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A ‘Moral, Strategic, and Diplomatic Abyss’

Israeli children gathering at the Damascus Gate for the right-wing ”Jerusalem Day” march, Jerusalem

Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Middle East Images/Getty Images

Israeli children gathering at the Damascus Gate for the right-wing ”Jerusalem Day” march, Jerusalem, June 5, 2024

On the last day of May, in a surprise address beneath the portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the White House State Dining Room, a diminished-looking Joe Biden announced that “Israel has offered”—a fact he stressed twice—“a comprehensive new proposal” to end the fighting in Gaza. This “roadmap to an enduring cease-fire,” as Biden called it, would consist of three phases. First Israel and Hamas would commit to “a full and complete cease-fire” lasting six weeks, which would entail the “withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza” and the exchange of the female, elderly, and wounded Israeli hostages held in Gaza for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. During this period Palestinian civilians would return to their homes—tens of thousands of which have been destroyed by Israeli bombardment—and six hundred trucks of humanitarian aid would enter the Gaza Strip each day. Meanwhile Israeli and Hamas leaders would work out the terms of the next phase: “a permanent end to hostilities.”

“Now, I’ll be straight with you,” Biden continued. “There are a number of details to negotiate to move from phase one to phase two. Israel will want to make sure its interests are protected.” But the cease-fire, he said, “will still continue as long as negotiations continue.” Once the two parties agreed on terms for the “permanent end to hostilities,” the second phase would proceed: the return of all remaining living hostages, including male soldiers, the release of additional Palestinian prisoners, and the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The third phase would consist of the reconstruction of the Strip and the return of the remains of all the hostages killed there. (US officials estimate that only around 50 of the 120 Israeli hostages still held by Hamas are alive.) “This is a truly decisive moment,” Biden said. “Israel has made their proposal.”

And yet within twenty-four hours Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to reject the proposal that Biden had attributed to his own government. On June 1 his office released a statement calling it “a non-starter.” Netanyahu dispatched a “senior Israeli official” to inform international media that the details of the plan were “not accurate.” This unnamed official charged that Israel had not agreed to fully withdraw its forces from Gaza and would not do so until it had destroyed “Hamas’s military and governing capabilities.” Two days later, at a meeting of Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Netanyahu stressed that he would not agree to end the war until “all its goals had been achieved.”

The Israeli response to Biden revealed the divisions within the country’s government. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners—Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the neofascist Jewish Power party, and Bezalel Smotrich, head of the hard-line settler Religious Zionist Party—threatened to collapse the government if he went through with the plan. In contrast, Benny Gantz—a former IDF chief, Netanyahu’s most serious political rival, and, at the time, a member of the emergency government—thanked the Biden administration and vowed to advance the proposal that, he claimed, the war cabinet had “approved unanimously.”

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Who was lying? In truth, both leaders were. Biden, for his part, was bluffing. The Israeli proposal of which he spoke was a plan not for a permanent cease-fire but for a provisional one: it left open the possibility that Israel could resume military operations, even or perhaps especially after the first phase of hostage–prisoner swaps. By framing it as Israel’s proposal to bring “an end to this war,” Biden seems to have thought that he could pin Netanyahu down while shifting the pressure onto Hamas to accept Israel’s preferred terms for a deal. Perhaps his administration also felt that the deal would be worth it even if Israel did resume fighting after the first phase of the agreement. It would have bought several months of much-needed quiet in the run-up to the presidential elections.

There is a substantial difference between a permanent cease-fire and a temporary cease-fire that could theoretically be made permanent. Throughout their various rounds of negotiations with Israel, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, Hamas officials have been clear about their prerequisites for a deal. Their starting point is that Israel withdraw its troops from the entire Gaza Strip and commit to a long-term cease-fire; only after that can there be an exchange of hostages and prisoners. So far Israel’s government has rejected this possibility outright. Even Biden’s embellished proposal aimed to return as many hostages to Israel as possible before committing Israel to a long-term cease-fire. Hamas’s leadership grasped as much; they are seasoned Israel-watchers. For this reason, they have sought “explicit guarantees” from the United States that Israel will not restart the war.

