra-Orthodox parties.

Also troubling Netanyahu and his government is the publication last week of a report on theMount Meron disaster in which 45 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in 2021. Netanyahu, inaddition to other senior officials, was named by the commission as personally responsible forthe disaster. Netanyahu’s Likud party dismissed the findings, causing public outrage. Manydrew parallels between the Israeli premier’s refusal to accept responsibility for the 2021disaster and his refusal to take responsibility for his role in the leadup to Hamas’ surpriseoffensive five months ago.

Netanyahu has led Israel for much of the period since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip.During that time, he played a major role in strengthening Hamas, allowing continuous aidand cash to enter Gaza that was largely directed at Hamas’ military capabilities, consequentlyhelping cement its hold on the Gaza Strip. The policy perpetuated the internal Palestinian riftbetween Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Netanyahu has beenquoted as saying that keeping Hamas in power in Gaza would ultimately prevent theestablishment of a Palestinian state, a cornerstone of his policy toward the Israeli-Palestinianconflict.

Israel appears to be on hold and on edge as major issues are at its doorstep waiting to beresolved.

According to Professor Avraham Diskin, a political analyst, for several reasons, there is a stalemate, which he believes is temporary.

“There are conflicts of interest and positions, limitation of power, and lots of pressure,” Diskin told The Media Line. “It is very difficult to control everything. There are currently many balls being juggled in the air.”

For years, Netanyahu has avoided major decisions, often choosing to wait for developmentson the ground.

“He is very ambivalent, extremely cautious, and perhaps too calculated, but all the while very militant,” said Diskin.

“Netanyahu is facing a lot of undercurrents against him, with very little in his favor,”Hermann told The Media Line.

On the top of Israel’s agenda is its ongoing war in Gaza, an impending ground operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, and the fate of 134 Israeli hostages that remain in captivity there. What started as a massive air and naval campaign against Hamas was later joined by ground forces. At the beginning of this year, the army entered what it defined as the third phase of the war that would see more surgical strikes and precision operations aimed at releasing the hostages and killing or capturing Hamas’ senior leadership.

“It is safe to say the third phase has failed,” said Dr. Michael Milstein, head of the PalestinianStudies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “It hasn’tbrought the release of hostages or the toppling of Hamas. This war is about toppling Hamasand there hasn’t been any progress on this for the past three months.”

According to Milstein, Gaza is now divided into areas under Hamas control and areas thatare characterized by anarchy. The visual and tragic example of this came several days agowhen thousands of Palestinians swarmed toward trucks delivering humanitarian aid, resultingin a crowd crush and the death of reportedly over 100 Palestinians, with the Israelimilitary blamed for shooting many of them.

Israel has been holding off on an operation in Rafah for several weeks now. As a result of the Israeli offensive, the city has become home to many of Gaza’s almost 2 million displaced people. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and other senior Hamas commanders are, it is believed, highly likely to be there. Sinwar is also believed to have surrounded himself with at least some of the Israeli hostages, further complicating matters. Israel is under intense international pressure to resolve the issue of the displaced people and the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip before operating in Rafah. In an interview with MSNBC on Saturday, US President Joe Biden said the operation in Rafah is a “red line,” adding that he would “never leave Israel.” Biden was especially critical of Netanyahu, saying, “He is hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

The White House is trying in several ways to pressure Netanyahu. Netanyahu is considered apolitical maverick, and his political career has been eulogized several times in his long periodin office.

“Netanyahu’s chair is shaking like never before but I’m not sure it will fall,” said Hermann. “American pressure could only strengthen him among his supporters who do not want to see such intervention. On the other hand, the pressure could convince people already questioning their support for him not to support him.”

Israel is struggling to maintain international support for its war on Hamas, as it is on theverge of making critical decisions.

“There is intense pressure from the US. Combined with Israel’s dependence on the US whenit comes to arms shipments and international support, it makes it very difficult to make adecision,” Diskin said. “There is a consensus within Israel that the war effort needs tocontinue.”

“The world trusts Israel less and less,” Milstein told The Media Line.

The images of US warplanes airdropping humanitarian aid to Gaza and the plans to build aport that would allow for constant flow of such aid into the territory show increasingimpatience with Israel.

“The feeling is that no one knows where this is heading; Israel is conducting this tactically with no strategic framework,” Milstein added. “Israel needs to ask itself how it intends to change the reality in Gaza, and for now, it doesn’t seem like it is giving itself honest answers. You cannot change the reality or topple Hamas without taking over all of Gaza with the constant presence of boots on the ground.”

“It all boils down to one issue: Israel lacks strategy,” he said.

In recent weeks, the hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers who were called up in the wake of the Hamas attack have been relieved of their duty. According to Milstein, Israel is likely waiting for American approval before operating in Rafah to avoid confrontation with the White House, a slowdown in arms supplies from the US to Israel, and a lack of American backing in the international arena.

Also in the background is the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which Bidenand other leaders had hoped would bring at least a temporary cease-fire and a release of someof the hostages. For now, talks are stalled.

“As long as there is humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza, Hamas is getting what it wantswithout giving something in return,” said Milstein. “Hamas sees the decline in support forIsrael and the internal divide within Israel and allows itself to make higher demands.”

Support in Israel for the war, including a stronger response against Hizbullah that could resultin an even wider conflict, is still high.

“The public doesn’t see the war as over,” said Hermann. “The majority wants to see thehostages released and Hamas removed from power.

For now, these goals seem to be far from Israel’s reach

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