ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Explainer

As politicians argue the future of Gaza, Netanyahu is in no hurry to release a plan

Faced with US pressure to reestablish the PA’s rule in Gaza and coalition partners calling for resettling the territory, Netanyahu has stayed mostly silent on his postwar vision

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

IDF forces operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo released on December 26, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF forces operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo released on December 26, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Upon joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition in the wake of Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz demanded the creation of a Gaza exit strategy, echoing American warnings that Israel cannot become bogged down in Gaza indefinitely.

But after nearly three months of fighting in the Gaza Strip, the government has yet to articulate a clear outline for how it plans to avoid finding itself maintaining a lengthy reoccupation if and when it defeats Hamas, which has ruled the coastal enclave since 2007.

Policy statements from Jerusalem have remained contradictory and nebulous, with some officials, like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, stating that the war will end with “the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip.” Others, like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, have pushed for the reestablishment of Israeli settlements there.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has reportedly rejected several recent requests from security chiefs to hold deliberations on postwar arrangements in recent days. Last Thursday, he canceled a war cabinet meeting on the issue, reportedly following pressure from his far-right coalition partners.

Instead, Netanyahu’s office has said that he had instructed his top confidants, including Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, who was recently in Washington discussing “governance and security in Gaza” with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, to prepare for preliminary deliberations on the matter.

Netanyahu’s refusal to hold any such meetings until now is reportedly both because he does not want to reveal the expected role that Palestinian Authority officials will have in managing Gaza’s civil affairs after the war and because such discussions would spark a coalition crisis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd right) chairs a cabinet meeting at the the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Dec. 31, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

This approach has angered his more centrist partners, with Gantz fuming last week that “the army must know what is planned [for the next phase of the war] to prepare for the continuation of the fighting,” Channel 13 reported.

It has also generated criticism from the opposition, with outgoing Labor leader Merav Michaeli alleging that Netanyahu refuses to discuss his postwar plans because “for him, the day after is the day he goes home and he’s doing everything to prevent it.”

Growing tension with Washington

Israel declared war on Hamas after the terror group burst across its southern border on October 7, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians massacred amid horrific acts of brutality, and kidnapping more than 240 others. In the wake of the attack, the United States has offered strong support to Israel in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But the allies are increasingly at odds over what will happen to Gaza once the war winds down.

A senior Israeli official said in a briefing this month that Israel does not want to run the lives of the 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza and would prefer “to see local administration, headed by Palestinians,” even if such an outcome “might take time.”

Despite this, Netanyahu has repeatedly expressed opposition to the Palestinian Authority taking control of Gaza after the war, declaring that Gaza must be demilitarized and stating that Israel wants to carve out a buffer zone to prevent a repeat of the October 7 attack.

Netanyahu has also ruled out the idea of foreign peacekeepers, saying that only the Israeli army can ensure that Gaza remains demilitarized.

The US says it opposes a ceasefire that would leave Hamas intact, as the terror group has vowed to continue to carry out attacks on Israel of the type it perpetrated on October 7.

But Washington also insists that the PA — which Israel has accused of supporting terrorism through education, payment of stipends to terrorists and a failure to condemn Hamas’s October 7 atrocities — eventually fill the vacuum to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under a single political entity and pave a path toward an eventual two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his office in Ramallah, November 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

The US concedes that the PA — which hasn’t held elections in 17 years and whose popularity continues to plummet amid longstanding allegations of corruption and an ever-expanding Israeli presence in the West Bank — will need to be “rejuvenated” before it can take responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

Israel initially appeared to soften its stance on the issue last month when National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi intimated in an op-ed that while the PA is currently not ready to rule Gaza, it could potentially be reformed, and that Jerusalem was “ready for this effort.” However, an official quickly walked back his comments, declaring in an off-record briefing to the press that they had been “misunderstood.”

Israel would instead prefer a multinational authority, including Arab allies, incorporating a Palestinian council and technocrats, two regional politicians told Reuters. But most Arab states are unwilling to get involved. Arab and US officials have told The Times of Israel repeatedly over the past two months that Arab support for the reconstruction of Gaza is far from a given and that it will at best amount to a placeholder until the Palestinian Authority is ready to take over and advance a two-state solution.

Indeed, the United Arab Emirates has explicitly stated, apparently in response to Netanyahu’s contention that the UAE and Saudi Arabia would finance the Gaza Strip’s reconstruction, that it needs to “see a viable two-state solution plan, a road map that is serious, before we talk about the next day and rebuilding the infrastructure of Gaza.”

A ball of fire and smoke rises during Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, on October 9, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

Given that Israeli officials have stated that “a two-state solution after what happened on October 7 is a reward to Hamas,” it appears likely that there will be some form of extended occupation in line with the West Bank model in which there is a designated authority running civic affairs while Israel maintains security control.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would only agree to return to Gaza if it is part of a broader plan aimed at establishing an independent state that also includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel captured all three territories in the 1967 Six Day War and fully the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Resettlement and emigration

While Netanyahu remains cagey about his postwar plans, members of his far-right coalition have been less reticent, promoting a variety of “day after” scenarios that are incredibly unlikely to receive either broad domestic or international support.

