A sea of signs demanding the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza at the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JCRC Bay Area)
A sea of signs demanding the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza at the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JCRC Bay Area)

Israel must give up on unrealistic ‘total victory’ over Hamas and war without end

The Israel-Hamas war looks to be a war without end, or at least a war that is winding its uncertain way into a future without end.

Hamas says it will not relent until Israel is wiped out. Israel says it will not relent until Hamas is wiped out. External observers like the U.S., the EU and acquiescent Arab states signal they will not participate in negotiations that lead to their postwar involvement in administering Gaza until a future Palestinian state is visible on the horizon.

Any Palestinian state acceptable to Israel would probably not be acceptable to the Palestinians — and vice-versa. All of this is a recipe for another endless war.

Instead, somebody needs to go first, followed closely by a second party. The third parties can bring up the rear. Israel is the logical first party. Israel needs to make an armistice proposal that is concrete, unambiguous, definitive and verifiable. Of course, it should be acceptable to its own population and also trusted by disinterested observers. But it need not necessarily be acceptable to Hamas or its supporters. That would be nice, but that is not the main point. The main point is to plant a footprint that others can orient themselves around.

The two main elements of the armistice proposal should be: return the hostages and destroy all the tunnels. A third element should also be clearly visible in the background: a firm Israeli offer for negotiations leading to something like a Palestinian state or an “autonomy” crafted along the lines of the 1979 Camp David agreement.

The diplomatic logic of this is as tight as the political logic is porous. In Israel, the political logic that counts is solely that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who states his permanent-war objective very clearly with his open-ended war aim of “total victory” over Hamas. His interests — staying out of prison and staying in power for as long as possible — depend on paying off his extremist coalition partners and their constituencies.

This payoff is aided by keeping the war going at a simmer — say, some five deaths of Israeli soldiers per month on average — for as long as possible. This low-heat war permits the coalition members to justify their hold on power for as long as possible, even, they might hope, past the next election.

Cynical it surely is, but it is also a plausible strategy for persuading Gazans to abandon Gaza permanently (if possible), intensifying Israel’s grip on the West Bank, keeping Hamas around as a foil against the Palestinian Authority, slowly degrading Hamas’ offensive and defensive capabilities, and fueling the long-term attacks on the Supreme Court and other liberal institutions.

For Netanyahu and his coalition it is a plausible strategy. But it does have its social costs. Majority public opinion will oppose it, as will the Israel security establishment and liberal public opinion outside of Israel. The needless sacrifice of Israeli soldiers’ lives will ignite resentments, especially among the victims’ families, who will not be shy about protesting. The Netanyahu strategy would be divisive within Israel; and Israel’s evident indifference to the deaths and massive hardships for Gazans would threaten Israel’s legitimacy and moral standing outside of Israel.

Alas, it is doubtful that Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners would care much about any of these costs. Consistent with their seeming agenda and their seeming fondness for divisiveness and Jewish supremacism, these would probably be counted as benefits rather than costs. Unfortunately, Hamas perversely shares this right-wing Jewish supremacist vision. The permanent war scenario buttresses their credibility with the Palestinian bitter-enders, who blame Israel for all the wounds that Palestinians have inflicted on themselves. Even if Israel would propose an armistice based on hostage return and tunnel destruction, the chances that Hamas would agree are low.

To the more peace-minded Palestinians, however, whose numbers are not really known, this sort of armistice might sound like a reasonable deal. And within Gaza it might even lead to some efforts to throw off the Hamas yoke. In any case, though, even if Israel’s attempt at a diplomatic first step fails, it could at least establish a first footprint.

Hamas clearly began the war; thus, to cast Israel as first mover is certainly not fair. But fair or not, the situation must be accepted. Netanyahu’s obduracy, however, need not be. Israel needs yet another election, and soon. Tomorrow is not soon enough.

Eugene Bardach
Eugene Bardach

Eugene Bardach is professor emeritus of public policy at UC Berkeley.