Israel: Cease-Fire, Get Hostages, Leave Gaza, Rethink Everything

Israel today is at a strategic point in its war in Gaza, and there is every indication that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to choose the wrong path — and take the Biden administration along for a very dangerous and troubling ride. It is so dangerous and troubling that Israel’s best option, when all is said and done, might be to leave a rump Hamas leadership in power in Gaza. Yes, you read that right.

To understand why, let’s look back a bit. I argued in October that Israel was making a terrible mistake by rushing headlong into invading Gaza, the way America did in Afghanistan after 9/11. I thought Israel should have focused first on getting back its hostages, delegitimizing Hamas for its murderous and rapacious Oct. 7 rampage, and going after Hamas’s leadership in a targeted way — more Munich, less Dresden. That is, a military response akin to how Israel tracked down the killers of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and not how the U.S. turned Dresden into a pile of rubble in World War II.

But I understood that many Israelis felt they had a moral and strategic right and necessity to go into Gaza and remove Hamas “once and for all.” In which case, I argued, Israel would need three things — time, legitimacy, and military and other resources from the U.S. The reason: The ambitious goal of wiping out Hamas could not be completed quickly (if at all); the military operation would end up killing innocent civilians, given how Hamas had tunneled under them; and it would leave a security and government vacuum in Gaza that would have to be filled by the non-Hamas Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which would have to be upgraded and transformed to take on that task.

In short, Israel would need to fight this war with the least collateral damage for Palestinian civilians and accompany it with a political horizon for a new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, built around two nation-states for two indigenous peoples. Doing so would give Israel a chance to say to the world that this was not a war of vengeance or occupation, but a war to eliminate the Palestinian entity that was out to destroy any two-state solution — Hamas — and create the political space for a deal with the Palestinian Authority, which is still committed to a two-state deal. That approach would have won the support, funding and, I think, even peacekeeping troops of moderate Arab states like the U.A.E.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu and his military did not pursue that course. They opted for the worst strategic combination: Militarily they opted for the Dresden approach, which, though it may have ended up killing some 13,000 Hamas fighters, also killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, leaving hundreds of thousands of others injured, displaced or homeless — and delegitimizing, for many around the world, what Israel thought was a just war.

And diplomatically, instead of accompanying this war strategy with an initiative that would buy Israel at least some time, legitimacy and resources to dismantle Hamas, Netanyahu refused to offer any political horizon or exit strategy and expressly ruled out any collaboration with the Palestinian Authority under orders from the Jewish supremacists in his governing coalition.

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