Several lawmakers, including members of the cabinet, have pushed for what they call the “voluntary resettlement” of Palestinians from Gaza, a policy that has been roundly rejected by Netanyahu — who last month harshly warned cabinet members to mind their words after Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter declared the war against Hamas “Gaza’s Nakba.” (Nakba is the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which many Arabs use to describe the displacement of Palestinians amid the 1948 War of Independence.)

Egypt and Jordan have said they will not accept any situation that sees Palestinians uprooted from their homes and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the idea of moving people out of Gaza “a nonstarter.”

Israel’s air and ground operations in Gaza have left some 1.9 million people internally displaced, primarily to the south of the coastal enclave, to which the IDF has called on civilians to flee to avoid getting caught up in the fighting.

In the week following Netanyahu’s warning to his ministers, the idea of population transfer, once considered a fringe view held by members of the ultranationalist Kahane movement, was given renewed prominence in the Israeli political discourse when MKs Danny Danon (Likud) and Ram Ben-Barak (Yesh Atid) published an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, calling for “countries around the world to accept limited numbers of Gazan families who have expressed a desire to relocate.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (C) and Likud MK Danny Danon (R) tour the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border on December 20, 2023. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

Their proposal was welcomed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who called their initiative “the right humanitarian solution for the residents of Gaza,” and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who declared that “at the moment of truth, everyone is talking about Jewish power” — a play on the name of his party Otzma Yehudit.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post several days later, Likud Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel mulled the possibility of promoting “the voluntary resettlement of Palestinians in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons, outside of the Strip.”

“Instead of funneling money to rebuild Gaza or to the failed UNRWA, the international community can assist in the costs of resettlement, helping the people of Gaza build new lives in their new host countries,” she wrote.

Some on the right have also called for the reestablishment of the Gush Katif settlement bloc, which was evacuated during the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. This move is opposed by a majority of Israelis.

Although Netanyahu has discussed maintaining control of security in Gaza, he has not uttered the word “occupation.” The idea has been floated by members of his far-right coalition such as Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, who has opined that Israel “should fully occupy the Gaza Strip” following the war, though he added that while he wanted “to reestablish settlements” in the Strip, “this isn’t necessarily the time for that.”

An Israeli soldier evacuates residents of the Gush Katif settlement Neve Dekalim in Gaza, August 2005. (Pierre Terdjamn/Flash90)

Speaking to Channel 12 news on Sunday, Smotrich also called for a discussion of the revival of civilian settlements, adding that he believed that Israeli civilian control would be necessary to maintain order in the Gaza Strip.

“We will be in security control, and we will need there to be civil [control],” Smotrich said. “I’m for completely changing the reality in Gaza, having a conversation about settlements in the Gaza Strip… We’ll need to rule there for a long time… If we want to be there militarily, we need to be there in a civilian fashion.”

The opposition

Criticizing the “government’s difficulty in creating a plan that would give the military and the political establishment a strategic purpose for the war,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid last month released his own plan calling for the establishment of a demilitarized zone and allowing for future IDF incursions to prevent Hamas from reestablishing itself in power.

Administration in the Strip would be handled by an American-led international coalition with the participation of Arab states that would “engage in management, rehabilitation and the [provision of] humanitarian aid to the residents of the Gaza Strip, and build a body that will replace UNRWA” — the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Like his counterparts inside the coalition, Lapid asserted that the PA cannot take part in running Gaza until it undergoes what he called an “extensive de-radicalization program,” “which will include education against incitement, stopping the payment to terrorists and fighting corruption.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a , Yesh Atid party faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on December 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And while Israel should return “to its commitment to a political solution,” this must be seen as a “long-term” goal, he argued.

Labor’s Michaeli had a different take, arguing on December 25 that “what is needed is a political agreement to resolve the conflict.”

“It will be long, excruciatingly painful, but this is the only solution that will guarantee the existence of the State of Israel and it is the only thing that will bring the hostages home now, because there is no time,” she said in a statement accusing Netanyahu of having “strengthened Hamas to avoid political steps to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

In no hurry

During his speech on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared unmoved by calls to release a plan.

The National Security Council has held eight separate discussions on how to handle the “day after” Israel’s combat operations in Gaza end, he declared, adding that the issue will be raised during this week’s security cabinet meeting.

Asked about last week’s canceled meeting, he said the war cabinet instead held “a different debate” devoted to what he said without elaborating was “the most important national security issue.”

“As regards the day after,” Netanyahu said, “first let’s get to the day after… First, let’s destroy Hamas.”

Emanuel Fabian, Jacob Magid, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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