Yet despite the Biden administration’s irresponsible generosity, Netanyahu has preferred to respond to American efforts by humiliating the patron on which his state depends. (His planned July 24 speech before Congress will likely be a grotesque demonstration of his belief that, as he once said, “America is a thing you can move very easily.”) On the matter of the cease-fire deal, Netanyahu rejected the umbrella of ambiguity Biden gave him—almost as if it were the American president, rather than Netanyahu’s own country, that needed to be pulled back from the moral, strategic, and diplomatic abyss. He doubled down on his opposition to a permanent cease-fire in a June 23 interview with Channel 14, roughly Israel’s Fox News—his first sit-down appearance with an Israeli outlet since the war began. “I’m ready to do a partial deal, it’s no secret, that would bring back some of the people,” he said. “But we are obligated to continue the war after the truce to achieve our goal of eliminating Hamas.”

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Taken together, Biden’s speech and Netanyahu’s response encapsulated the grand failure of Biden’s “bear hug” approach to Israel throughout this devastating war: Biden has refused to use the US’s leverage over Israel, and as a result Netanyahu has felt free to defy him, knowing that the next arms shipment will always come. The cost—the wholesale destruction of Gaza—has been catastrophic, and only continues to mount. As the possibility of a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militant group in Lebanon, appears more likely than ever, US officials have already started briefing the press that there is nothing they can do to stop Israel from launching a new large-scale bombing campaign. “We have let Israel face zero consequences for crossing all of our red lines in Gaza,” a Defense Department official told the Huffington Post’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed in late June. “They are emboldened and know they will face no consequences for going into Lebanon.”

Throughout the months of negotiations over a potential hostage deal, Netanyahu has been driven, firstly and as usual, by his political self-interest. The cease-fire proposal from which he has tried to distance himself was, in fact, approved unanimously by his war cabinet, of which he was one of three voting members, along with Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. (The cabinet also had three observers: Gadi Eisenkot, another former IDF chief and a member of Gantz’s party; Ron Dermer, a protégé of the American political consultant Frank Luntz who became a Netanyahu confidant and serves as Israel’s minister of strategic affairs; and Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas, who, after being convicted of tax fraud, was barred by the Supreme Court from serving in a formal ministerial role.) Netanyahu not only voted for the proposal but also refused to release the text to Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, prompting Ben-Gvir to accuse Netanyahu of “hiding the details of the deal.” He threatened that his party would cease to vote with the rest of the coalition until they were shown the full draft.

Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, center, handing out M5 automatic rifles at an inauguration ceremony for a new civilian guard unit, Ashkelon, October 27, 2023

Netanyahu’s reason for keeping the text from Smotrich and Ben-Gvir was clear: both far-right ministers oppose a permanent cease-fire as well as a conditional or temporary one. Ben-Gvir voted against the November hostage–prisoner exchange; Smotrich voted for it, but now, under pressure from his fanatical religious-nationalist base, would be unlikely to vote for a cease-fire again. (Smotrich’s party has crashed in the polls and, if an election were held soon, would probably fail to win enough seats to reenter the Knesset.) Netanyahu has vested the eliminationist and messianic right with unprecedented power in order to form the current ruling coalition; he now depends on their support to keep his government together and—a consideration never far from his mind—evade the corruption charges for which he has been on trial since 2020. In practice, this means that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s factions, which together hold fourteen of the coalition’s sixty-four seats (of a total 120 in the Knesset), can effectively exercise veto power on any matter that requires a parliamentary vote.

Netanyahu is famously indecisive on matters that might cost him politically. He hedges and drags his feet. He launches multiple trial balloons at once, testing out slogans and strategies through his proxies in the right-wing media. He tells one thing to one set of coalition partners, the opposite to another, and then splits the difference. At least when he voted for the plan in May, he seemed to think the deal was an option worth having: in his best-case scenario, he would wrangle his far-right coalition partners into voting for the agreement, perhaps by promising them concessions on other matters. If that failed, he could simply lie and pretend he never endorsed it in the first place—which is precisely what he has done.

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These fissures within the government result from more than partisan or electoral concerns; they are rooted in an ideological dispute within the Israeli right. The common denominator of Netanyahu’s coalition is the denial of Palestinians’ humanity. What keeps it together is its shared commitment to indefinite Israeli domination over Palestinian society and the conviction that any criticism of this arrangement is illegitimate if not treasonous.

