AnalysisAre Israel's two main war aims mutually exclusive?

A hostage deal would put goal of toppling Hamas at risk — but not out of reach

A national consensus on importance of restarting combat after long ceasefire will be key to withstanding intense international pressure — including from Biden — to end the war

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli women demand an immediate deal for the release of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip at a protest in Tel Aviv, Feb. 1, 2024 (AP/Oded Balilty)
Israeli women demand an immediate deal for the release of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip at a protest in Tel Aviv, Feb. 1, 2024 (AP/Oded Balilty)

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in his Jerusalem office with the families of hostages held by Hamas. They pressed the premier to define the return of their loved ones as the primary aim of the war in Gaza, a demand he refused.

The rallying cry of those demonstrating and working on behalf of the hostages makes a similar demand: “Bring them home NOW!” they insist.

Instead, as he has done since October 7, Netanyahu continues to maintain in no uncertain terms that Israel will not stop fighting until it achieves both of its primary war aims — to destroy Hamas’s military and governing capabilities in Gaza, as well as to bring all hostages home. (He later added a third goal — ensuring that Gaza can never again be used as a platform for launching attacks against Israel.)

Netanyahu argues regularly that there is synergy between the goals: that only a ceaseless military campaign will create the pressure on Hamas necessary to enable the hostages’ release as well as ensure the eventual eradication of the terror group.

But many hostages’ families assert that with 120 days since the kidnappings, and more and more of the captives confirmed killed in captivity, the offensive may be doing more harm to them than good, and time is running out.

Now, the framework of a potential release deal is once again on the table — though far from certain — that would see Israel halt the military operation for an extended period of time, perhaps even months, in order to get the hostages safely home.

With Israel willing to undermine one of the war’s goals to achieve the other, one must ask: Are Israel’s war aims complementary, or are they mutually exclusive? Must we choose between the moral imperative of bringing home the over 100 hostages still believed to be alive, some of whom are children and the elderly, and the equally compelling responsibility of the state to not put many thousands more citizens at risk of a similar fate in the future?

Time — a friend and enemy

In the early stages of the ground offensive, when Israel’s war effort was in full swing, Netanyahu’s characterization of the war aims was accurate.

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking about the war on Hamas, December 20, 2023. (X. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

It was the relentless Israeli military pressure — the only effective lever Israel has — that pushed Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar to agree to release 105 hostages in late November, in exchange for a week-long lull that let his organization breathe and redeploy.

More than two months of fighting later, however, the situation is different. Hamas is demanding an end to the war with it still in power, which would mean an effective victory for the terror group that butchered and raped its way through southern Israel on October 7, and would likely be perceived by many in the Jewish state and its surroundings as a devastating defeat, one that would shake confidence in Israel’s long-term survival.

“Hamas is willing to negotiate, but it seems like the only way to get everyone out is to end the war,” said Raphael Cohen, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank. “So at this stage, it seems like you can’t have both.”

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, greets his supporters during a meeting with leaders of Palestinian factions at his office in Gaza City, April 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

Only two weeks ago, four unidentified IDF generals told The New York Times that “the objectives of freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas are now mutually incompatible.”

Even if Hamas eventually agrees to a deal without a certain end to the war, only a lengthy ceasefire, there is the risk for Israel of a temporary truce hardening into something permanent. There is also the disparate role that time plays in both war aims.

The IDF enjoys the logistical advantages and manpower pool that only a nation can offer. Israel can keep its operation going for many months (though there are significant social and economic complications that arise the longer it keeps reservists away from home and from their jobs). But Hamas numbers will only drop as more and more are killed by Israel, and its only resupply is the humanitarian aid the world is sending in through the southern Strip. The longer Israel can keep the pressure on, the greater Israel’s advantage becomes.

But for the hostages deep under Gaza, time is not an ally.

“While the goal of toppling Hamas is complex and requires patience, the window of time for the abductees is shorter,” said Meir Ben-Shabbat, once Netanyahu’s national security adviser and now head of the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy.

L-R: Hostages Karina Ariev, Daniella Gilboa and Doron Steinbrecher are seen in a Hamas propaganda clip published January 26, 2024. ‘We want to go home now,’ they declare (Screenshot: Telegram)

“The longer a hostage is in captivity, the less chance that they survive the captivity,” warned John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute in prestigious US military academy West Point.

Those hostages almost certainly won’t be freed through any other means than a deal with Hamas. Though the success of the 1976 Entebbe raid has created an expectation that the IDF can figure out a way to extract hostages in some grand and creative operation, experience shows otherwise. The vast majority of hostage rescue operations fail, as they have in Gaza. Only one hostage, Ori Megidish, was successfully rescued during the war. Other attempts in Gaza have cost the lives of IDF soldiers and may have cost the lives of the hostages they attempted to extract.

