Opinion Articles

What’s the End Game for Gaza? Netanyahu Must Spell It Out

Since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Israel’s prime minister for the first time in 1996, he has built up a career as someone who has consistently been dragged into various diplomatic, political and peace initiatives by the different American administrations with which he has worked.

In the 1990s, for example, it was President Bill Clinton who pressured Netanyahu to endorse the Oslo Accords and to not only follow, but also to bolster the process that had been set into motion by his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by a Jewish right-wing extremist a year earlier.

Clinton pressured Netanyahu to withdraw Israeli military forces from the West Bank city of Hebron and then to sign the Wye River agreement in 1998. Under that deal, Israel agreed to give Palestinians control over additional parts of the West Bank, and in exchange, the Palestinians were supposed to take steps to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel.

In 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office after a 10-year hiatus, he was again pressured into agreeing to an American president’s vision for peace. This time it was President Barack Obama who twisted Netanyahu’s arm to agree to a freeze on West Bank settlement construction, to release Palestinian prisoners and to hold talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

And then there was President Donald Trump who wanted Netanyahu’s support for his “Peace to Prosperity” plan that might have set tough conditions for the Palestinians, but still endorsed the idea of an independent Palestinian state. When Netanyahu wanted to annex parts of the West Bank though, the Trump administration put its foot down and instead helped broker the historic normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.

This is a pattern that largely characterizes Netanyahu’s long tenure as Israel’s prime minister and is playing out again now, as the IDF continues to fight Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Despite pressure from the international community, and particularly the United States, to present a plan for what will happen once the war is over, Netanyahu refuses to do so. Instead of articulating what Israel wants to see happen, all Netanyahu is willing to say is that he will prevent another Oslo process and will not allow the Palestinian Authority—the entity that Israel has negotiated with for more than 30 years—to take over the Gaza Strip after Hamas.

Part of Netanyahu’s inability to offer a definitive plan is the current makeup of his coalition. While he knows that there are no real options for the future of Gaza that do not include the Palestinian Authority, any mention of cooperating with the PA could result in the collapse of his fragile government. This is because of the partnership he forged with two parties that are unequivocally opposed to any possibility of Palestinian sovereignty over the Gaza Strip.

The Americans are not exactly helping the situation though. Instead of outlining realistic goals, Biden administration officials continue to talk about the need to take steps “toward the realization of a future Palestinian state.”

Pushing the two-state solution now is viewed in Israel as ignoring the horrific Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 Israelis. How can the Americans sincerely expect Israel to withdraw from territory in the West Bank—a non-negotiable condition for the Palestinians under any peace deal—in the years to come? No one in Israel in their right mind would support such a move.

Israel though only has itself to blame. In the absence of a plan, Israel seems—to many around the world—to be killing Gazans out of a desire to avenge the Oct. 7 attacks and to be destroying infrastructure in Gaza simply for the sake of destruction. Without a public plan, it seems that all of these attacks are being done without serious thought, or even an end result in mind.

The problem is that this has a direct impact on international support, which has waned. It also undermines Israel’s legitimate response to the Oct. 7 attacks, as well as the continuation of a war which could not be more just.

The failure to articulate a plan also makes it seem like Israel is planning to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and restore Israeli communities and military posts like it had there before it withdrew in the summer of 2005. When there is a vacuum, it makes it seem like Israel is hiding its true intentions.

There is a simple way for Israel to deal with this, but it would require Netanyahu to break from his policy of avoiding decisions and to instead outline a vision for what the government wants to see happen. He can start by explaining why the Israeli offensive will help create a new security reality, what that reality will look like and how, at the same time, it will be beneficial for the people of Gaza since it will free them of Hamas’s violent and oppressive rule.

When things are quiet in Israel, this policy of not deciding might be tolerable, but when the country is at war the need for the government to articulate what it wants, where it’s going, and how it sees the day after is critical. So far in Israel we have none of that.

Published on NewsWeek