Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: Not about Netanyahu

Mar 26, 2024 | Colin Rubenstein

An IDF infantry commando soldier in action in Khan Yunis, the Gaza Strip, February 2024 (Image: Ran Zisovitch/ Shutterstock)
An IDF infantry commando soldier in action in Khan Yunis, the Gaza Strip, February 2024 (Image: Ran Zisovitch/ Shutterstock)

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the challenges that Israel faces in the current, lower-intensity phase of its war against Hamas than the IDF’s second raid on the Shifa Hospital compound in northern Gaza on March 18. This saw the elimination of at least 140 armed terrorists including a top Hamas commander.

Israeli forces, it should be remembered, first took control of the site in November, after lengthy gun battles with terrorists taking shelter there, and found Hamas tunnels, including a major command and control centre, beneath the hospital grounds.

However, Israeli reserve units soon withdrew from most of northern Gaza, and the front moved south to Khan Yunis and eventually reached the outskirts of the southernmost Gazan city of Rafah, where it remains to this day. But Hamas returned to Shifa.

This is not entirely unexpected. Outmatched by the IDF, Hamas’ strategy since the massacres in southern Israel on October 7 has been largely to hide in tunnels or among civilians for as long as possible, hoping to eventually re-emerge to resume control. 

Hamas hopes that international pressure on Israel and/or a hostage deal will allow a return to something much like the status quo that existed on October 6. Then, still in power and with the achievement of having coerced Israel into freeing many hundreds of convicted terrorist killers, it would then have the means to rearm and try to repeat the October 7 slaughter again and again in the future, as its leaders continually assert it will.

Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Israelis are absolutely determined to prevent this and stand behind their Government’s declared goal of eliminating Hamas control over the entirety of Gaza. 

Barring an unexpected surrender by Hamas, this necessitates an eventual offensive into Rafah, after creating safe havens for the city’s 1.2 million non-combatants. 

Some analysts and foreign political leaders have strongly implied that this stance is solely the product of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners – perhaps for political reasons. This is just wrong. 

Netanyahu is indeed unpopular in Israel, polls show, but he is absolutely correct when he says he speaks for a large majority of Israelis in demanding that the IDF must be allowed to complete its war to eliminate both Hamas’ capacity to control and its military capabilities and infrastructure. 

As Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong herself said in Jerusalem in January, the Australian Government “believe[s] that Hamas has no place in the future governance of Gaza.” 

This should indeed be beyond argument – but Hamas will not leave of its own accord and will thus have to be removed by force. Yes, Gaza’s civilians are paying a high price, as Hamas always intended (see military expert John Spencer’s important comments on this), but there is every reason to believe that various new aid routes – and a declared Israeli policy of seeking to “flood” Gaza with aid – will soon ameliorate the worst of the problems in getting essentials to them (read Charlotte Lawson’s article about this). 

Meanwhile, Israeli young people are constantly losing their lives in a war Israelis neither wanted nor asked for, yet they know a Hamas victory would surely be a much worse outcome. Israelis would be left completely vulnerable not only to an empowered Hamas, but to Iran’s numerous other terrorist proxies including especially Hezbollah, keen to follow Hamas’ example. For the Palestinian civilians that Hamas treats as human shields, war would likely soon destroy their lives yet again. 

In addition to completely distorting the reasons for the current situation in Gaza, the fashionable trend for foreign leaders to encourage Israelis to dump Netanyahu, as US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did recently, is highly ill-advised for other reasons. It encourages Hamas to harden its negotiating position, and greatly undermines Western interests vis-à-vis the Iranian-led “axis of resistance.”

Moreover, it could also ironically pave an avenue for a potential political comeback for Netanyahu, on the rocks politically due to his mismanagement of the Hamas threat in the years leading up to October 7 and divisive judicial reform proposals last year, but now able to play the card of standing up to outside pressure and threats to Israeli independence. 

This is why National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s most popular rival whom polls say would likely beat Netanyahu handily if elections were held tomorrow, unhesitatingly rebuffed Schumer’s comments and rejected such external influence in Israeli politics.

The scapegoating of Netanyahu and his controversial coalition partners for the unavoidable ugliness of the current Gaza war also explains an exaggerated tendency to insist the Israeli PM cannot offer a post-war vision for Gaza’s future. Actually, he is offering such a vision – its effectiveness and feasibility can be debated but its existence should not be denied. 

It was outlined recently by veteran Yedioth Ahronot military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai on March 15 (see article): “In Netanyahu’s vision, the demilitarised Gaza Strip would have an open path to the outside world via a land corridor in Egyptian territory, along the border with Gaza, and a sea corridor leading to Cyprus,” Ben-Yishai wrote.

“These corridors would enable Gazans to move freely in and out of the Strip, develop trade and economic relations with foreign lands, fish the waters offshore… without moving through Israel. But Israel would maintain overall security control of the corridors to prevent weapons and raw material to produce them, from being smuggled into Gaza.”

This “Singapore model” for Gaza, Ben-Yishai noted, was originally conceived of by Israeli peace visionary Shimon Peres in the 1990s. 

The truth is that in 2005 after Israel removed all of its settlements and soldiers from Gaza, the road for the Palestinian Authority to realise such a model was wide open. 

Sadly, the Palestinian leadership, as has so often been the case, missed the opportunity. The PA politically imploded under the weight of its own corruption and Hamas booted out Fatah in a bloody coup, putting the territory on the genocidal path towards October 7. 

Any plan to advance moves toward a two-state outcome requires fully learning the lessons of the tragic 18 years since disengagement, including the need for thoroughgoing deradicalisation and the construction of a Palestinian political culture that accepts coexistence. Anyone who thinks Netanyahu is the key barrier to rapidly moving toward a two-state resolution in the wake of October 7 – or, absurdly, believes leaving Hamas’ remaining forces intact won’t be an insuperable barrier to progress – is not only failing to address those lessons, but directly flying in the face of them. 

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