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POLITICS

After Bibi: How the Gaza war transformed Israel's political landscape

After the Hamas attack, internal political conflicts in Israel temporarily faded into the background. Yet, with the IDF making significant strides in Gaza, discussions about the post-war future are now gaining traction. The war has reshaped Israelis' perspectives on governing Gaza and determining the leadership of Israel itself. Notably, Netanyahu's departure immediately after the Gaza operation can be considered a settled matter. Interestingly, the commitment to strengthen relations with Arab neighbors remains steadfast for the time being.

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Content
  • Governing Gaza

  • Is Netanyahu a Chamberlain rather than a Roosevelt?

  • Military democracy, Israeli-style

  • Relations with neighbors

Governing Gaza

The central focus of the ongoing discussion in Israeli society revolves around determining who will be in charge of Gaza “the day after”—that is, after quelling the radical Islamist regime and dismantling its military infrastructure. Unlike earlier stages of the conflict, there is hardly any talk about considering anything less than this comprehensive approach.

According to recent public opinion polls among Israelis, during the initial weeks of the war, society found itself divided into comparable groups, each aligning with one of three primary perspectives. Just over a third of respondents believed that Israel, after clearing out terrorists in the Gaza sector, should maintain a presence until both the immediate threats and the underlying roots of this terror infrastructure are completely eliminated. Presently, this position is supported by over half of the Israeli population.

A portion of this subgroup went even further, suggesting a permanent presence in the sector, restoring Jewish settlements that were destroyed during Ariel Sharon's “unilateral disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria” in 2005. This includes reinstating not all settlements but at least those located in the northern Gaza sector—Ale Sinai, Dugit, and Nisanit. Essentially, these were distant suburbs of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, serving as outposts defending Israel's sovereign territory. Previously, few held this radical opinion, but according to the latest survey published on November 18 by the Israeli TV's Channel 12, now 32% of respondents share this view.

At the start of the war, about a third of respondents were willing, after clearing Gaza of terrorists, to hand over the “keys” to the Palestinian administration in Ramallah, as demanded by Americans—to reunite the two Palestinian enclaves: on the West Bank and in the Gaza sector. This would thereby bring back the idea of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the “two states for two peoples” model. As American proposals take on more distinct outlines, the popularity of this scheme decreases, and today only 10% of respondents support it.

Finally, another third believed (and as many respondents still believe today) that after completing the operation, Israel should definitively part ways with Gaza, handing it over to external administration with the involvement of various international peacekeeping forces. Possibly, with the retention of some security control by the IDF (as insisted upon by 14% of Israeli poll respondents).

The territory of the West Bank is divided into three zones: Zone A (17.2% of the territory) is under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Zone B (23.8% of the territory) is under civilian control of the PNA (civil authority of the PNA and PNA responsibility for public order) but under the military (security) control of Israel. Zone C (59% of the territory) is under the full control of Israel. Zone A includes the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Jericho, Qalqilya, Nablus, Ramallah, Salfit, Tubas, Tulkarm, 80% of the territory of Hebron, and others.

A third of the population believes that Israel should definitively part ways with Gaza

It is believed that a critical condition for such a scenario is the UN's adoption of a clear and unambiguous declaration that Israel is no longer an occupying party in Gaza in any form. It is no longer obligated to provide water, energy, fuel, medical care, or employment opportunities in Israel for the residents of Gaza.

Each of these schemes, the feasibility of which is unclear, has its merits and drawbacks and serves as a factor of political divergence among supporters of different parties with their defense and foreign policy doctrines.

Essentially, this reflects the understandings and disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington on the domestic political field. A somewhat established opinion, even among those willing to refrain from permanently returning to Gaza and accepting some form of Palestinian Authority management in the sector, is the demand for a status similar to the Area A in Judea and Samaria. This implies that the territory will be under the complete military and administrative control of Ramallah. Meanwhile, the IDF and Israeli intelligence services will still retain freedom of action in case the Palestinian Authority's security forces and the UN fail to cope or even collaborate with Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Is Netanyahu a Chamberlain rather than a Roosevelt?