But there is no agreement about what form the domination should take. The far right—represented by Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and a flank of Netanyahu’s own Likud—sees the ongoing destruction of Gaza as an opportunity for a paradigm shift, away from the old model of occupation management and toward the expulsion of the Palestinians from the occupied territories, to finish what had begun in 1948. By contrast, Netanyahu and the sliver of conservatives within his party hope to return to the pre–October 7 status quo, to the grinding system of apartheid rule that his successive administrations perfected over more than a decade and a half.

That system had become blood-soaked and unsustainable before October 7, even as it fell short of the apocalyptic visions of the far right. In 2022 Israeli forces killed more Palestinians in the West Bank than in any year since 2005, the height of the Second Intifada. Maintaining this status quo was, until recently, a matter of parliamentary near-consensus; that year it was not Netanyahu who was in power but the short-lived “change” government, headed jointly by the former settler leader Naftali Bennett and the centrist former TV host Yair Lapid.

Any cease-fire deal, whether permanent or provisional, would require that the far-right accelerationists and conservative restorationists agree to a plan for “the day after” the end of the war—or that Netanyahu dissolve the government and call new elections. Neither option is likely, for the time being. In the short term, this means that the war in Gaza will continue; with each passing day, more innocent people will be killed. The continuation of the war also risks plunging the entire region into a wider conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah, the magnitude of which would dwarf any of Israel’s previous wars with its neighbors. In the long term, the occupation of the West Bank and unremitting blockade of Gaza only strengthen the far right’s chances of carrying out its aims.

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In the weeks since Biden’s May 31 address, the Israeli army has killed hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza and leveled swaths of the already devastated territory. In a June 8 military operation to recover Israeli hostages held in the Nuseirat refugee camp, Israeli special forces accompanied by aerial bombardment and tank fire killed at least 274 Palestinians, among them dozens of children. On June 21 Israeli air strikes killed as many as twenty-five Palestinians who had taken shelter in a tent encampment near Rafah, where Israeli forces have recently concentrated much of their firepower. A day later Israeli strikes in Gaza City killed at least thirty-eight people and wounded fifty more. In addition to the daily bombardment, parts of northern Gaza are now experiencing “full-blown famine,” according to Cindy McCain, the US director of the UN World Food Program. After spending $230 million to construct a temporary pier to deliver humanitarian aid, the US military announced that it would suspend the effort, which relief groups said had largely failed. Since October 7 more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed and roughly 75 percent of Gaza’s population has been internally displaced.

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Palestinian civilians returning to Jabalia, in North Gaza, after weeks of intense Israeli bombardment there, June 1, 2024

Israel’s religious settler vanguard has greeted the intensity of this assault with a kind of messianic ecstasy. “With the help of God, Jerusalem will be built up and Gaza will be destroyed.… We will build a Jewish Gaza, a Jewish Rafah, a Jewish Khan Younis,” an extremist rabbi proclaimed to a cheering crowd of thousands of religious Zionist youths who rallied at the Western Wall in early June to mark “Jerusalem Day,” which commemorates the conquest and occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. The war, he went on, “is not just to return quiet to the North and South, but over Jerusalem and the sanctity and dignity of God in the world.” For months, settler activists have been dreaming of building beachfront settlements in the Gaza Strip; as the chances of another full-blown war against Hezbollah increase, they are also fantasizing about settling in southern Lebanon.

This is Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s core constituency. Although committed religious Zionists only constitute between 10 and 15 percent of Israel’s population (and one third of settlers in the occupied West Bank), over the last several decades they have won outsize power over parts of the Israeli state. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s elevation to major ministerial positions is just the tip of the iceberg. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but a significant proportion of Israeli army officers come from religious Zionist backgrounds. Leading religious Zionist rabbis on the far right have also given theological sanction to settler mob attacks on convoys of humanitarian aid. For many within the world of religious Zionism, October 7 was a divine if painful signal that the time of the final battle to vanquish Israel’s enemies had arrived. Their aim is the annexation of Gaza and the West Bank and the expulsion of the Palestinians who resist.

