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Irremediable defeat: Israel’s other unwinnable war

April 2, 2024 at 12:29 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 20, 2023 in New York City [Kena Betancur/Getty Images]

Historically, wars tend to unite Israelis, but not any more. It’s not that Israelis do not agree with Benjamin Netanyahu’s war aims; they simply do not believe that the prime minister is the man who can win this supposedly existential fight.

Netanyahu’s war remains unwinnable simply because wars of liberation, often conducted using guerrilla warfare tactics, are far more complicated than traditional combat. Nearly six months after the Israeli attack on Gaza began, it has become clear that Palestinian resistance groups are durable and well-prepared for a much longer fight.

According to Netanyahu, his far-right ministers and an equally hard-line Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, more firepower is the answer. However, despite the unprecedented amount of explosives used by Israel in Gaza, killing and wounding over 100,000 Palestinians, an Israeli victory, however it is defined, remains elusive.

So, what do Israelis want? More precisely, what is their prime minister’s end-game — if he has one — in Gaza?

Major opinion polls since 7 October continue to produce similar results: the Israeli public prefers Benny Gantz, the leader of the National Unity Party, rather than Netanyahu and his Likud party. Gantz is a former army chief of staff.

A recent poll conducted by the Israeli newspaper Maariv also indicated that one of Netanyahu’s closest and most important coalition partners, Finance Minister and leader of the Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, is virtually irrelevant in terms of public support. If a General Election was to be held today, the far-right minister’s party would not even pass the electoral threshold.

Most Israelis are calling for a new election this year. If they got their wish and were voting today, the pro-Netanyahu coalition would only be able to muster 46 seats. Its rivals would get 64. And if the Israeli coalition currently controlling 72 seats out of 120 Knesset seats collapses, the right-wing dominance over Israeli politics will shatter, most likely for a long time.

In this scenario, all of Netanyahu’s political shenanigans, which served him well in the past, would fall short of allowing him to return to power, keeping in mind that he is already 74 years old.

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Israel is a greatly polarised society

Israelis have learned to blame an individual or a political party for all of their woes. This is partly why election outcomes can differ sharply between one election cycle to another. Between April 2019 and November 2022, Israel held five general elections, and now the people are demanding yet another one. The November 2022 election was meant to be decisive, as it ended years of uncertainty, and settled on the “most right-wing government in the history of Israel”, an oft-repeated description of Israel’s modern government coalitions.

To ensure that Israel does not dive back into indecision, Netanyahu’s government wanted to secure its gains long-term. Smotrich and the equally extreme far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir want to fashion a new Israeli society that is forever tilted towards their brand of racist, religious and ultranationalist Zionism. Netanyahu, on the other hand, simply wanted to hold on to power, partly because he has become too accustomed to the perks of his office, and also because he is desperate to avoid a prison sentence due to several corruption trials.

To achieve this, the right and far-right parties have worked diligently to change the rules of the game, by curtailing the power of the judiciary and ending the legislative oversight of the Supreme Court. They failed in some tasks, and succeeded in others, including an amendment to the country’s Basic Laws to curtail the power of Israel’s highest court and its right to overturn government policies.

Although Israelis protested en masse about this, it was clear that the initial energy of the protests, which started in January 2023, was petering out, and that a government with such a substantial majority – at least by Israeli standards — will not relent easily.

However, 7 October changed all calculations. The Palestinian Operation Al-Aqsa Flood is often examined in terms of its military and intelligence components, if not usefulness, but rarely in terms of its strategic outcomes. It placed Israel in a historic dilemma that even Netanyahu’s comfortable Knesset majority cannot — and most likely will not — resolve.

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Complicating matters, on 1 January, the Supreme Court officially annulled the decision by Netanyahu’s coalition to strike down the power of the judiciary. The news, albeit hugely significant, was overshadowed by many other crises plaguing the country, blamed mostly on Netanyahu and his coalition partners: the military and intelligence failure leading to 7 October; the grinding war; the shrinking economy; the risk of a regional conflict; the rift between Israel and Washington; growing global anti-Israel sentiment; and more.

The problems continue to pile up for Netanyahu

The master politician of former times, is now only hanging on by a thread by keeping the war going to defer his mounting crises for as long as possible. Yet, an indefinite war is not an option, either. The Israeli economy, according to recent data from the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, shrunk by over 20 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2023. It is likely to continue its free fall in the coming period.

Moreover, the army is struggling, fighting an unwinnable war without realistic goals. The only major source of new recruits lies with ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are not subjected to conscription and are spared the battlefield to study in yeshivas instead. Seventy per cent of all Israelis, including many in Netanyahu’s own party, want the Haredim to join the army. Last week, the Supreme Court ordered a suspension of state subsidies for these ultra-Orthodox communities.

If that happens, the crisis will deepen on multiple fronts. Netanyahu’s government is likely to collapse if the Haredim lose their privileges; if they keep them, the other government, the post-7 October war council, is likely to collapse as well.

An end to the Gaza war, even if branded as a “victory” by Netanyahu, will only further the polarisation and deepen Israel’s worst internal political struggle since its founding on the ruins of historic Palestine in the 1948 Nakba. A continuation of the war will add to the schisms, as it will only serve as a reminder of an irremediable defeat.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.