The second political watershed today concerns the scrutiny of specific political and military figures' accountability for the October 7 catastrophe, with a particular focus on the role of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. A survey, conducted within a week of the war's commencement and published on October 13, revealed that three-quarters of Israelis squarely pinned the blame on the government, with an additional 9% assigning at least “partial” responsibility to its leader and members.

Consequently, more than half of the respondents (56%, including 28% from coalition party supporters) expressed the view that Netanyahu should step down immediately after the war. (It's worth noting that the resignation of the prime minister entails the automatic dissolution of the government, typically paving the way for new early elections in the Knesset.)

The territory of the West Bank is divided into three zones: Zone A (17.2% of the territory) is under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Zone B (23.8% of the territory) is under civilian control of the PNA (civil authority of the PNA and PNA responsibility for public order) but under the military (security) control of Israel. Zone C (59% of the territory) is under the full control of Israel. Zone A includes the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Jericho, Qalqilya, Nablus, Ramallah, Salfit, Tubas, Tulkarm, 80% of the territory of Hebron, and others.

More than half of the respondents expressed the view that Netanyahu should step down immediately after the war

Similar sentiments persisted, with the number of those believing that “Bibi should take responsibility for what happened and resign, without waiting for the end of hostilities” steadily increasing. Netanyahu himself, unlike many other members of the military and political leadership of the country, does not seem ready to take such a step and is attempting to shift responsibility onto the military, police, and intelligence services. He even implicates activists protesting against the legal reform, which its opponents consider an attempt at an anti-democratic political upheaval akin to Orbán's in Hungary or even Erdogan's in Turkey.

In an interview with CNN, Netanyahu compared himself to U.S. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and George Bush, stating that neither of them was held accountable for the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 or the tragedy of September 11, 2001, respectively. He promised to “address all the tough questions after the war.”

It's worth noting that while many traditional Likud voters were willing to buy into such a version, the majority of Israelis, in general, were not convinced by such allusions. Some commentators pointed out that there were no questions directed at Bush after the September 11, 2001, attack because he took office shortly before, whereas there were questions directed at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has been leading the Israeli government since 2009, with a short break from June 2021 to December 2022.

The comparison with Roosevelt also appears less fitting, as Roosevelt implemented the “New Deal”—a set of measures through which the president's administration pulled America out of the economic crisis of the 1930s. Meanwhile, the current coalition came to power in November 2022, primarily under commitments to significantly reduce the cost of living and improve internal security, areas where Netanyahu's fifth government fell short.

More importantly, unlike Roosevelt, who clearly identified Japan as an enemy with whom peaceful coexistence was unlikely, Netanyahu has adhered to the concept of “crisis management without managing Gaza” with regard to the regime of radical Islamists in the Gaza sector. The government applied a policy of “red lines” and “containment through targeted military operations,” counting on the transformation of terrorists from the “Islamic Resistance Movement” into the “elected government of Gaza”, not interested in “large-scale escalation.”

As a result, the more apt comparison seems not to be with Bush or Roosevelt, but with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a proponent of “appeasing” Hitler's Germany and one of the architects of the 1938 Munich Agreement, aimed at “securing peace for a generation” but becoming one of the triggers for World War II. Chamberlain was succeeded as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill in 1940, and in Israeli society, candidates for his “local incarnation” are already being discussed.

Currently, it seems that one of the leading candidates is Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the “Our House Israel” party (Yisrael Beiteinu), who back in 2016, while serving as the Minister of Defense, presented an analysis of the situation in Gaza at a meeting of the military-political cabinet. His analysis precisely outlined what happened on October 7, minute by minute. Liberman demanded an immediate destruction of the leadership of Hamas and its military infrastructure before the group gained enough strength for a large-scale invasion of Israeli territory.

