What would be a good outcome for Israel?

As the "war" in Gaza continues and the death toll increases, efforts at bringing about a ceasefire have also stepped up.

Earlier this week talks mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt briefly gave cause for hope that some kind of arrangement, however temporary, may be within reach. However, with Israel determined to press on with its assault in Rafah and raising objections on "several central issues" no deal has been reached.

Israel's intransigence and outright rejection of a plan that involved a captives-for-prisoners exchange and the return of displaced Palestinians raises the question: what would be a good outcome for Israel?

I have read over a post I wrote on 8th October, a day after the Hamas attacks: We need calls for calm, not war. In that article I questioned the initial reactions of Benjamin Netanyahu, asking whether his apparent desire for war would prove counter-productive. I challenged the wisdom of responding "in ways that seek retribution or revenge and will only serve to worsen a terrible situation" and "deepen the crisis". I asked whether it was possible to defeat Hamas using military means and suggested using innocent Gazans as collateral would merely play into their hands. I also noted that "if [Netanyahu] embarks on this 'war' he risks alienating allies and losing the support of the international community".

All that has proved startlingly accurate, but of course I didn't need to be an expert in internal relations to understand the inevitable political outcome from a misguided strategy, or the tragic human cost. It should have been obvious to anyone how this would play out.

As I also said on 8th October, Israel has a right to defend itself although how it chooses to do that matters. For many of us, whose initial feelings after the Simchat Torah attacks were of horror and shock, it was entirely understandable that Israel would want to eliminate the threat of Hamas. It was also completely understandable that Israel wanted to ensure the release of hostages. 

The problem with the Israeli government's strategy is that it has achieved neither of these things and was never realistically likely to. Seven months on, 132 hostages remain in captivity. Israeli military action has, if anything, strengthened Hamas's hand and will continue to do so, while ever-growing humanitarian concerns lead to Israel becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage.  Benjamin Netanyahu may defiantly boast about Israel fighting alone, but such fighting talk is the product of a strategy that has failed and will continue to fail. 

The attack on Rafah will not achieve the supposed objective of eradicating Hamas. There are many reasons to object to this offensive, not least on humanitarian grounds. But the fundamental weakness in the plan is that it won't work. Hamas cannot be defeated by bombing them into oblivion. Even if it could be achieved and the entire Hamas leadership wiped out (quite a challenge as many of them are not actually in Gaza), it would come with a huge loss of civilian life that would inevitably lead to more taking up arms against Israel. For all the US's failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least it had the sense to attempt to win "hearts and minds" - something lost on Israel's government. You can't kill ideas.

Part of the problem for Israel is that its military goals have been entirely unrealistic. Hamas won't simply go away. They cannot be blown away by bombs, they cannot be wished away, and they cannot be ignored. A good outcome for Israel would be to weaken Hamas, but how can that be obtained?

In recent years this could have been achieved by strengthening the Palestinian Authority, stabilising Gaza, reducing the supply of arms to Hamas, investing in Gaza's infrastructure and recognising that reopening the peace process could help contain Hamas's threat. If diplomatic processes had been opened, perhaps with a two-state solution as the end goal, Hamas may not have been entirely in agreement but would have understood the need to engage to avoid other, perhaps more moderate, Palestinian voices displacing their influence. Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu's policies towards Palestine have consistently eroded not only Israel's security interests but have also undermined its internal stability and contributed directly to Hamas's growing strength (something I deal with here).

All of that could still feasibly happen, but it not immediately. In the meantime, Israel's priority should not be to "eradicate" Hamas but to bring them under control. The only realistic means of removing Hamas are political. Refusing to engage politically with them, as per Israel's current approach, only serves Hamas. Israel has to find a way of reducing Hamas's support - which has significantly increased since 7th October, most notably in the West Bank where it previously had little standing. However unpalatable it may seem, the best means of preventing Hamas ruling with force is to bring them to the negotiating table and establish some limits and conditions.

"Eliminating" Hamas through a prolonged bombardment of Rafah may appear to be a good outcome for Israel. It would certainly be one that would deliver hero status for Prime Minister Netanyahu. But not only is this ridiculously improbable, such an outcome would also present its own problems. The idea that Hamas can obliterated and permanently removed without any meaningful plan around what replaces them, and without Israel having to take responsibility for the enormous cost to civilian life, is a dangerous fantasy.

Little to no through has been given to the question of post-war Gaza and if military victory were to be achieved without any plan for the future relationship between Israel and Palestine/Palestinians huge questions would have to be asked, with serious implications for Israel. If Netanyahu were to win on his terms, and be therefore able to determine all outcomes, there would be no discussion on a political settlement let alone a peace settlement. Netanyahu would seek to return to the former status quo, only more so: expect a more extreme version of recent approaches to the Palestinian question rooted in resentment and suspicion. If Israel were to win a stunning and complete military victory by "fighting alone", against the backdrop of international criticism, it would no doubt ignore external pressures to renew the peace process and explore long-term solutions. In short, the long-term security of not only Israel but the wider region requires a rejection of the ruinous, self-defeating approach of the last couple of decades rather than continuation along the same path. Perversely, Israel would be weaker if it somehow managed to annihilate Hamas as the "victors" would be almost certain to embark on a political process with destabilising consequences, exacerbating rather than relieving tensions and making future armed resistance more likely. 

"More of the same" or "business as usual" isn't going to help anyone, not least Israel. 

The "elimination" strategy also fails to take into account Iran and its proxies, which could prove a catastrophic oversight. 

A good outcome should be one in which all hostages are freed and a ceasefire is agreed (temporary if necessary) that results in the cessation of all Hamas attacks on Israel. Clearly that would require Israel to reciprocate through the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, humanitarian aid being allowed into the area and probably the release of some prisoners. For the good of Israel its government must develop some flexibility. 

Unfortunately, a good outcome for Israel not the same as a good outcome for Netanyahu, who is dependent on ongoing war to preserve his status as Prime Minister. It is little wonder that he pursues objectives that prolong, rather than alleviate, conflict. No "good outcome" is therefore possible so long as the current Prime Minister remains in place. 

Israel's predicament is an unspeakable tragedy. Having been on the receiving end of a shocking terrorist attack, its government has acted in ways that serve only to worsen an already terrible situation, strengthen its enemies and turn worldwide sympathy into hostility. The Netanyahu government is uninterested in outcomes that would serve its people, instead pursuing the same failed policies in a bid for self-preservation. 

A good outcome for Israel is one that secures - or last least provides the basis for - a lasting peace. It is time for fundamental change in Israel - not only a change of leadership but a complete break from the discredited policy and failed strategies that have served to strengthen Hamas. Netanyahu and his allies are deluding themselves if they believe they can eliminate Hamas using the same thinking that established them as a dangerously powerful player in the first instance. In the longer term, the only "good outcomes" for Israel involve new political leadership, new political strategies and some creative thinking - as well as a willingness to carve out a new future for Palestine that recognises the only way to guarantee future security is to learn to live together.


Leon Duveen said…
Totally agree Andrew. I have thought for years the biggest danger to Israel isn't Hamas but Netanyahu & his failed policies
Andrew said…
Hamas are a current danger and a very real one, but only because they have been allowed to be. Hamas's strength is a tragic by-product of failed Israeli policy towards Palestine.