Biden and Hamas tie Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu up in knots

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is tying himself up in knots as he grudgingly, and only to a limited degree, bows to US President Joe Biden’s demands.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is tying himself up in knots as he grudgingly, and only to a limited degree, bows to US President Joe Biden’s demands.

In doing so, Mr. Netanyahu is puncturing Swiss-cheese size holes into Israel’s Gaza narrative, making it easier for Mr. Biden to take him publicly to task.

Mr. Biden has demanded that Israel allow the unfettered flow of desperately needed humanitarian aid into Gaza, an immediate ceasefire linked to an exchange of Hamas-held hostages for Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, and the dropping of Israeli plans for a ground offensive in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, home to more than a million Palestinians displaced by the six-month-long war.

In recent days, Mr. Netanyahu has granted entry into Gaza to more than 1,200 aid trucks, significantly reduced Israel’s on-the-ground military presence in the Strip, and raised to 150,000 the number of displaced Palestinians that would be allowed to return without Israeli security checks to their often destroyed homes in the north of the territory.

In addition, Mr. Netanyahu has played games with Rafah by claiming that he has set an undisclosed date for a ground offensive, even though Israeli officials are still discussing his plans with their US counterparts, and his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, insists that there is no date for the operation.

Even so, Mr. Gallant said the withdrawal of Israeli forces was to prepare for an offensive in Rafah. Israel asserts that Hamas’ remaining four armed brigades are in Rafah. It also suspects that Hamas’ top leadership, including Yahya Sinwar, Israel’s most wanted man, is hiding in tunnels under Rafah, shielded by many of the Hamas-held hostages still alive.

The contradictions in Israeli statements on Rafah reflect the knots tying up Mr. Netanyahu and the holes punctured by Israel in the prime minister and the government’s narrative.

By asserting that he set a date, Mr. Netanyahu hopes to pacify his ultra-nationalist coalition partners who threaten to topple the government if the prime minister fails to launch an offensive.

At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu is attempting to engineer a situation in which he can blame Mr. Biden if he decides not to commence ground operations in Gaza and/or for Israel’s overall failure to achieve its war objectives, including the destruction of Hamas and ensuring that the Strip no longer will be a launching pad for Palestinian resistance.

Many suspect Mr. Netanyahu of wanting to continue the war to extend his fragile political life. He is likely betting that his far-right partners may not make good on their threat, given opinion polls that suggest a new election would not return them or the prime minister to office.

The far-right may not be the only threat to the longevity of Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

Depending on how Mr. Biden and Hamas play their cards in ceasefire and prisoner exchange negotiations, Mr. Netanyahu could see a split in his war cabinet from which the far-right is excluded.

A tough-talking politician and retired general, Mr. Gallant suggested that Israel could be flexible in the negotiations.

“We have the absolute commitment to bringing our hostages home, and the operational circumstances created by the IDF’s constant pressure on Hamas and our position of power achieved in battle allow us flexibility, freedom of movement, and the ability to make difficult decisions,” Mr. Gallant said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces by their acronym.

“There will be difficult decisions, and we are prepared to pay a price to release the hostages,” Mr. Gallant added.

Israeli officials said neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Gallant had advance knowledge of this week’s killing of three sons and four grandchildren of Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau and a ceasefire negotiator.

The attack came as Mr. Biden called on Hamas to accept a ceasefire proposal put forward by CIA Director Bill Burns. Hamas says it is studying the proposal even though Israel’s response fails to address its demands.

Essentially, Mr. Burns’ proposal is a revival of a suggestion first crafted in January by US and Egyptian intelligence chiefs and Qatar’s Prime Minister in consultation with the head of Israel’s Mossad foreign intelligence service. The proposal called for a three-stage 90-day ceasefire, a phased prisoner exchange, and permanent ceasefire talks in the second stage.

The Burns proposal envisions the exchange of 40 Hamas-held civilian captives abducted during its October 7 attack on Israel for 900 Palestinians in Israeli prison. Hamas has committed itself to the release of the initial batch but has left open whether the 40 would include bodies of captives killed in the fighting.

The Hamas position has raised doubts whether the group still holds 40 live civilians. Many of the estimated 130 Hamas captives are Israeli military personnel who Hamas says it will only free as part of a permanent ceasefire deal.  Of the 130, at least 40 have died in captivity.

Hamas abducted 250 people in October, more than 100 of which were swapped in November for 240 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel.

Under the new US proposal, Hamas would have to compromise on the number and identity of the prisoners they want released, while Israel would have to make concessions on the return of displaced Palestinian civilians to northern Gaza.

The CIA director’s proposal goes some way to meet Hamas’ demands for a permanent ceasefire, a complete Israeli troop withdrawal, the unfettered flow of aid into Gaza, and the return of displaced Palestinians to their homes in the north.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s problem is that appearing to comply with Mr. Biden’s demands, including facilitating a ceasefire agreement, is self-incriminating. 

