To Win the War, Defeat Hamas and Stop Settlements

I have great admiration for how President Biden has used his empathy and physical presence in Israel to convince Israelis that they are not alone in their war against the barbaric Hamas, while also trying to reach out to moderate Palestinians. Biden, I know, tried really hard to get the Israeli leadership to pause in their rage and think three steps ahead — not only about how to get into Gaza to take down Hamas but also about how to get out — and how to do it with the least civilian casualties possible.

While the president expressed deep understanding of Israel’s moral and strategic dilemma, he pleaded with Israeli military and political leaders to learn from America’s rush to war after Sept. 11, which took our soldiers deep into the dead ends and dark alleys of unfamiliar cities and towns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials left Jerusalem feeling that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel understands that an overreach in Gaza could set the whole neighborhood ablaze — and is probably the most cautious of Israel’s leaders today — his right-wing coalition partners are eager to fan the flames in the West Bank. Settlers there have killed at least seven Palestinian civilians in acts of revenge in the last week, and the Israeli military is even more hawkish than the prime minister now and is determined to deliver a blow to Hamas that the whole neighborhood will never forget. Meanwhile, Israel’s right-wing minister of finance is refusing to transfer tax money owed to the Palestinian Authority, sapping its ability to keep the West Bank under control, which it has done up to now.

Color me very worried. No, color me extremely worried.

Because in the first week of this war the Supreme Leader of Iran and the leader of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, appeared to be keeping very tight control on their militiamen both on the border with Israel and in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But as the second week has gone on, U.S. officials have picked up increasing signs that both leaders may be considering letting their forces more aggressively attack Israeli targets, and maybe American targets if the United States intervenes.

Have no doubt: the possibility of a regionwide war that could draw the United States in is much greater today than it was five days ago, senior U.S. officials told me. As I write on Thursday night, The Times is reporting that a U.S. Navy warship in the northern Red Sea on Thursday shot down three cruise missiles and several drones launched from Yemen that the Pentagon said might have been headed toward Israel. More missiles likely from pro-Iranian militias were fired at U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and at Israel from Lebanon.

Israel is not likely to let Iran use its proxies to hit Israel without eventually firing a missile directly back at Tehran. If that happens, anything can happen. Israel is believed to have submarines in the Persian Gulf.

What makes the situation triply dangerous is even if Israel acts with herculean restraint to prevent civilian deaths in Gaza, it won’t matter. Think of what happened at Gaza City’s Ahli Arab Hospital on Tuesday.

As the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea pointed out to me, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (P.I.J.) achieved more this week with an apparently misfired rocket “than it achieved in all of its successful missile launches.”

How so? After that rocket failed and fell on the Palestinian hospital in Gaza, killing scores of people, Hamas and the P.I.J. rushed out and claimed — with no evidence — that Israel had deliberately bombed the hospital, setting streets ablaze across the Arab world. When Israel and the United States offered compelling evidence a few hours later that the P.I.J. accidentally hit the Gaza hospital with its own rocket, it was already too late. The Arab street was on fire and a meeting of Arab leaders with Biden was canceled.

Imagine what will happen when the first major Israeli invasion of Gaza begins in our wired world, linked by social networks and polluted with misinformation amplified by artificial intelligence. No wonder pro-American Arab leaders are beseeching Biden to beseech the Israelis to act in ways that leave them some space to continue to work with Israel.

That is why I believe that Israel would be much better off framing any Gaza operation as “Operation Save Our Hostages” — rather than “Operation End-Hamas-once-and-for-all” — and carry it out with surgical strikes and special forces that can still get the Hamas leadership, but also draw the brightest possible line between Gazan civilians and the Hamas dictatorship.

Hamas has not only taken Israelis hostage; it’s taken Gaza’s civilians hostage as well. They did not have a vote in Hamas’s savage kidnapping of Israeli grandmothers and babies. Take a moment and listen to this Center for Peace Communications and Times of Israel series “Whispered in Gaza” from January — interviews with Gazans about what they really think of Hamas’s corrupt and despotic leadership. Israel has to respect and build on their views if it hopes to build anything sustainably positive in Gaza from this war.

