Op-ed: Day 166 of the war

Never mind Chuck Schumer’s hopes and fears, what Israel do Israelis want?

Senate majority leader fears pariah status looms for Israel and urges elections, but would voters choose a less divisive leadership? * Retaining US support to tackle Hamas in Rafah

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).

File - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left), a New York Democrat, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Feb. 23, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/Israel Government Press Office)
File - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left), a New York Democrat, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Feb. 23, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/Israel Government Press Office)

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.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s stunning assault on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a governing far-right coalition that “no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7,” complete with his call for elections “once the war starts to wind down,” has predictably engendered a storm of criticism, notably from Netanyahu himself, against Schumer’s overt attempt at intervention in the political affairs of a democratic ally.

It also raises a rather large question.

The Israeli electorate has hardly been starved of election opportunities. The latest, most extreme Netanyahu-led government had been voted into office less than a year before the Hamas slaughter of 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7. Netanyahu has held power for almost all of the past 15 years, and was returned to office in late 2022, despite being on trial for corruption, having gradually whittled away the narrow majority of the Bennett-Lapid coalition that had briefly consigned him to the opposition.

So what makes Schumer think that the Israeli public would choose a less extreme coalition, under a different leader, when next granted an opportunity to cast its ballots?

Schumer, in common with many Israelis, worries that Israel is increasingly becoming a pariah state.

It is plainly loathed by more and more of the world the longer its battle against Hamas continues — with the horrors of October 7 receding, and Israel primarily blamed for the loss of civilian lives in Gaza even though it is Hamas that has placed those civilians in harm’s way and that could stop the war by releasing the hostages and laying down its weapons.

And, under Netanyahu, it has for years been tearing itself apart from within — with the prime minister and his allies weakening Israeli democracy with their assault on the independent judiciary, and risking its Jewish majority by expanding the settlement enterprise throughout the biblical Judea and Samaria, including in areas Israel would have to relinquish in the cause of any potential separation, deepening Israel’s entanglement with millions of West Bank Palestinians.

War cabinet Minister Benny Gantz (standing), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Months of opinion polls since October 7 have indicated that were Schumer’s wish to be realized and Israelis given a fresh opportunity, they would overwhelmingly reject another bout of Netanyahu governance, not least because it was on his watch that Hamas invaded. Poll after poll after poll has purportedly demonstrated that, were Israelis to vote today, they would favor the statesmanlike Benny Gantz over the perennially divisive Netanyahu, now stripped of his Mr. Security credentials, and would give non-extreme parties sufficient Knesset seats for Gantz to build a more moderate coalition.

But as five elections in less than four years helped demonstrate, Gantz is no match for Netanyahu and the Netanyahu election machine — Channel 14, social media, bots and all — once campaigning begins in earnest. And for all the polls’ ostensibly definitive conclusions, their findings make little sense.

Israel has not shifted to Gantz’s territory in the political center since October 7, much less to the center-left province of Opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Hamas’s monstrous massacre, the support for that attack among Gaza and West Bank Palestinians, the widespread refusal in the Arab world to denounce the barbarism, the anti-Israeli protests worldwide and the assiduous misrepresentation, negation and rapid airbrushing from history of what actually took place on October 7 — all this and more has left Israelis perhaps unprecedentedly wary of compromise with and relinquishing land to the Palestinians, with the consequent potential strengthening of Likud and the far-right. The ultra-Orthodox electorate continues to grow, meanwhile, and is solidly in the right-wing camp, which continues to shield it from military and any other form of national service.

A photo provided by an anti-government activist shows judicial overhaul protesters in Tel Aviv holding up a banner during a weekly rally, September 23, 2023. (Gilad Furst)

A lot of Israelis, maybe most, were and are bitterly opposed to Netanyahu’s bid to subjugate the judiciary to the political majority. A lot of Israelis, indeed a likely large majority, find it unconscionable that one dangerous racist is our police minister and another is our minister of finance. A lot of Israelis, probably most, hold Netanyahu primarily responsible, along with his security chiefs, for the unfathomable failure to recognize the obvious signs of imminent attack and prevent the Hamas invasion.

But amid all the controversy over Chuck Schumer’s attempted intervention in the Israeli democratic process, it could be that, in a gradual shift exacerbated by the horrors of October 7, the Israel he would like to see reasserting itself — at the ballot box and in its core policies, an Israel committed to its foundational values as a majority Jewish and dependably democratic state, an Israel stretching out its hand to its neighbors in peace — no longer exists.

And if it does, this writer believes, it would take a fresh, articulate, energized and diverse new political leadership — moved to action by the October 7 catastrophe, genuinely determined to act in the national interest, insistent on breaking away from the cynicism, infighting, divisiveness and incompetence of the current crop — to inspire and galvanize it.

Retaining US support to tackle Hamas in Rafah

The IDF’s capacity to complete the dismantling of Hamas in Gaza is not going to stand or fall on arms supplies from Canada.

Nonetheless, there is concern in Israel over a potential domino effect following Ottawa’s declaration Tuesday that it will stop arms exports to Israel.

The key issue is whether the United States is inclining toward restrictions on weapons supplies to Israel, without which the IDF would emphatically have to rethink its prosecution of the war.

President Joe Biden has stated explicitly that the US will ensure Israel has the means to defend itself against its enemies, but that’s not quite the same as pledging the ongoing supply of everything the IDF may need in its offensive.

Israel has long proudly asserted its capacity to defend itself, by itself, but the scale and nature of this war with Hamas has highlighted its fundamental, practical dependence on US arms supplies in order to do so. And as the IDF grapples with the complexities of tackling the four last Hamas battalions in Rafah out of the original 24 across the Strip, that dependence means Israel cannot simply ignore the strident US concerns about the looming operation in southern Gaza.

A Palestinian man transports sacks of humanitarian aid at the distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (Photo by AFP)

With Netanyahu dispatching two of his most trusted loyalists, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi, to Washington next week to discuss the Rafah operation at Biden’s request, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant about to make his first DC visit since October 7, the IDF is already intimating that a Rafah ground offensive need not be the kind of high-intensity assault it carried out in northern Gaza.

Netanyahu has stressed repeatedly that the IDF must and will dismantle Hamas in Rafah; not to do so, he has said, would be akin to ending World War II while leaving “a quarter of the Nazi army in place.”

But nearing six months into the war, the IDF has intelligence of a whole different order on Hamas’s remaining fighting forces, above and below ground — retrieved both from the interrogation of captive Hamas gunmen and from captured computer and other data. It also has those six months of experience in combat with Hamas, and a deeper grasp of how Hamas fights, of the successes in the war so far and the failures. And it knows it has to ensure minimal civilian casualties in an area where most of Gaza’s population is now concentrated.

People inspect destroyed vehicles following overnight Israeli bombardment at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on March 19, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

For the time being, the Rafah operation is on hold — awaiting both the coordination that the US is demanding and the results of the resumed negotiations on a hostage deal. But when it comes, the signs are that the IDF’s ground offensive in Rafah will be a phased campaign, area by specific area, utilizing the intel and experience the IDF has amassed.

That would seem to be the only way for the IDF to complete the dismantling of Hamas’s organized fighting forces, while retaining sufficient international support and, first and foremost, the practical backing of the United States.

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