A renewed prisoner exchange amounts to an admission that six months of military action has failed to free the hostages and, in effect, hands Hamas a victory.

For Mr. Netanyahu, that is a double-edged sword. While a prisoner exchange would take some of the stings out of growing domestic public demands that he prioritise the release of hostages, it would likely encourage mass demonstrations demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Moreover, the entry into Gaza this week of more than 1,200 aid trucks in three days is evidence that Israeli restrictions constitute the main obstacle and cause of the humanitarian food and medical crisis rather than international organisations’ lack of capacity, a breakdown of law and order in Gaza, or allegations that Hamas hijacks aid convoys, even if all of that plays a role.

Moreover, while Israel’s failed attempt to incite a popular revolt against Hamas by depriving Gazans of the basics of life is the main reason for the crisis threatening the lives of innocent Palestinians, it is not the only culprit.

Hamas, like Israel and the West Bank-based Palestine Authority (PA), Hamas’ archrival, sees aid distribution as a battleground that will shape the contours of the post-war administration of the Strip.

While humanitarian organisations will not surrender control of distribution, Hamas believes it should play a role in securing the movement of aid trucks in Gaza and maintaining a semblance of law and order.

Hamas believes Israel is attempting to circumvent the group by approaching Gazan clan leaders and businessmen who have no ties to the Islamists as well as, albeit reluctantly, senior Palestine Authority intelligence officials to assist in securing and distributing aid.

Recently, Hamas detained six Authority representatives, two of whom were reportedly killed when Hamas fighters opened fire.

The officials were escorting aid convoys organised by the Authority in cooperation with the Egyptian Red Cresent that Hamas sought to prevent from traveling in the Strip. Hamas charged the officials were undercover security operatives seeking to sow chaos and division in Gaza.

“Two interesting conclusions emerge from this affair: Hamas will use all means available to thwart alternatives to its civil control of the Strip, and the Palestinian Authority is trying to stir the pot behind the scenes, even at the cost of Hamas harming the (Authority’s) own people,” said Israeli journalist Amos Harel.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israel are also tying themselves up in knots when one compares the wanton death and destruction in Gaza that Israel claims was unavoidable in its effort to take out Hamas with the precision of targetted Israeli strikes against Iranian and Palestinian officials in residential neighborhoods in Lebanon and Syria.

Praising “the remarkable precision of Israeli attacks on Iranians and (Lebanese) Hezbollah operatives in Syria.” Middle East scholar Andrew J. Tabler calculated that Israel launched 50 air strikes on targets in Syria in the last six months, killing 50 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and Hamas operatives, and 75 Syrians.

It is unclear how many innocent civilians were among the Syrian casualties, but even if all were civilians, that would be a kill ratio of 1.5 Syrians for every operative targeted by Israel.

Earlier this month, Israel launched a precise strike against a building in Damascus’ upscale Mezzeh neighbourhood, believed to house the Iranian consulate. The strike killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives, including Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and another senior Iranian commander.

The New York Times suggested that the operatives were part of a network smuggling arms into the West Bank. Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, said days before the attack that it had discovered an arms cache smuggled into the West Bank.

Israel was equally precise in its killing in January in a residential Beirut neighborhood of senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri. All seven people killed by a drone targeting their third-floor office in what appeared to be a four-story building were Hamas operatives.

In Gaza, assuming that 13,000 Palestinian fighters, the number of fighters Israel says it has killed, are included in the Gaza health ministry death count of more than 33,000, the kill ratio would be 1.5 too.

However, the casualty ratio is far higher if one takes into account the more than 70,000 wounded and maimed Palestinians, which, according to Israel’s estimate, would include less than 17,000 fighters based on its estimate that Hamas had 30,000 fighters under arms at the outset of the Gaza war.

Those casualty figures are stark even if one allows for urban fighting and the added complication of Hamas’ underground tunnel system.

The contrast has much to do with geopolitical and military restraints Israel accepts in Beirut and Damascus in terms of ensuring that conflicts do not spin out of control and an Israeli military culture in which the number of people killed in Gaza becomes a goal in and of itself rather than a last resort in the conquest of territory or self-defence.

“The rules that I know are that if one of your enemies has his hands up, you don’t shoot at him, only in a life-threatening situation. So, our interest was all along the fighting in Gaza…that if terrorists surrender, we shot them?…  When we talk about ‘eliminating’ and ‘killing,’ those are the people of Messianic Judaism and the Jewish superiority; they want a territory clean of Arabs,” said former defense minister and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, a leader of the protests demanding Mr. Netanyahu’s resignation.

Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.