Netanyahu is the heir to a different right-wing tradition. Netanyahu père, Benzion, who died in 2012 at the age of 102, was a historian of the Spanish Inquisition and secretary to Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky—leader of the militant but secular Revisionist Zionism, whose adherents hoped to claim both sides of the Jordan River for a Jewish state; some of them drew inspiration from Józef Piłsudski’s authoritarian Sanacja movement in interwar Poland and Mussolini’s Fascists. As a politician, Netanyahu has largely adhered to his father’s ideological legacy. He rose to national prominence in the mid-1990s as the young face of the Likud-led opposition both to the Oslo Accords and to Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor government. In power he has proved himself an expert in political mendacity, but there is one position about which he has mainly told the truth: his rejection of the possibility of any sovereign Palestinian state. In other words, he is a territorial maximalist, but not a messianist. Where the settler right hopes to resolve the Palestinian question through an eschatological rupture, Netanyahu’s preferred approach is a gradual, and if need be eternal, war of attrition. He believes that the Palestinians are not a real nation and that, after enough defeats, humiliation, and subjugation, they will give up on their aspirations for freedom and self-determination.

For more than thirty years Netanyahu has therefore sought to maintain the occupation in perpetuity, or until the Palestinians surrender. “It’s a joke,” Rabin once said of Netanyahu’s position. “He proposes perpetuating the present situation in the territories and he calls it a plan.” That was in 1995. Today, for all the talk in Israel of how October 7 shattered the “conceptzia”—the paradigm of occupation management that was the hallmark of successive Netanyahu administrations—he still seems wedded to his old beliefs. If anything, for the prime minister and much of Israel’s defense establishment, the lesson of the Hamas attack is that Israel should never have relinquished ultimate military control over the Gaza Strip. They believe there should be no difference between Gaza and Jenin, the impoverished northern West Bank city—home to thousands of refugees displaced in the Nakba and an enduring bastion of Palestinian militancy—where Israeli forces regularly conduct deadly raids with impunity.

Netanyahu has so far prosecuted Israel’s brutal war in Gaza without offering any concrete proposal for a postwar political arrangement. To appease Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, as well as to hold on to his own slipping support on the right, he has vowed since winter not “to replace Hamas-stan with Fatah-stan,” a reference to the party of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which rules over shrinking bantustans in the occupied West Bank. Were the Fatah-led PA to return to the Gaza Strip seventeen years after its ouster by Hamas in 2007, it would buoy international efforts to revive the two-state peace process—an outcome Netanyahu would also like to avoid. At the same time he knows that he needs to pay lip service to the demands of his patron, the US, which in practice means making limited concessions on matters like humanitarian aid and keeping at bay his allies’ more extreme proposals to resettle the Gaza Strip or expel Gaza’s Palestinian population by force.

Netanyahu’s basic operating assumption is that he has a great deal of leeway to defy the Biden administration without material consequences. Throughout the last nine months this has largely proved correct. But he cannot act with the same insouciance toward his extremist partners. Were there no coalitional constraints, Netanyahu might have happily accepted the cease-fire deal. Doing so would have muted some of the mounting international condemnation of Israel and given the IDF time to regroup, especially as the possibility of a much costlier war with Hezbollah looms; roughly 60,000 Israelis are still displaced from towns and cities near the northern border. A cease-fire deal probably would have also improved his standing in the polls; some 60 percent of Israelis support the proposal unveiled by Biden. Yet because he knew that approving a deal would bring his government down, Netanyahu chose his seat over returning the hostages.

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A highly cautious politician with the charisma of a wooden oar, Benny Gantz was slow to recognize that Netanyahu was not going to risk elections in order to approve a cease-fire deal. After 247 days of war—the longest in Israel’s history—he finally realized as much. In a televised address on June 9, a somber-faced Gantz explained that he had brought his party into the government out of a sense of civic duty, and that the same sense of responsibility required that they leave: “We joined the government even though it was a bad one; we joined because it was a bad one.” But now damage control had reached its limit. “Fateful strategic decisions are met with hesitation and procrastination for reasons of political gain,” Gantz charged.