The territory of the West Bank is divided into three zones: Zone A (17.2% of the territory) is under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Zone B (23.8% of the territory) is under civilian control of the PNA (civil authority of the PNA and PNA responsibility for public order) but under the military (security) control of Israel. Zone C (59% of the territory) is under the full control of Israel. Zone A includes the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Jericho, Qalqilya, Nablus, Ramallah, Salfit, Tubas, Tulkarm, 80% of the territory of Hebron, and others.

Avigdor Liberman could potentially be Israel's Churchill, as he accurately predicted the attack on October 7 seven years ago

Two years later, after Hamas, following Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which left Gaza in ruins, had to rebuild housing, healthcare, education, and negotiate with Israel through intermediaries about services, supplies, and the transfer of Qatari money, Liberman once again tried to convince his colleagues that this was nothing more than a smokescreen.

Even then, he argued that Islamists were investing the maximum resources they received in building a deeply layered defense, preparing special forces, rearming, and creating their own military-industrial complex. Therefore, while they were weaker than they will be in a few years, urgent action needed to be taken. Failing to garner support from the prime minister and other members of the military-political cabinet, Liberman resigned.

As of now, Avigdor Liberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu, seems to be gaining popularity according to polls, but as the elections approach, other candidates are likely to emerge.

Military democracy, Israeli-style

The third widely discussed question in Israel is when the elections should take place and what their results will be depending on the timing. According to polls, Israelis have notably shifted towards the right during the war, with 36% of respondents moving right, according to Channel 12 survey data, and only 6% becoming more left-leaning (while 53% stated that their views had not changed).

At the same time, the rating of the current right-religious coalition is constantly decreasing, and the ruling Likud party is in a particularly difficult position, which, if elections were held now, would lose up to half of its mandates. On the contrary, the combined rating of opposition parties is consistently rising.

It is evident that the familiar definition of Zionist opposition parties as a “center-left bloc” does not seem accurate today or in the past. There are “right-wing” elements, such as the mentioned Yisrael Beiteinu party and the right flank of the Blue and White bloc led by Benny Gantz, centrists (most of the Blue and White bloc), the center-left party Yesh Atid led by opposition leader Yair Lapid, and the classic “left” Labor Party (Avoda). While polls give Yisrael Beiteinu a noticeable increase and the Blue and White bloc an almost “explosive” growth in potential parliamentary mandates, Yesh Atid may lose up to a third of its voters, and Avoda may not overcome the electoral threshold at all.

In essence, Israeli politicians' attitude towards the timing of early elections is determined by this scenario. It's evident that the Knesset elected in November of the previous year has very slim chances of completing the law-mandated 4-year term. Only 19% of Israelis, according to the survey, believe that the “existing government should continue its work.” Three times more, 58%, support the idea of new elections immediately after the active phase of military operations.

This seems to be in line with the interests of right and centrist opposition factions, with minimal impact on the two parties of religious ultra-Orthodox Jews in the coalition (which will be able to maintain their “home” electorate in any scenario), and poses a significant disadvantage to the two largest parties in the current Knesset—the ruling Likud and the primary opposition party Yesh Atid.

The territory of the West Bank is divided into three zones: Zone A (17.2% of the territory) is under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Zone B (23.8% of the territory) is under civilian control of the PNA (civil authority of the PNA and PNA responsibility for public order) but under the military (security) control of Israel. Zone C (59% of the territory) is under the full control of Israel. Zone A includes the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Jericho, Qalqilya, Nablus, Ramallah, Salfit, Tubas, Tulkarm, 80% of the territory of Hebron, and others.

It's evident that the Knesset elected in November of the previous year has very slim chances of completing the law-mandated 4-year term

The last two parties would likely find more suitable the arrangement supported by only 13% of respondents—reforming the government during the current Knesset term, without early elections. This model envisions a government comprising all Jewish parties except for the “far-right radicals” and “ultra-left,” with a leading role played by both Likud and Yesh Atid. Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, insists on this scenario, of course, if the leader of Likud is anyone but Benjamin Netanyahu. According to available information, within Likud, there are several politicians discussing the idea of a leadership change, but it's uncertain whether they have the majority.