War cabinet minister and former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said the same publicly last month, explaining in a television interview that a daring rescue “will not happen.”

The dangers of a ceasefire

Hamas may well be open to a deal that would see all the hostages released in return for a months-long ceasefire — but that would only occur if its leaders believed that a long pause would turn permanent, and thus ensure the group’s and their survival.

Displaced Gazans wait for their turn to bake bread at the makeshift tent camp in the Muwasi area in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Dec. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Such an eventuality is not an outlandish proposition.

After the deaths of thousands of Gazan civilians — there is no reason to place too much trust in the figures from the Hamas health ministry, but the toll is undoubtedly heavy — even Israel’s friends in the world will do whatever they can to make sure the fighting doesn’t pick up again.

“If you break off the war for two months, there’ll be more diplomatic pressure,” said Cohen. “If you’ve had a ceasefire for this long, why can’t you have a ceasefire ad infinitum?”

US President Joe Biden, who has been firm in his support of Israel throughout the war, would likely be leading the charge. Facing worsening election prospects as progressives and Arab Americans turn away from him over his support for Israel, Biden would have liked to get the war behind him by the end of 2023. He will certainly not want to see it dragged out further.

A protester calling for a ceasefire in Gaza interrupts US President Joe Biden during an event on the campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Virginia, January 23, 2024 (Alex Brandon/AP)

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, said: “If you are talking about a ceasefire, let’s say six weeks to two months, you’re talking about the end of March, and that’s deep into the election campaign.”

“The president probably hopes that if it is a ceasefire, that period could be used to end the war rather than renew the war afterwards,” he continued. “And that would be where the pressure is coming from.”

That possibility is more than mere speculation. This week, The Wall Street Journal reported that “US negotiators are pushing for a ceasefire deal that could stop the war in Gaza long enough to stall Israel’s military momentum and potentially set the stage for a more lasting truce.”

They believe “it would be difficult for Israel to resume the war at its current intensity after a long pause,” the report said.

A composite image of CIA Director William Burns, left, speaking at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, on July 8, 2022; Mossad Director David Barnea, right, speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, on September 10, 2023. (AP/Susan Walsh; Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

An extended ceasefire creates other serious tactical problems for Israel.

Most of Hamas’s battalions have been smashed apart into smaller ad hoc formations by the IDF, and many battalion commanders have been killed. Hamas would use the time to rebuild its units and move arms and supplies to forces who have been cut off.

“It would allow Hamas to reform its operational command and control,” said Cohen. “It would appoint new battalion commanders, reform units that have been battered, have wounded fighters heal and return to the battlefield.”

People attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Hamas, it would seem, has skewered Israel’s war leadership on the horns of a dilemma: Get your people back and fight us again later, or face the moral and political implications of leaving over 100 Israelis to violent deaths in dark tunnels for the uncertain proposition of trying to destroy a terror organization that enjoys widespread support in Gaza.

Consensus and victory

But perhaps the dilemma is not as dire as it might seem.

“There’s a tension there,” admitted Spencer, “but I don’t see a tension in the strategic objectives of the war.”

He said he didn’t see “any other strategic alternative” to getting as many hostages out as quickly as possible, and then continuing the fight against Hamas.

The smoke of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel lingers above a building on January 7, 2024. (AFP)

Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is confident Israel can resume operations even after a long lull.

“Israel has enormous autonomy of action, so of course the war could be restarted after a lengthy pause to resolve the issue of the hostages,” she argued.

Moreover, it is possible that Hamas will do something at the end of a potential ceasefire — fire a rocket barrage or try to ambush soldiers to show it remains a fighting force — that will give Israel legitimacy to restart fighting.

“Might there be costs?” Pletka said. “Sure. But if there remains a consensus in Israel that this is an existential matter then the costs will be bearable.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a cabinet meeting at Chorazim in the north, January 23, 2024. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Thus far, Israel’s fractious public has maintained a united front on the importance of achieving both of Netanyahu’s primary war aims. But, as people perceive the war leadership make decisions with an eye toward potential elections, and as some protesters try to nudge demonstrations surrounding the hostages into an avowedly anti-Netanyahu direction, cracks are forming.

Israel war leaders, and the prime minister at their head, will render the attainment of the war’s goals more likely if they are direct and open with the public: There are significant risks involved in a hostage deal, and it will make the military campaign more difficult. Israelis can handle that message.

Moreover, withstanding the international pressure that is sure to mount for a permanent ceasefire will be easier when it is clear that a decision to resume the fight is not part of any political machinations, but is the only way to pursue Israel’s core security interests — a decision, that is, shared by Israelis across the political spectrum.

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