Let Israel Finish the Job

by January 2024
Israeli soldiers in the Shajaiya district of Gaza, December 8, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Yossi Zeliger.

Did you know that Saddam Hussein won the First Gulf War of 1991? That is the version I heard in Iraq in 2003, after noticing the same Arabic inscription decorating chandeliers in Saddam’s palaces all over the country.

‘How sweet is victory with God’s aid,’ the inscription proclaimed. “What victory was Saddam referring to?” I asked my Iraqi colleagues. It’s from his famous postwar speech in 1991, I was told. Saddam stood on a balcony overlooking a military parade in his hometown of Tikrit, shot off a rifle in one hand and declared victory. He had battled the United States and survived to fight another day. That was true. In 1994, three years later, he again massed armored divisions on the border with Kuwait.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Faleh Kheiber.

One lesson for the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza is this. If Hamas survives this war in any form as an organization capable of launching new attacks, its supporters will declare victory. And they will be right. Hamas will live to kill Israelis another day. 

The larger lesson is that sometimes the first step to stopping the spread of a pernicious but popular ideology is to hand its adherents a crushing military defeat. In 1945, the Allies defeated Nazism, though the deNazification of Germans took many subsequent years. In 1967, Israel dealt a fatal blow to pan-Arabism, though it survived in a reduced form for years later. Today, in the current Gaza war, Israel has the opportunity to cripple a core project of many adherents of political Islam, the goal of destroying the state of Israel.

The commanders of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and their soldiers believe that the war aim in Gaza – killing or capturing the Hamas leadership, dismantling their military infrastructure and ending their governmental rule – is achievable, but will take additional months.

Morale remains high in the IDF after nearly 100 days of fighting, but there are signs of war weariness and calls for ceasefire in three other key sectors.

A vigil outside the White House calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, December 18, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis.

American Media Pressure for Ceasefire

First, in the United States, the Biden administration continues to fully support Israel in prosecuting this war, while elevating two other priorities: restraining Israel from expanding the war in Lebanon, despite Hizbullah’s daily provocations; and focusing Israel on increasing humanitarian supply in Gaza, even though that reinforces Hamas as well as alleviates needs in the civilian population. That is all for the common good. 

At the same time, however, influential American media commentators now call for an end to the war, for Israel to “cease fire and withdraw.” They misread the determination of the Israeli public and hide an American domestic agenda.

For example, Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times in late December, “If I am reading the mood in Israel correctly these days, the overwhelming majority of the country today wants their 120-plus hostages returned — over and above any other war aims.” But he is not reading the mood in Israel correctly. While credible Israeli polls say release of the hostages is the public’s top war aim, they also show that the public believes the best way of achieving this is to attack and press Hamas, not to cease fire and withdraw.

I suspect the most relevant polling for Friedman and others is not in Israel but in the US. There the polls show concern with President Biden’s management of foreign policy in general and of the Gaza war in particular. Support for Israel still attracts a majority of Americans, but the percentage has declined since Israel’s incursion into Gaza, especially among younger voters. In other words, getting Israel to withdraw from Gaza is, in the perception of Friedman and others, in the short-term interest of their favored candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

Israeli Pressure to Replace the Netanyahu Government

A second and more problematic source of ceasefire support comes from within Israel, among those who are fed up with the current coalition government. This group recalls going into the streets to protest the government’s judicial reform proposals just months ago. Some now threaten to do the same to topple the Netanyahu coalition.

Polls show most Israelis do indeed want a change of government. But the majority want to see such a change after the war. They recognize that the priority after October 7 must be defeating Hamas in its tunnels, not an easy mission, while holding off Hizbullah and other Iranian proxies. Changing the government in the midst of such a multi-front war would leave the country dangerously vulnerable. 

There are two ways to topple a government in Israel’s parliamentary democracy. In one way, either a majority of the Knesset votes for no confidence in the government or the governing coalition falls apart, and the government becomes a lame-duck for a minimum of 90 work days while the country goes through new parliamentary elections. Alternatively, a majority of the Knesset votes for a motion of “constructive no confidence” meaning a new person is nominated to put together a coalition replacing the existing government under the same Knesset membership. 

Those Israelis who propose a government change now are indulging in magical thinking – they have no feasible plan for achieving this imagined end-state during the current war. It would likely require a withdrawal of some sort from Gaza.

Any of the scenarios for changing the government requires an intense level of internal politicking, well beyond the everyday level of domestic politics in Israel. It would inevitably reduce the leadership’s ability to direct a wartime strategy. The Israeli public knows this and, absent some new revelation about the current government’s capacity, would resist such a move. 

Family members of the hostages protest in Tel Aviv, December 17, 2023. Photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa via Reuters Connect.

The Hostage Pressure 

A third danger comes from the Israeli government itself. In this scenario, the political leadership sees itself in a no-win political situation with the hostages. It bows to the relentless media coverage of the compelling human interest stories of the families, and opts for a hostage release in exchange for IDF withdrawal from Gaza.

A prior government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu did something similar in October 2011, agreeing to release one Israeli hostage – Gilad Shalit – in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel (including Yahya Sinwar and other commanders of Hamas). That government had just faced one of the largest public protests in Israel’s history, the summer 2011 protests over increases in the cost of living. Netanyahu changed the narrative in 2011 through a crowd-pleasing release that kept the media humming with Gilad Shalit stories for weeks. 

This time the public sympathy is magnified by 136 hostages. It is easy for those of us not in government to point out the effect of agreeing to such a release – a signal of open season on new hostage-taking. But Israel is a small country, with no more than one degree of separation between every citizen and a hostage, family member, neighbor or friend.

The way forward for Israel is to rely on the patriotic instincts of the average Israeli. Among the many interviews of parents of hostages, there are some who want to keep the pressure on Hamas because it’s what the country must do now. There is also the letter written by Iris Haim, mother of a hostage, to members of the IDF unit who accidentally shot and killed her son in Gaza. It reads in part as follows:

I know that everything that happened is absolutely not your fault, and nobody’s fault except that of Hamas, may their name be wiped out and their memory erased from the earth.

I want you to look after yourselves and to think all the time that you are doing the best thing in the world, the best thing that could happen, that could help us. Because all the people of Israel and all of us need you healthy. You have to look after yourselves because only that way can you look after us.

At the first opportunity, you are invited to come to us, whoever wants to. And we want to see you with our own eyes and hug you and tell you that what you did — however hard it is to say this, and sad — it was apparently the right thing in that moment.

The Israeli government must do its part to support this magnificent public mood. First and foremost, it must explain to the Israeli public – and the world – a plan for postwar Gaza that is strategic in nature. It should advance Israel’s security and diplomatic interests by focusing on the Gazan population and on an international effort to work with them for a future without Hamas. While the military carries out its campaign, the government should be working on such a plan with its allies in the US, the Middle East and elsewhere. Failure to do that, in light of the sacrifices being offered by the people, is inexcusable. 

The Israeli public remains the hero in this conflict. After the tragedies of October 7, three months of war, worries about the hostages and increasing number of casualties, the people are largely united and determined to achieve the declared war aim of dismantling Hamas. Israel’s supporters and citizens must allow Israel to finish this job.

Robert Silverman
A former US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, Robert Silverman is a lecturer at Shalem College, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and president of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance. @silverrj99
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