In mid-May Gantz had given Netanyahu an ultimatum: he would resign from the war cabinet and withdraw his party from the emergency government by the first week of June unless the cabinet approved a six-point plan that included, among other items, returning the hostages, establishing an alternative to Hamas’s rule in Gaza, and reviving the prospect of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, which the Hamas attacks torpedoed. By most accounts, Gantz’s team and the Biden administration have been in close contact over the course of the war, and Biden’s speech, timed a week before the deadline Gantz had set, was likely aimed in part at helping him pressure Netanyahu to move forward with a cease-fire deal. Despite having known Netanyahu for many years, Biden and Gantz alike seem naïve to his methods. The only surprise here was that, in the end, Gantz kept his word.

Gantz’s presence in the emergency government provided it with a patina of popular legitimacy. Members of his National Unity Party adopted the role of tribunes for the families of the hostages still held by Hamas and pledged to advocate for their interests against the rest of Netanyahu’s coalition, which has largely treated the hostages as an afterthought. As long as Gantz remained in the government, Israelis could tell themselves that there was still hope, however distant, that a deal might be reached to bring the hostages home and end the fighting. His departure has, for the foreseeable future, dashed that hope.

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Family members of three Israeli hostages, joined by other protesters, at a demonstration demanding a cease-fire and hostage deal, Tel Aviv, June 15, 2024

It has also reignited the protest movement that coalesced in the spring around the demands for a cease-fire deal and setting a date for new elections. The leaders of last year’s mass mobilizations—which succeeded in blocking Netanyahu’s attempt to dismantle the independence of the judiciary—have called on their supporters to return to the streets. The demonstrations since Gantz’s resignation have been among the largest and most defiant since before October 7. Faced with this mounting dissent, the Israeli police, overseen by Ben-Gvir in his capacity as national security minister, have responded with harsher violence. In the year and a half since taking control of the ministry, Ben-Gvir has reshaped Israel’s national police in his image, appointing cronies to positions of power. During the demonstrations on June 17 in Jerusalem, a police water cannon flattened a protester to the ground, fracturing his hip; another protester may lose her sight in her right eye after suffering a direct hit to the face.

Still, even as the anger mounts, the movement has yet to articulate a comprehensive ideological alternative to Netanyahuism. It has rallied tens of thousands to call for a hostage deal and an end to the war, but there is no agreement about “the day after” within its ranks, either. With the exception of the small contingent of left-wing and radical demonstrators, explicit opposition to Israel’s conduct of the war—criticism of the wanton destruction of Gaza and the killing of civilians—has generally been muted. Much like the protests of 2023 against the Netanyahu government’s “judicial overhaul” plan, the current cease-fire movement in Israel—which shares many of the same organizers and draws from the same secular, educated, middle-class base—has largely avoided addressing the occupation of the West Bank and the future of Gaza altogether.

In a June 6 interview with Lior Kodner and Chaim Levinson for the liberal daily Haaretz, Shikma Bressler, an astrophysicist at the Weizmann Institute who emerged as one of the leaders of the protests, repeatedly evaded the journalists’ attempts to force her to articulate a vision for the country and its relationship to the Palestinians. In part Bressler’s reticence is strategic: by punting on matters of peace and security, she and other protest leaders have sought to prevent the movement from being labeled as “leftist,” a term that has become tantamount to a slur in Israel. It is also for this reason that no Israeli leader beyond the embattled peace camp is willing to issue a full-throated call for a Palestinian state. Gantz has shown little indication that he would end military rule in the West Bank or the blockade of Gaza; Lapid, leader of the bourgeois, centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, has spoken recently of the need to return to the peace process—distinct from ending the occupation—but more as a means of relieving diplomatic pressure on Israel than as a prelude to a two-state solution.

That Netanyahu’s opponents refuse to address the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is symptomatic of the broader psychopolitical impasse that afflicts the Israeli public. Many say they do not wish to live with the Palestinians, but also insist on ruling over them; a recent poll found that half of Jewish Israelis say they want the IDF to govern Gaza when the war ends. It is said that there can be no going back to the state of affairs that preceded October 7, but no one, save for the extreme right, is charting a different way forward.

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