Benjamin Netanyahu failed Israel

Military vehicles in formation.
Soldiers from an artillery unit stand ready near their position a few miles outside of Gaza, near Sderot, Israel, on October 9, 2023. | Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

We can now be sure: His policy of repressing Palestinians doesn’t make Israelis safe.

In the past 24 hours, two reports out of Israel have pointed to a striking conclusion: that the failure to prevent Hamas’s murderous assault on southern Israel rests in significant part with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

First, the Washington Post’s Noga Tarnopolsky and Shira Rubin wrote a lengthy dispatch on the many policy failures that allowed Hamas to break through. They find that, in addition to myriad unforgivable intelligence and military mistakes — especially shocking given Israel’s reputation in both fields — there were serious political problems. Distracted by both the fight to seize control over Israel’s judiciary and their effort to deepen Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu and his cabinet allowed military readiness to degrade and left outposts on the Gaza border in the south unmanned.

“There was a need for more soldiers, so where did they take them from? From the Gaza border, where they thought it was calm … not surprising that Hamas and Islamic Jihad noticed the low staffing at the border,” Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence, said in comments reported by the Post.

Second, a columnist at Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper unearthed evidence that Netanyahu has intentionally propped up Hamas rule in Gaza — seeing Palestinian extremism as a bulwark against a two-state solution to the conflict.

“Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas,” the prime minister reportedly said at a 2019 meeting of his Likud party. “This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

These exact comments have not yet been confirmed by other sources. But the Times of Israel’s Tal Schneider wrote on Sunday that Netanyahu’s reported words “are in line with the policy that he implemented,” which did little to challenge and in some ways bolstered Hamas’s control over the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Schneider notes, “the same messaging was repeated by right-wing commentators, who may have received briefings on the matter or talked to Likud higher-ups and understood the message.” Some Netanyahu confidants have said the same thing, as have outside experts.

Put together, these two pieces tell a larger story: that the strategic vision of Netanyahu’s far-right government is a failure.

The notion that Israel can deliver security for its citizens by dividing and conquering Palestinians, crushing them into submission as a kind of colonial overlord, is both immoral and counterproductive on its own terms. Recognizing this reality will be crucial to formulating not only a humane response to Hamas’s atrocity, but an effective one.

The far right’s theory of security failed

In 2017, Israeli far-right parliamentarian Bezalel Smotrich proposed what he termed a “decisive plan” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Smotrich, who is now serving as finance minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, argued (correctly) that the root of the conflict was competing claims to the same land from two distinct national groups. But, unlike his centrist peers, Smotrich claimed that these ambitions were incommensurable: that no territorial compromise could ever be reached between Israelis and Palestinians. In such a zero-sum conflict, one side has to win and the other has to lose.

The key to Israel winning such a total victory, he wrote, is simple: Break the Palestinians’ spirit.

“Terrorism derives from hope — a hope to weaken us,” Smotrich argued. “The statement that the Arab yearning for national expression in the Land of Israel cannot be ‘repressed’ is incorrect.”

Doing this, he continued, begins by annexing the West Bank and rapidly expanding Jewish settlements there. Once Israel has declared its intention to never let that land go, and created realities on the ground that make its withdrawal unimaginable, the Palestinians will reconcile themselves to the new reality — accept a second-class form of citizenship, leave voluntarily, or attempt violent resistance and be crushed.

Smotrich has used his time in Netanyahu’s cabinet to try to implement this plan — working both to de facto annex the West Bank and to rapidly expand Jewish settlement. The result has been the exact opposite of what Smotrich thought would happen: Atrocities by emboldened settler extremists ignited Palestinian anger. Atrocities committed by Palestinians led to settler retaliation, creating an unstable situation requiring a significant redeployment of Israel Defense Forces resources to the West Bank — whose raids themselves became a source of Palestinian grievance.

And that, per the Washington Post, is why those troops weren’t on Gaza’s border. Israel’s forces, who should have been defending against terrorists in Gaza, had been dragged to the West Bank as a consequence, at least in part, of the far right’s ideological project.

In fairness to Smotrich, he did admit in his 2017 proposal that his favored policies would likely meet with violent resistance: “In the first stage, it is likely that the Arab terror efforts will only increase.” This, he argued, would represent “a last desperate attempt to actualize their goals.”

Yet the current Hamas attack, and the longer history of Israel-Gaza, does not appear to track such a trajectory. Israel has besieged Gaza for about 16 years, and fought multiple wars with Hamas and other Palestinian militants in the strip. They were not under imminent risk of being stamped out by Israel prior to this attack, nor is there any evidence that Hamas leadership believed this was the final window to try to stop Israel from seizing control of the West Bank. Calling Palestinian terrorism a pure product of “hope” is a simple ideological construction at war with a more complex reality.

