Netanyahu’s end game in Gaza is his own political survival

The Cradle, November 28, 2023 —

Cognizant that a Hamas defeat is unlikely, Israel’s prime minister is set on prolonging the Gaza war, primarily to buy time, safeguard his political legacy, and avoid jail time.

Regardless of how Israel’s brutal war on the Gaza Strip ends, one undeniable outcome seems to be emerging – the potential demise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career.

Beyond the immediate repercussions of the Hamas-led Al-Aqsa Flood Operation, Netanyahu’s troubles have deep roots, entwined with his relentless efforts to avoid corruption charges and possible imprisonment. This led him to form the most extreme, far-right government in Israel’s history, indirectly setting the stage for the historic operation launched by the Palestinian resistance on 7 October.

Bibi’s political life is on the line 

The occupation state’s military and security establishment, while thought to have been caught off guard by the scale of events on 7 October, had sensed the impending volatility in besieged Gaza, the occupied West Bank, and even the territories occupied in 1948.

The actions of extremist ministers like Finance Minister Bezalel Somotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, whom Netanyahu shielded to maintain the unity of his fragile coalition government, have inarguably contributed to the brewing crisis.

Amidst the carnage and devastation of the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza, Tel Aviv’s internal political crisis is seeping into the mini-war cabinet assembled to direct the war. The divergence between Netanyahu and military officials, coupled with his initial refusal to pursue a humanitarian truce and prisoner release initiatives, hints at a crisis rooted in the premier himself.

The prime minister’s desperation to cling to his political immunity and avoid imprisonment has him eager to prolong the war on Gaza. He believes it will give him time to strike an exit settlement—likely under US sponsorship—to avert a fate similar to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s post-Lebanon aggression in 2006. This, despite the thousands of Israeli troop deaths and injuries the conflict has borne.

Netanyahu, fully cognizant that eliminating Hamas is an impossible goal, is nonetheless publicly employing this war objective as cover for other strategically beneficial outcomes he is chasing: control over Gaza’s gas, Palestinian displacement projects to Sinai and Jordan, pushing for direct US-Iran confrontations, and the shedding of his extremist allies.

Likud’s internal struggle

Banking on Washington’s support amidst President Joe Biden’s preoccupation with the 2024 presidential elections, European sympathy intertwined with Israeli gas needs, and Arab expressions of concern without substantive action, Netanyahu is engaged in a high-stakes gamble.

The potential reoccupation of the Gaza coast, with its gas wealth and strategic location – increasingly perceived by some observers to be Israel’s end game in the war – stands as an additional prize for Netanyahu, whose political standing is increasingly fragile.

Beyond the immediate gains, a resurrection of an old Israeli project – the Ben Gurion Canal from northern Gaza to Eilat – could reshape regional geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics by bypassing Egypt’s Suez Canal.

However, Netanyahu’s paramount concern isn’t just the war’s outcome or a decline in international support. It is the impending split within his party. The Likud Party recognizes Netanyahu as the source of years-long political crises, marked by five unproductive elections since 2019 and deepening political divisions in Israel.

The prime minister’s legacy now hangs precariously in the balance as the occupation state contends with the multifaceted political, economic, and security repercussions of its Gaza war.

If anything, Israel’s disproportionate military response against an overwhelmingly civilian population – more than 20,000 Palestinians killed in six weeks – has worsened the occupation state’s security conditions by drawing in the involvement of the region’s Axis of Resistance, prominently from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but more audaciously from Yemen’s Ansarallah-led forces.

The growing sentiment within the Likud party is that its viability in power is increasingly contingent on ousting its leader. This conviction gained traction with the recent proposition from opposition leader and Yesh Atid party head, Yair Lapid. Essentially, Lapid offered to participate in a Likud government because Netanyahu did not lead it.

Conversely, Netanyahu’s far-right allies recognize that the current government is their sole opportunity to maintain power and implement their extremist agendas. They use this leverage to coerce Netanyahu into retaining financial contributions to religious parties and institutions, legalizing Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, and concealing crimes against Palestinians—a factor contributing to Al-Aqsa Flood.

Netanyahu acknowledges that the visible involvement of the US in his war could complicate matters further. However, Biden is equally cautious about direct engagement, given the grave threats to and actions against US military bases in Iraq and Syria that are directly correlated to Israel’s escalations in both Gaza and on its Lebanese border.

Al-Aqsa Flood also succeeded in postponing the White House’s Israeli-Saudi normalization project and dampening existing ones – at least until a palatable Palestinian settlement is struck. Any US involvement in Israel’s war would significantly boost the interests of its Russian and Chinese adversaries throughout West Asia and beyond.

Waiting game in Washington 

With the upcoming presidential elections, the incumbent Democrats may struggle to withstand these threats to US regional interests. As public sentiment turns sharply against Israel’s Gaza brutalities, there is rising domestic dissatisfaction with Biden’s continuous requests for military and financial aid to Ukraine and Israel – as his latest appeal for $106 billion demonstrates.

Biden’s challenges are only exacerbated by his already strained relations with Netanyahu’s government. Before 7 October, those tensions existed because the Israeli prime minister and his extremist allies refused to even contemplate a two-state solution. Washington sees Netanyahu as a major obstacle to any political resolution in occupied Palestine.

If the Biden administration can lay the foundation for a two-state solution – elusive and improbable as it may be – it could exploit this politically and chalk down a “win.” Netanyahu, on his part, aims to prolong the Gaza aggression until Washington yields to his agenda or until there’s a change in the White House.

Despite some regional and western actors banking on the war’s outcome opening a pathway to restart talks on a permanent peace settlement, the Israeli army has yet to achieve any substantial victory against Hamas. Despite rising extremism post-Al-Aqsa Flood, voices in Israel still express adherence to the land-for-peace equation, notably articulated by opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Striking a balance between deadlock and opportunity, ongoing efforts aim to guide all parties toward a settlement. However, time is becoming a critical factor for the White House.

The occupation state’s myriad challenges, from confronting threats from West Asia’s resistance axis, and countering Chinese and Russian influence, to overcoming the political liabilities of the Netanyahu government, weigh heavily. Significantly, the potential fallout from a Netanyahu failure looms large, and no geopolitical projects will be able obscure its consequences.

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