Relations with neighbors

The eagerly awaited “breakthrough” in the normalization talks initiated by Israel in the middle of last year with Saudi Arabia, expected to be followed by all other countries in the Saudi bloc that have yet to establish formal diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, was meant to bring a conclusion to the more than 100-year Arab-Israeli conflict.

Moreover, it was expected that, unlike the “cold peace” between Israel and Egypt or Jordan (with their regimes, not their populations), the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh would resemble the normalization seen with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This implies the inclusion of a “warm peace” between the citizens of the two countries—mass tourism and joint projects, including in strategic matters. And if Muslim giants like Indonesia and Pakistan followed suit, the conflict with the Islamic world as a whole could gradually come to an end.

At first glance, this perspective seemed unclear in light of the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip. According to the same logic, the new Middle East war questions the formation of the defensive alliance between Israel, the United States, and the countries of the Saudi bloc—a prospect viewed by Russia, Iran, and China as a fundamental challenge to their interests in the eastern segment of the “Greater Middle East.”

However, it seems that if Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing were indeed counting on geopolitical and diplomatic dividends from the new conflict, these expectations have not been met so far. This became evident during the “shuttle diplomacy” of U.S. Secretary of State Blinken, who visited Jerusalem and Arab capitals multiple times since the start of the war. In recent days, direct statements have taken the place of mere hints.

The territory of the West Bank is divided into three zones: Zone A (17.2% of the territory) is under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Zone B (23.8% of the territory) is under civilian control of the PNA (civil authority of the PNA and PNA responsibility for public order) but under the military (security) control of Israel. Zone C (59% of the territory) is under the full control of Israel. Zone A includes the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Jericho, Qalqilya, Nablus, Ramallah, Salfit, Tubas, Tulkarm, 80% of the territory of Hebron, and others.

If Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing were indeed counting on geopolitical and diplomatic dividends from the new conflict, these expectations have not been met so far

Thus, the Minister of Investments of Saudi Arabia has affirmed that the normalization of relations between the kingdom and Israel, initiated with the Abraham Accords, remains on the agenda. It is noteworthy that during international and Arab summits, delegations from the Saudi bloc discuss the topic of “immediate de-escalation” in the Gaza Strip merely as a “figure of speech,” concurrently undermining the stringent anti-Israel demands put forth by delegations from the pro-Iranian bloc.

It is clear that such behavior from the Saudis and their allies does not imply that they have become ardent Zionists or philo-Semites, although they likely harbor no personal animosity towards Jews. These leaders seem to understand that Israel, both on its own and as the closest ally of the U.S. in the region, remains a critical factor for their survival. Moreover, the economic partnership with Israel, as a start-up nation, is a vital element in the post-industrial transformation of their economies. It is also apparent that achieving these goals will be much more challenging without eliminating the terrorist satellites of Iran. (Not to mention that the defeat of Hamas will largely demonstrate who is in charge in the regional house, a significant argument for Arabs.)

Hence, the Israeli domestic agenda is likely to persist in prioritizing the subjects that played a central role in the four successive electoral campaigns spanning 2019 to 2021—namely, social and economic policies, civil matters, and internal security. This alignment brings the Israeli domestic discourse into harmony with the political agendas of its counterparts within the realm of Western liberal-democratic states.

The territory of the West Bank is divided into three zones: Zone A (17.2% of the territory) is under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Zone B (23.8% of the territory) is under civilian control of the PNA (civil authority of the PNA and PNA responsibility for public order) but under the military (security) control of Israel. Zone C (59% of the territory) is under the full control of Israel. Zone A includes the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Jericho, Qalqilya, Nablus, Ramallah, Salfit, Tubas, Tulkarm, 80% of the territory of Hebron, and others.

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