Analysis

In the north and south, diplomacy has become more decisive than military might

The war against Hamas is petering out, pressuring Israel to find a way to end fighting on its own terms — a maneuver made tricky by narrow constraints within the cabinet

View of a large fire after missiles launched from Lebanon hit open areas near Kadita, in the Galilee area, northern Israel, on June 12, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)
View of a large fire after missiles launched from Lebanon hit open areas near Kadita, in the Galilee area, northern Israel, on June 12, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s frantic visit to the Middle East this week symbolizes, in many ways, the pressure the White House is under: Deep into the 2024 presidential election campaign, US President Joe Biden has yet to show any real achievement in the Middle East.

Blinken aligned himself with Israel’s position on negotiations to release the hostages in exchange for a ceasefire with Hamas, saying, after the terror organization gave its official response on Tuesday effectively rejecting Israel’s latest proposal — which has been promoted by Washington — that “Israel accepted the proposal as it was and as it is. Hamas didn’t.”

What he added was no less important: “If Hamas continues to say no, it will be clear to everyone around the world that it’s on them.”

While the phrasing appeals to Israeli ears, it was addressed to Qatar — Blinken’s host on Tuesday. The US administration is trying to pressure the Gulf state to be more assertive and force the terror group, whose leaders it hosts, to accept the deal.

To date, the American pressure on Qatar has been a complete failure, despite reports that authorities in Doha have threatened the foreign leadership of Hamas with expulsion. In practical terms, the United States hasn’t really taken its gloves off against Qatar – a sore point for Israel, especially considering the stagnation in the negotiations and intractability of Hamas’s Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar.

A report in The Wall Street Journal about the messages sent by Sinwar to the Hamas foreign leadership did not surprise Israel. According to that account, Sinwar has reached the conclusion that Israel is exactly where Hamas wants it to be: fighting in several arenas, with its international legitimacy fast running out, and under heavy internal public pressure to release the hostages. This is the perfect recipe for Sinwar to make demands that will ensure his own survival.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) gives a joint press conference with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani (R) in Doha on June 12, 2024. (Ibraheem AL-OMARI / POOL / AFP)

The immediate expression of this was the announcement Tuesday that Hamas was asking the US to provide guarantees that Israel will cease fighting in the Gaza Strip. For Hamas, ending the war means emerging from the tunnels as the clear winner and the only organization capable of leading the Palestinians in Gaza.

This demand is problematic for Biden. The US, which lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, would be a guarantor of the organization’s immunity against America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Israel, a democracy that Hamas hit with a barbaric terrorist attack on October 7. It is hard to see how such an American promise could even pass Congress, where it is likely that even some Democrats would oppose it.

Meanwhile, Israel is getting used to a new reality, with Benny Gantz’s National Unity party no longer in government and without a war cabinet – which was, despite the tensions, the only political forum where levelheaded professionals met to discuss the course of the war both militarily and diplomatically.

Many issues were discussed in the war cabinet over the past eight months, except for one: what happens on “the day after.” Now, with the exit of Gantz and his No. 2 Gadi Eisenkot, it is doubtful that anyone other than Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will care to remind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the importance of the issue.

Netanyahu is running out of time to make decisions about a postwar Gaza: Military action in Rafah is progressing and is expected to end within a few weeks. After that, the IDF can rightly claim that it has dismantled Hamas’s military infrastructure, which thus shifts the onus onto the political leadership to decide how to proceed.

The scope of Israeli forces operating in the Gaza Strip is already less than two divisions.

Withdrawing forces from the Gaza Strip means possible reinforcement on the Lebanese front, where the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah has been attacking along the frontier in support of Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second right) visits Kiryat Shmona on the border with Lebanon, June 5, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu, who last week visited the battered city of Kiryat Shmona for the first time, promised to restore security to the north but said nothing about ground action, despite having heard from security officials that now could be an opportune time for an offensive in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, according to many in the security establishment, is in a very difficult position in terms of its ability to defend itself in south Lebanon. The IDF has eroded large parts of the terror group’s defensive infrastructure, killing and wounding hundreds of operatives and causing the organization’s elite force to move north, beyond the Litani River.

This situation — an enemy with sparse presence, worn-out forces, and few men along the border — presents an appealing opportunity that the IDF clearly recognizes. However, Netanyahu gave the distinct impression that he prefers to hold off on a decision to begin a ground offensive in south Lebanon.

The prime minister’s dilemma is understandable. Because the question is, what would happen next? What would happen were IDF troops to reach the banks of the Litani? What mechanism would signal the end of the fighting and a withdrawal? Would there be an agreement that would ensure the security of the residents of northern Israel? Hezbollah could refuse any international proposal, so as to keep Israel bleeding in Lebanon, or it could force Israel to withdraw unilaterally, without an agreement – two options considered worse than the current situation.

Whether we like it or not, Israel is approaching an important decision-making juncture in its two-front war. The clear connection between Lebanon and Gaza is an agreement with Hamas, which would end the fighting not just in the Gaza Strip but on the Lebanese front too, and, according to sources familiar with the matter, allow the signing of an agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

Therefore, the focus now shifts toward negotiations for a Hamas deal, while the military effort is becoming secondary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a vote on the state budget at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The prime minister’s limited maneuverability is not about the hostages. He’s already heard the experts’ opinions on this, and pretty much everyone has told him the same thing: Sign an agreement, bring home the hostages, and then we’ll deal with Hamas without being weighed down.

No, he is limited due to his hardline, extreme-right coalition partners Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

But even if Netanyahu succeeds in clearing the far-right hurdle in his government, he cannot agree to the continuation of Hamas’s governance in the Gaza Strip. The terror group understands this, too, and is therefore demanding the American guarantees. If these are not provided (which is the more likely scenario), Hamas will have someone to blame and thus justify the continuation of the war, which continues to raise its own stature in the internal Palestinian power struggle.

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