Contradictory war goals will prevent Israel from achieving ‘victory’ in Gaza

Red lines slowly being drawn by US on Israel’s actions in Gaza

It may be easier for Israel to declare ‘success’ by denying Hamas what it wants than by achieving its own stated goals.

Three months have passed since Hamas’s terror attack on Israel which initiated the war in Gaza, and it is still difficult to foresee the end of this conflict.

Israel’s defence minister and IDF leaders have made it clear that the military efforts to attain Israel’s stated goals – dismantling Hamas’s military and civilian capabilities in Gaza and the release of all hostages – will continue throughout 2024.

The IDF campaign is expected to change only in its tactics, moving from massive presence inside Gaza and close-range combat, into more “stand-off” warfare and intelligence-based incursions by special forces.

This operational change will probably set the ground for a long war of attrition in which both sides, among them Palestinian civilians, will continue to suffer casualties.

From an Israeli perspective, the term “victory” seems to many analysts impossible to achieve because the two goals dictated to the IDF by the government fundamentally contradict each other: Hamas leaders are using the remaining 130-plus hostages as the ultimate human shield and considers them as an “insurance policy” against Israeli assassination.

Any attempt to hit Hamas leadership will most probably lead to the death of those hostages. On the other hand, a commando “Entebbe style” raid to release the remaining hostages appears unlikely, as a few of those attempts have already been attempted and failed, due to extremely challenging intelligence and operational conditions in Gaza.

Will Netanyahu decide to go after Hamas leaders even if it means giving up releasing the hostages?

There will come a point when the Israeli government will have to prioritise the two contradictory goals it has set at the beginning of the war, and what price it is willing to achieve its primary goal.

Will Netanyahu’s government decide to go after Hamas leadership in Gaza even if that means giving up on the hope of releasing the remaining hostages? Or will he be willing to accept a deal in which Hamas will hand over the hostages it holds, in return for the release of many (if not all) Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails and the guarantee that Israel will not target Hamas leadership?

Some politicians and Analysts in Israel claim that if enough military pressure is placed on Hamas, the movement will be willing to surrender and to turn over the remaining hostages in return for a safe passage assurance, which will enable its leaders to leave Gaza unharmed. This scenario is possible, but it would require the IDF to put extremely high pressure on Hamas leaders’ hiding places – an objective yet to be achieved, and that would most likely risk the lives of the hostages.

Netanyahu’s government set very high public expectations about what “victory” over Hamas in Gaza would mean. Three months into the war, it appears the government is still committed to the same two conflicting war goals and is unwilling to prioritise between them, as any such decision will have dramatic political implications.

Prioritising the release of the hostages over the destruction of Hamas would most probably lead extreme right-wing parties to pull out of the coalition, while a decision ordering the IDF to take down Hamas regime in Gaza without considering the fate of the hostages would create a massive public backlash against the government.

In the meantime, while Netanyahu’s government is unable to take any decision regarding the prioritisation of the war goals, it openly set out on a complementary campaign against Hamas leaders. Both heads of Mossad and Shin Bet – Israeli external and internal security services – have vowed will hunt down Hamas leaders outside of Gaza, following the model Israel implemented against the Palestinian perpetrators of the massacre of the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The assassination of Salah Al-Aroury in Lebanon was the first manifestation of this campaign.

Prioritising the hostages over destroying Hamas will push right-wing parties to leave the coalition.

This campaign will probably last for years and will have a demoralising effect on Hamas leadership. Nevertheless, most counter-terrorism campaigns of this sort have proven to be limited in their effect. Terror leaders are replaceable (as evident by assassinations of past leaders of Hamas, Al-Quaeda and ISIS). In addition, it is highly doubtful that this campaign will have meaningful influence on the fighting in Gaza, which is led by the local Hamas commanders.

As it seems challenging to declare “victory” by trying to achieve the goals of the war as the government set at the outset, an alternative path for Israel to gain “victory”, could be by denying Hamas the achievements it wished to gain through the October 7 attack.

By now, most analysts agree those included two main elements. The first was to derail the peace negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That deal represented a strategic risk from Hamas’s perspective, as the recognition of Israel by the most important Arab and Muslim country would contradict the basic reason for Hamas right of existence. What is the meaning of a “resistance organisation” if there is a peaceful political solution and no enemy to resist?

Secondly, the Israeli-Saudi peace deal was meant to include massive economic support for the Palestinian Authority (PA), along with a renewed hope for political negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those developments are, of course, negative from Hamas’s point of view. The PA is its main political rival and any potential for political negotiations with Israel stands against Hamas’s agenda of promoting “armed struggle”.

the way to deny Hamas its goals is clear: open negotiations with the PA over a two-state solution as part of a renewed Israeli-Saudi deal.

If the above-mentioned logic of Hamas is accepted, the Israeli way to deny Hamas its achievements is clear: declare its willingness to open negotiations with the PA regarding a two-state solution as part of a renewed Israeli-Saudi peace deal that will incorporate a mechanism regarding the future of Gaza.

By now it is obvious the US administration is working to achieve exactly that but because of Netanyahu’s political dependence on the extreme right-wing parties in is coalition, Washington has been unable to get Israel to support such a plan.

The tragic situation in Gaza is far from being resolved. Israeli hostages and civilian Palestinians are caught in the crossfire between the IDF and Hamas, and a decisive Israeli military victory seems to be elusive at best – as is always the case in a fight against terror organisations embedded in civilian populations.

Israel needs to adopt a political paradigm over the military one to achieve its long-term objectives. Unfortunately, Netanyahu, whose personal and political future depend on his right-wing coalition, seems unable or unwilling to promote this kind of strategy.

Tragically, Netanyahu’s actions prove once more the famous saying that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic one. Under those circumstances, a prolonged war of attrition between IDF forces and Hamas terrorists is the only foreseeable future for the Gaza Strip.

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