Netanyahu plans for Israel to stay in Gaza for 10 years

In addition to leading the war effort, the prime minister is also engaged in a fierce battle with his political rivals and plotting to stay in power for many more years

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits troops in Gaza, December 25, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits troops in Gaza, December 25, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Israel needs to start getting used to the number 10. That’s the number of years Israel will probably stay in the Gaza Strip, according to the current thinking emanating from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.

The estimates are that it will take one or two years for the first stage of the war — eradicating Hamas — to be complete, and another eight years for an alternate government to stabilize, if it does at all.

During this period, Israel will have to maintain a continued presence in Gaza. Hamas will no longer be in control, Israel assesses and hopes, but there will always be terrorists in Gaza and the country will have to keep fighting them.

What Gaza will look like in five or 10 years? Just like the West Bank looks now.

The Strip will be disarmed of heavy weaponry and under partially hostile Palestinian control, reminiscent of the Palestinian Authority, with endless Israeli strikes and operations on terrorism centers deep in the Strip. Raids like those the IDF carries out in Nablus and Jenin, destruction of terrorists’ homes (if they’ve been rebuilt by then), and nighttime arrests will continue in Khan Younis and Shejaiya.

Netanyahu and his close associates don’t foresee Israeli military rule in Gaza, nor Israeli settlements. Israel will, however, control Gaza from afar.

Meanwhile, the former leader of Fatah in Gaza, Mohammad Dahlan, will not be allowed return to the Strip. “He will not set foot in there,” an associate of the prime minister promises.

Palestinians check destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, March 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Netanyahu’s diplomatic crisis with the US deepens

After taking some sick days over the weekend, on Tuesday Netanyahu chaired a meeting about preparations for Ramadan prayers on Temple Mount — a meeting that brought into focus the government’s troubles with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on the one hand and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz on the other.

From Netanyahu’s perspective, Gantz is primarily a political rival and only secondarily a diplomatic partner and co-manager of the war. By this logic, Gantz’s visit to Washington this week takes on the distinctly political hue of a campaign trip. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, he alone manages Israel’s relations with the US, and nobody else should be piping up.

What bothers Netanyahu most is the meetings that were scheduled for Gantz in the White House with US Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, as well as his meetings with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The cherry on top would have been the not unheard-of scenario of President Joe Biden dropping in on one of the meetings to say hello and stay for a bit.

Ministers’ trips to Washington for meetings with US government officials have been happening for years. In many cases, the prime minister is not even aware of them. Meetings in the White House, however, are usually reserved for heads of state.

Gantz is not (yet) prime minister and Netanyahu’s seething entourage thinks he is undermining Netanyahu rather than trying to settle the crisis that is developing in Israel’s relations with the US.

Netanyahu understands the friction with the US very well, but his staff sees the crisis as having arisen solely due to the November elections and the growing pressure on the Democrats, who fear a potential loss to the leading Republican candidate, former president Donald Trump.

US Vice President Kamala Harris (right) hosts Minister Benny Gantz (2nd left) at the White House on March 4, 2024 (Office of VP Kamala Harris)

Harris’s speech on Sunday, in which she criticized Israel’s moves in the war and its handling of humanitarian aid and called for an immediate ceasefire, was decried by Israel’s diplomatic community, which sees it as an expression of the pressure the Democrats are under ahead of the elections.

Assuming the war continues for 10 years, the 2028 elections in the US would also be held amid fighting in Gaza. For now, the Prime Minister’s Office is preparing, and even wishing, for a change of government in the US.

The war is causing Biden great difficulties in his campaign. He wants the war to end immediately, but Netanyahu is unwilling to agree even to a temporary ceasefire, the negotiations for the hostages have repeatedly hit a dead end, and Netanyahu claims it is because Hamas refuses to move an inch on demands that Israel cannot accept.

Thus, the humanitarian aid that was airdropped into Gaza this week and the unprecedented photos of American cargo planes over Gaza can be seen as Israel’s aid to Biden as he faces his fellow Democrats’ criticism. Everything is coordinated with him, Netanyahu’s office has said.

Netanyahu deep in internal political crisis

Netanyahu would likely not be sorry if Gantz left the emergency government and took Defense Minister Yoav Gallant with him. From the prime minister’s perspective, the two ministers are backing the opposition’s horse, if not riding a Trojan one.

The Prime Minister’s Office’s hostility toward Gantz and Gallant is evident. The coalition is big enough without them, sources in the PMO say, but the two ministers don’t want to leave during the war.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) and Minister Benny Gantz (right) embrace, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at left, at a joint press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on November 11, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

In general, Netanyahu is convinced that no one can manage the nation or the war as well as he can. He is the “man of steel,” say his associates, and the rest of the politicians in the Knesset are inexperienced and incapable, especially the two vying for his position — Gantz and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

Astoundingly, as the days go by and October 7 recedes, Netanyahu’s and his associates’ conviction that he is not to blame for the Hamas attack in which terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped 253 only gets stronger.

In their eyes, the opposite is true. If only the IDF or the Shin Bet had come to Netanyahu in time and shared their warnings with him, his known paranoia would have kicked into action and he would have rallied the army on the Gaza border and had planes and helicopters on the scene within two hours.

The reality, however, is that a terrible failure led to October 7 being possible, and Netanyahu and his entourage say he is not complicit in it, of course. Netanyahu is not an intelligence commander or a surveillance officer, they say, and complaints cannot be directed toward him.

On the other hand, Netanyahu cannot avoid responsibility for cultivating and funding Hamas for years. In this case, though, he is happily joining a long line of prime ministers, ministers, and officials in the security system who took part in the tolerant policy toward Hamas. If there is no victory for Netanyahu, at least failure has many partners.

This may be infuriating to many, but it is the PMO’s narrative. With these claims, Netanyahu will try to emerge unscathed from a future national commission of inquiry and run in the next elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a discussion and a vote on the expulsion of MK Ofer Cassif at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90).

I was not updated, he will say, and I’m not the only one. Asked whether he is not to blame as the country’s leader, he will respond that he is as much to blame as everyone else in the country. He alone is also not to blame for Hamas receiving Qatari money — $30 million a month for years — because everyone transferred the suitcases to buy the imaginary peace in Gaza.

To his associates, and to the public, Netanyahu brags about the “diplomatic space” he was able to give Israel to fight the war in Gaza. Four of six of the world’s superpowers – the US, UK, France, and Germany – stand by Israel despite the challenges and are enabling it to wage war against Hamas.

Netanyahu’s campaign will rely on this diplomatic space if and when Israel holds general elections. He calls it “Israel’s chain of support,” and if it is accompanied by victory over Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in the north, he will succeed in overshadowing the horrors of October 7, or so he believes.

Netanyahu and his people are talking about holding the next elections on October 27, 2026, six days after his 77th birthday. It’s clear to everyone, however, that elections will be held before then, and less clear that Netanyahu will take part in them.

In his closest circles, there has been talk recently about the possibility of him retiring from politics because of his age and exhaustion after everything Israel has been through in recent years.

No one has heard this from the prime minister himself, and his associates have never publicly talked about an end to his political career. Lately, the tone has changed a little, however, even if there are still people close to him promising that “Netanyahu will be different from Shimon Peres and will never retire.”

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