Op-ed: Day 257 of the war

As war winds down, diplomacy is paramount, but Netanyahu has other priorities

With Hamas being routed as an organized army yet still a potent guerrilla force, it’s time for intensive work on alternative rule for Gaza. Instead, the PM picks fights with the US

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Troops of the IDF's Givati Brigade operate in the Yabna camp of southern Gaza's Rafah, June 18, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Troops of the IDF's Givati Brigade operate in the Yabna camp of southern Gaza's Rafah, June 18, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Israel’s high-intensity war against Hamas in Gaza is coming to an end.

After more than eight months of fighting in the wake of the Gaza terror-government’s invasion and slaughter in southern Israel, the IDF is perhaps a month away from announcing that it has dismantled Hamas’s four battalions in Rafah.

But already, Hamas is not functioning as an army in its last major stronghold. As our military correspondent Emanuel Fabian reported after a day in Rafah on Tuesday, Hamas has switched to guerrilla war tactics — gunmen emerging here and there to try to target IDF troops, sometimes with devastating consequences, before melting away.

Many thousands of Hamas gunmen had fled south to Rafah in recent months, to prepare a vicious welcome for the much-delayed major IDF offensive. But lots of them have since returned to other parts of the Strip.

Israel’s troops are gradually finding and tackling more of Hamas’s vast tunnel network — inside Rafah and extending from Rafah to the Egyptian border. Some 25 major smuggling tunnels have been identified to date — definitive evidence of Egypt’s indifference or failure to prevent Hamas arming itself from across the border. Having taken control of the entire Philadelphi Route along the Gaza-Egypt border, troops are gradually probing the 14-kilometer corridor for more such tunnels.

As intended by Israel in the wake of October 7, Hamas is being routed as an organized army. But it will not be destroyed.

The IDF believes its capacity to rearm — via both smuggling and weapons manufacture inside Gaza — has been significantly depleted. Its ability to carry out major rocket fire deep into Israel is much reduced. But it has the potential to maintain guerrilla conflict for years.

Troops of the Commando Brigade operate in southern Gaza’s Rafah, in a handout photo published June 15, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

If, as anticipated in the next month, the IDF declares that it has attained “operational control,” or some such terminology, in Rafah, it is also well aware that Hamas remains relatively potent in central Gaza’s Deir al-Balah and Nuseirat — where there are too many Gazan noncombatants for the IDF to be able to effectively tackle some Hamas targets — and that it has those thousands of gunmen capable of deadly attacks all over the Strip.

The high-intensity period of the war will be over, in other words, but a potentially endless task looms of tackling “pockets” of Hamas.

Hamas wants immunity

Thoroughly indifferent to the ruin it has brought upon Gaza with its monstrous October 7 invasion and the consequent Israeli campaign to ensure there can be no recurrence, Yahya Sinwar and his leadership colleagues are betting they will survive the war and re-emerge to re-establish their rule.

A hostage deal that would not guarantee their capacity to do so, therefore, is of no interest to them. Why would they release hostages under any terms that do not guarantee their capacity to rise again?

Thus, Hamas’s latest response to Israel’s proposal requires guarantees that Israel will end its Gaza fighting in the very early stages of any phased hostage release — during which Hamas also demands the release into the West Bank of 150 life-term terror convicts in exchange for five female Israeli soldier hostages. Hamas wants immunity from attack in Gaza, and the opportunity to open a new front in the West Bank.

Hostage family members at a Knesset committee meeting on June 17, 2024, part of the weekly lobbying efforts by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. (Courtesy/Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Sabotaging dialogue

This, then, is the moment for intensified diplomacy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued for months that there is simply no prospect for establishing an alternative civil government in Gaza because the members of any would-be replacement entity would be gunned down by Hamas.

But Hamas is significantly weakened now, and that danger, though still present, is less acute.