A notable thing about Smotrich’s 2017 document is that it contains exactly zero proposals for dealing with Gaza. In his mind, the conflict will be decided in the West Bank — specifically, by Israel’s successful assertion of full control. Gaza is basically an afterthought, discussed only as offhand evidence that the Palestinians can’t be trusted to govern themselves.

This omission was always an obvious problem, one of many in Smotrich’s cruel thinking. But now it points to something more: an indictment of not just Smotrich, but the government he serves in.

Netanyahu’s failure

Israel’s prime minister is not as ideological as Smotrich. Netanyahu’s primary political concerns at present are maintaining power and staying out of jail. He has elevated extremists like Smotrich to the cabinet not purely out of ideological affinity, but because they’re the ones who would back his assault on the independence of the Israeli judiciary.

But at the same time, his approach to the Palestinians has long evidenced the same basic assumption as Smotrich’s “decisive plan”: that they can and must be crushed.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, with three distinct stints in office: 1996-1999, 2009-2021, and 2022-today. During this time, he has been consistently hostile to Palestinian national aspirations — either outright opposing a two-state solution to the conflict or at most paying insincere lip service to it.

It’s not for nothing that Smotrich wrote in his 2017 document that “in democratic terms, there is no daylight between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the plan before you.” He assessed, as the prime minister’s actions have borne out, that Netanyahu never had any intention of granting Palestinians true self-determination.

This is why Netanyahu reportedly saw Hamas rule in Gaza as something of an asset. So long as the Palestinians remain divided among themselves — Hamas in charge of Gaza and the moderate Fatah faction in power in the West Bank — then a peace agreement is likely impossible: You can’t come to a negotiated settlement without a unified negotiating partner. The terrorist threat Hamas poses, on this thinking, can be managed; the endless blockade and periodic military operations, euphemistically called “mowing the grass,” can keep the danger posed by Hamas within acceptable parameters.

One of the key differences between Smotrich and Netanyahu is that the former was less subtle. While Smotrich’s plan aimed for a “decisive” defeat of the Palestinians announced through formal West Bank annexation, Netanyahu basically aimed to keep slowly entrenching the status quo of Israeli control forever. He presided over a gradual and incremental pressure campaign, one where Israel incrementally expands its presence in the West Bank while Palestinians are prevented from mounting anything but token resistance.

Netanyahu’s approach grew out of events on the ground. When the peace process pushed by left-wing parties in power in the 1990s failed, giving rise to the terrorist violence of Second Intifada, many ordinary Jewish Israelis concluded that the Palestinians simply couldn’t be negotiated with and moved to the right. The center of political gravity shifted away from long-term solutions to the conflict and toward an approach of simply learning to manage it as best as possible.

This does not mean most Israeli Jews became ideological right-wingers; they are not, polling suggests, fully committed to the project of expanding settlements or West Bank annexation. Mostly, they wanted Netanyahu and the right to keep them safe in a way that the left seemingly couldn’t. The prime minister, in recognition of this reality, campaigned first and foremost on security — earning the moniker, perhaps self-claimed, of “Mr. Security.”

Hamas’s attack on Saturday, a mass slaughter of Israeli civilians without precedent in Israeli history, exposed a basic contradiction in this image in the most agonizing way. Simply put, there is no way now to argue that the right-wing ideological project has delivered the security most Israelis crave.

The more Israel deepens its control over the West Bank, spreading settlements across its lands, the more Palestinians resent them — and the more Israel has to devote its military resources to repressing Palestinians rather than protecting Israel inside its borders.

Nor is there any long-run hope that the Palestinians will simply give up. Hamas’s willingness to engage in brutal violence, sure to be met with an overwhelming response from Israel — one that has reportedly taken the lives of hundreds of people in Gaza so far — indicates that even 16 years of blockade can’t end the incentive for terrorism.

If the failure of the peace process exposed problems in the left’s vision for the conflict, the Hamas attack has exposed the fundamental emptiness of the right’s. The more you hurt ordinary Palestinians, the more you give succor to the extremist visions of monsters like Hamas. The more you draw Israel into the West Bank, the more you entangle Israelis in a system of domination over Palestinians — one that will ultimately deliver nothing but heartbreak for anyone involved.

To be clear: I am not saying Israelis brought these attacks on themselves, that it’s some kind of moral chickens coming home to roost. Nor am I saying that Netanyahu, in place of Hamas, bears moral responsibility for Hamas’s horrifying atrocities against civilians.

What I am saying is that Netanyahu’s policy — visiting harm on the Palestinians in the name of protecting Israelis — is a terrible one. It is both morally indefensible and strategically counterproductive. It is no concession to Hamas, nor legitimation of its violence, to recognize this reality.

After last weekend’s events, it’s exceedingly obvious that trying to crush the Palestinians through settlement and division is not helping anyone. It’s time for a change.

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