Swords of Iron

When the war in Gaza stops, the political war in Israel will begin

Israel is heading into a complicated period that will test this country in new ways. A ceasefire might end the high-intensity offensive in Gaza, but for some, the real battle is just beginning.

The raid by Israeli special forces on Tuesday morning of the Ibn Sina Hospital in Jenin legitimately made international headlines. In a video caught by the hospital security cameras, a group of Israeli commandos, disguised as Palestinians – some wearing headscarves, white medical coats, and nurses’ uniforms – are seen pacing the corridor with drawn assault rifles.

Within 10 minutes, the commandos were back outside after eliminating three top Hamas terrorists said to have been in the midst of planning an October 7-style attack somewhere in the West Bank.

But beyond the Hollywood-like drama of the operation, there is something more important to take away from it – what the IDF did that morning is a perfect illustration of the type of security reality Israel seeks to create in the Gaza Strip.

It shows how, 22 years after Operation Defensive Shield, which saw the IDF return to Palestinian cities during the Second Intifada, the Israeli military continues to retain operational freedom and enter and operate in the West Bank when it deems it to be necessary.

This is ultimately what Israel is looking to achieve in the Gaza Strip. Despite earlier declarations – according to which the IDF would destroy and eradicate Hamas – Israel understands today that this is not possible. Instead, it is focused on what seems like more modest goals of freeing the hostages, toppling the Hamas leadership, and creating a new security reality in southern Israel. What will make this possible is the ability to continue operating inside Gaza as needed.

A victory in the way that we tend to think is not possible in this conflict. While Hamas can be toppled and the hostages returned, there will still not be a decisive victory. In a battle against terrorist groups like Hamas, there rarely is a victory in the Western sense. There can be a story about a victory, but the true win is creating a new security reality and being able to operate inside Gaza as the IDF operates in Jenin and elsewhere in the West Bank.

THE BEGINNING of this new stage might be coming soon, based on reports coming out of Qatar, according to which a new hostage deal might be imminent and could lead to a reduction in Israeli forces in Gaza.

In that case, while the large-scale portion of the war will be over inside Gaza, it will only be starting in Israel, where a deal will represent not just the end of the high-intensity stage, but also the point that Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot will likely withdraw from the coalition and begin calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down.

Gantz and Eisenkot will be able to say that they stayed in the government to secure the release of the hostages and to see the war through until the end of the ground offensive. Now that Israel is focused on the post-war operations that will continue for years, they can pull out and go back to being the opposition to Netanyahu that they used to be.

This will be the beginning of a new battle that will erupt in Israel, one that will be about Netanyahu’s political survival and whether he can succeed in staying in office. The ceasefire – whether temporary or indefinite – will also be the point when the protests will explode in a way that Israel has not seen before. It will be of a new scale and scope, one that could lead to mass public disturbances like the rallies around the legislation of the Reasonableness Bill last year that saw entire cities blocked for days. Protest leaders promise that those protests will be nothing compared to what is coming.

People will vent their anger – at the government, at Netanyahu, at the years of neglect, and at the IDF. What Netanyahu does will determine what happens next, but the thought that protests, which he will immediately portray as being led by the Left, will be what gets him to step down is mistaken.

Netanyahu’s options will be limited, but he will have options. His instinct will be to depict the protesters as left-wing and try to steer the conversation away from the October 7 failures and instead move it to a question of Right vs Left and who does the public want to see rule this country. This might buy time, but that alone is unlikely to be enough to stop the protests.

To take the air out of the protests, he will need to show the public that he is paying a price. He has two ways to do that. The first will be by appointing a state commission of inquiry, something he has never done in all his years as Israel’s prime minister. He might try to create a government-appointed committee that he can better control and could then pretend to succumb to public pressure by giving the protesters a state-appointed commission, one that is stronger and more independent.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shakes hands with the opposition leader Yair Lapid. Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS

THIS IS what Ehud Olmert did in 2006 after the Second Lebanon War. Then, protesters took up positions outside the Prime Minister’s Office and demanded that Olmert resign and establish a state commission. He first set up a government committee to be led by a former head of the Mossad, but when the protests continued, he gave into the demand to have a state commission of inquiry, a move that ultimately took the air out of the protests.

Netanyahu could try to do the same, although this time it will be hard to see how a commission of inquiry will be enough to stop the protests. Today, the public anger is at a whole different level than it was in 2006. Therefore, Netanyahu might have to do more, like announcing new elections.

The way Netanyahu might do this is by giving people a few weeks to vent and then – after the commission stunt – announce that he has heard the people and has decided to move up elections to sometime in the summer, like in July or August. He will explain that, anyhow, it takes about six months to hold an election, and therefore the summer makes sense.

The strategy here will be twofold. On the one hand, initiating a new election will reduce the intensity of the public protests and it will give people a feeling that their actions have paid off. Once elections are called, why would they need to continue protesting?

The second reason is to create some distance between October 7 and the election. He wants people to move away from the disasters and failures – led by his policies – and focus on other issues once the summer comes along and they need to vote. What other issues? A Palestinian state is one example and his opposition, as well as normalization with the Saudis, which he will try to put back on track.

Israel is heading into a complicated period that will test this country in new ways. A ceasefire might end the high-intensity offensive in Gaza, but for some, the real battle is just beginning.

Published by Jerusalem Post