Op-ed: Day 138 of the war

In an Israel desperate for unity, Netanyahu keeps capitulating to the far-right, Haredim

Ben Gvir’s pyromaniacal Temple Mount demands * Why the ultra-Orthodox must share the burden * The IDF’s Rafah preparations * Public diplomacy lessons unlearned

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).

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet with the troops who participated in a hostage rescue operation in Gaza on February 12, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet with the troops who participated in a hostage rescue operation in Gaza on February 12, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

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.

How have the horrors of October 7 and the ongoing nightmare of war in Gaza, conflict in the north, government dysfunction, and global hostility to Israel and Jews impacted Israelis’ preferences for our future direction and governance?

Opinion poll after opinion poll shows the Likud vote collapsing, support for Benny Gantz’s National Unity party soaring, the statesmanlike Gantz much preferred personally as prime minister to the toxically divisive Benjamin Netanyahu, and Netanyahu and his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies left with scant prospect of retaining power.

Plainly, much of the Israeli mainstream holds the prime minister and his Likud primarily responsible, as the leadership of the nation, for the failure to deter, preempt or prevent the monstrous October 7 Hamas slaughter in the western Negev, and for the abiding absence of post-October 7 governance, with local authorities and civilian activists still struggling to fill the vacuum left by a bloated, bickering and incompetent ministerial menagerie.

Netanyahu’s ongoing capitulation to the far-right — including entertaining the demand by the pyromaniacal Itamar Ben Gvir to deny swaths of Arab citizens of Israel the right to pray at the Al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount during Ramadan; and his coalition’s readiness to continue to exempt young ultra-Orthodox men from military service even as the IDF has been calling up recruits ahead of schedule because of the unprecedented strain on the military — is doubtless further alienating many previous supporters.

Hamas branded October 7 as “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” in order to assert an ostensible religious justification for its barbarism and draw West Bank Palestinians, East Jerusalemites and Israel’s Arab citizens directly into the war. Thus far, it has signally failed. Indeed, the Arab Israeli community — which suffered fatalities and abductions on October 7, and losses in the IDF in Gaza — has seemed to deepen its identification with the nation as a whole.

The idea of exacerbating tensions on the Temple Mount with any kind of sweeping ban on Arab Israeli’s freedom of religious access there should manifestly have been dismissed out of hand when raised by Ben Gvir at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, with the Shin Bet chief reportedly warning that it would risk playing into Hamas’s hands and raising the potential for holy war. The notion of maintaining the blanket exclusion from service of the ultra-Orthodox community, when everybody needs to share the burden and national cohesion requires that everybody is seen to be sharing the burden, should also have been more unthinkable now than ever. Not, evidently, to this government.

Palestinian Hamas supporters chant slogans and flash gestures with flags of the terror group outside the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem during Ramadan on April 7, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

At the same time, however, the horrors of October 7, and the vast support for it among Palestinians, have, if anything, pushed Israelis further to the right into Netanyahu-bloc territory, rather than to the center.

While IDF soldiers have begun voting — inside Gaza! — for municipal elections, with most of the rest of the country to do so next week, Israel is potentially more than two years away from national elections. Netanyahu, as we know full well, is desperate to retain power and is a far more effective political campaigner than Gantz.

The question, when the day comes, is whether enough Israelis will choose a potentially unifying leadership — committed to consigning the far-right back to the margins, to carefully advancing a process under which the ultra-Orthodox community properly shares the burden of national service, and ideally to promoting progress toward a constitution that anchors the separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary — over a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc.

A leadership, one should add, more capable of thwarting Israel’s external enemies, and of actually administering the country for the good of all of its citizens.

Limited intel

The IDF continues to believe that it is winning the war against Hamas in Gaza. Three-quarters of the Hamas battalions are no longer functioning. Rocket fire has greatly subsided.

And military officials say they have a plan ready to implement to tackle Rafah in the far south — where four Hamas battalions have had months to prepare and have been substantially bolstered by gunmen who have fled from the north and center of the Strip — including provisions to oversee the evacuation of a million-plus Gazans from there to other areas. The expectation is that taking overall control of Gaza’s southernmost town will require weeks, if not months, of heavy fighting, and the recall of reservist brigades that have been released or the redeployment of standing IDF forces from the unpredictable northern border.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a photo cleared for publication on February 21, 2024 (IDF)

The most senior Hamas leadership remains intact and in situ, however, with the IDF saying it has no intelligence indicating that Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and his cronies have fled the Strip, and most analysts believe that he would be unlikely to do so.

There are still thousands of Hamas gunmen in north and central Gaza, and Hamas operatives — still the only governance in town — are commandeering much of the aid that enters the Strip.

And over 130 hostages have suffered an unthinkable 138 days in captivity, with the hair-raising rescue of two of them from Rafah last week only underlining the near-impossibility, thus far, of extracting them.

Shiri, Ariel, and Kfir Bibas seen in a video in Khan Younis on October 7, after they were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz, in a video released by the IDF on February 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The rescue of Louis Har and Fernando Marman was both an extraordinary military feat and evidence of pinpoint real-time intelligence. But the screening on Monday of footage of Shiri Bibas and her two toddler sons in Khan Younis immediately after their abduction on October 7, accompanied by IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari’s talk of further scraps of information that raise grave fears for their fate, underlined the limits of such intel and how much the IDF still doesn’t know about the whereabouts and wellbeing of so many of those who were abducted.

Public diplomacy MIA

The rescue of Har and Marman was largely presented worldwide accompanied by reports that “at least 67 people, including women and children, were killed” in IDF airstrikes that enabled their extraction. As ever, those numbers, and the nature of the Gazan dead, were supplied by Gaza’s Health Ministry, aka Hamas, and are unverifiable. Hagari said the IDF carried out airstrikes “to allow the force to cut off contact and hit the Hamas terrorists in the area,” enabling the rescue. He did not specify how many Gazans were killed, or the relative proportions of gunmen and noncombatants among the dead.

Footage taken from Mavi Marmara security cameras, showing the activists onboard as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Footage from the Mavi Marmara security cameras shows activists on board as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

In 2010, when Israeli naval commandos rappelled down to commandeer the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla that was seeking to breach the Israeli arms blockade on Gaza and had ignored repeated pleas to turn back, they were beaten with bars and clubs, and opened fire in self-defense, killing 10 people on board. However, Israel’s public diplomacy establishment delayed the publication of footage that showed the incident, citing security concerns, until long after a false narrative had been cemented worldwide asserting that Israeli troops had murdered peace activists on a humanitarian mission.

A screenshot from footage from February 12, 2024, from an APC showing Shayetet 13 commandos asking Fernando Marman (left) and Louis Har (right) about their wellbeing, shortly after they were rescued after being held by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip since October 7. (Israel Defense Forces)

Fourteen years later, hours after the February 12 hostage rescue was announced, I asked members of the grandly titled Israeli Public Diplomacy Directorate whether it could provide any information on how many of the 67 people Hamas claimed were killed in the hostage rescue were Hamas operatives. I also inquired as to whether anyone in the directorate is tasked with trying to obtain that kind of hard information and disseminating it quickly.

I was promised a response. Several times. I was finally told it would be forthcoming “today.” That was last Wednesday.

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