As repeatedly stressed by President Joe Biden and his senior officials, the United States has a grand vision for post-Hamas Gaza that includes a role for a reformed Palestinian Authority and other international players, and extends to an opportunity for wider regional normalization for Israel, including with Saudi Arabia, and a robust coalition against would-be nuclear Iran.

Netanyahu would dearly like to seize the opportunity for Saudi normalization, but knows his far-right coalition allies would not consent to any kind of PA role in Gaza or even the vaguest steps toward Palestinian statehood.

Israel has the most clear-cut national interest in close and earnest dialogue with the US to find the right way forward, but the prime minister’s political needs allow for no such progress.

Instead, therefore, he on Tuesday sabotaged imminent dialogue with the US on precisely these issues by publicly accusing the administration — on whose wartime military and diplomatic support Israel depends — of denying the IDF the weapons it needs in order to win.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about. We just don’t,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded publicly; privately, the administration, seething, is reported to have canceled an imminent visit to Washington for vital national security meetings by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi.

The US has been holding up one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs that it didn’t want Israel to use in Rafah. It is reportedly delaying approval of 50 F-15 fighter jets, the first 25 of which would not be delivered before 2028; Israel’s own internal bickering had also briefly held up final approval for the F-15s and additional F-35s, which would also not be delivered for another four years.

Accommodating the anti-Zionists

Strategically determined to avoid taking personal responsibility as the man in charge when Hamas invaded, Netanyahu has alighted on the Biden administration as the latest culprit responsible for Israel’s woes.

His son Yair is battering away at another culprit, the IDF — including by spreading conspiracy theories about its ostensible treasonable activities prior to October 7.

The prime minister, meanwhile, continues to denigrate anti-government protesters as violent and marginal extremists, even as the police force he entrusted to far-right thug Itamar Ben Gvir uses growing force to quash them.

His party colleague Nissim Vaturi, a deputy Knesset speaker no less, has been denouncing the anti-coalition protesters as a “branch” of Hamas, while implying that relatives of hostages who join such protests are less likely to see their loved ones return… before apologizing.

All the efforts to shift blame and discredit political and public opposition, however, may not be enough to hold Netanyahu’s coalition together.

Israeli reserve soldiers take part in a military drill in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona, June 18, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

With the hostage talks deadlocked, and growing potential for devastating all-out war with Hezbollah and Lebanon, the prime minister has nonetheless been preoccupied this week with attempting to keep his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners on board.

No longer constrained by Benny Gantz and his National Unity party, Netanyahu thus spent much of Tuesday dealing, would you believe, with legislation sought by the Shas party to provide taxpayer-funded jobs for rabbis in local councils nationwide.

Likud MKs Tally Gotliv, left, and Moshe Saada attend a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 18, 2024; they both expressed opposition to the so-called “Rabbis Bill.” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Docile throughout the first nine months of 2023 in which Netanyahu and his colleagues attempted to neuter the judiciary, and unstintingly supportive of his “not my fault” stance on the October 7 catastrophe and his resumed politics of division in recent months, a couple of Likud backbenchers were finally moved to revolt by the “Rabbis Bill” on Tuesday. Making clear that they wouldn’t vote for it in committee, they sparked a coalition crisis that compelled the prime minister to delay the vote on the legislation.

This in turn is prompting fury in the ultra-Orthodox camp, even though Netanyahu has been doing his utmost to keep the Haredim happy via endless legislative maneuvering to prevent High Court intervention and preserve the untenable blanket exclusion from military service of young Haredi men.

Shas party leader MK Aryeh Deri, at his home in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Haredi threats to bolt the coalition are likely empty. No other constellation of parties would be anywhere near as accommodating to the Haredi parties’ demands as this government has been. The same may even be the case for the threats and demands leveled by far-right extremists Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich — over everything from aid to Gazans to invading Lebanon.

But Netanyahu obsequiously attempts to accommodate the messianists and anti-Zionists, nonetheless, while publicly denigrating the sole vital ally on whom Israel depends for its very capacity to survive.

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