But Israel today is in raw survival mode. We Americans can advise, but Israel is going to do what it is going to do.

Where I have a vote — just one — is in America. The president, in his prime-time speech Thursday night, vowed to ask Congress for an additional $14 billion in assistance for Israel to get through this war, along with an immediate injection of $100 million in new funding for humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

I’m all for helping Israelis and Palestinian civilians at this time — but not without some very visible strings attached.

If Israel needs weapons to protect itself from Hamas and Hezbollah, by all means ship them. But in terms of broader economic aid for Israel, it should be provided only if Israel agrees not to build even one more settlement in the West Bank — zero, none, no more, not one more brick, not one more nail — outside the settlement blocs and the territory immediately around them, where most Jewish settlers are now clustered and which Israel is expected to retain in any two-state solution with the Palestinians. (Netanyahu’s coalition agreement actually vows to annex the whole of the West Bank.)

I am well aware that Hamas has been committed to eliminating the Jewish state since its inception — not because Israel has expanded settlements in the West Bank. But if Israel has any hope of nurturing a Palestinian leadership that could replace Hamas in Gaza in the long term and be an effective partner for a two-state solution, then the settlement project has to stop and it has to stop now.

As for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, it needs, as soon as possible, to elect or appoint a new leadership — one with the competence to build decent Palestinian institutions in a noncorrupt fashion that earns its people’s respect and legitimacy. The Palestinian Authority, which is ready to coexist with the Jewish state, needs to be able to actually win a free and fair election against Hamas in the West Bank or Gaza.

Without those two sets of conditions being met, there’s no future for moderation in this corner of the world, no chance of a sustainable peace and no chance of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia — no matter if Israel eliminates every single Hamas leader, foot soldier and rocketmaker or no matter how sympathetic one might be to the Palestinian cause.

The keystone of Bibi Netanyahu’s 15 years as prime minister has been strategically expanding settlements to prevent any prospect for a contiguous Palestinian state ever coming into being.

In doing so, the Israeli leader knowingly and blatantly acted against U.S. interests. He was willing to destabilize America’s allies, Jordan and Egypt, to pursue more settlements. He was willing to risk America’s biggest diplomatic achievement, the Abraham Accords, if the pact meant halting settlements. He has shown no willingness yet to halt settlements to secure a historic breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.

Folks, Israel is a wealthy country today and money is fungible. For way too long U.S. economic and military aid has allowed Netanyahu to have his cake and eat it too — to fund the insane settlement project, and maintain an advanced military, while not having to raise taxes on the whole Israeli public to pay for it all. While Israel got U.S. aid in one hand, the budget of its Ministry of Defense paid to build roads for settlers with the other hand. Uncle Sam’s wallet, indirectly, was the slush fund for Netanyahu’s politics.

So no, we’re not telling Netanyahu what to do in Gaza — Israel is a sovereign country. We’re just going to tell him what we’re not going to do anymore — because we happen to be a sovereign country too.

America has been indirectly funding Israel’s slow-motion suicide — and I am not just talking settlements. Look at what Netanyahu did last June. To buy off the ultra-Orthodox parties he needs in his coalition to keep himself out of jail on corruption charges, Netanyahu’s government gave the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers “an unprecedented increment in allocations … including full funding of schools to not teach English, science and math,” explained Dan Ben-David, a macroeconomist who has focused on the interaction between Israel’s demography and education at Tel Aviv University, where he heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. “This budgetary increment alone is more than Israel invests each year in higher education altogether — or 14 years of complete funding for the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T.,” Mr. Ben-David said. “It is completely nuts.”

Bottom line: Netanyahu has a completely incoherent strategy right now — eliminate Hamas in Gaza while building more settlements in the West Bank that undermine the only decent long-term Palestinian alternative to Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, which Israel needs to safely leave Gaza.

If this is the season of war, it also has to be a season for answers about what happens the morning after. I am hardly the only one who wants to know. As the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in an essay this week in Haaretz about Netanyahu’s government: If it “does dream of exploiting victory to annex territories, forcefully redraw borderlines, expel populations, ignore rights, censor speech, realize messianic fantasies or turn Israel into a theocratic dictatorship — we need to know it now.”

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