Nadim Koteich

Netanyahu’s Thinking

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strategic plan for post-war Gaza did not break with expectations. Put briefly, the plan is essentially to impose Israeli military control over Gaza indefinitely and hand governance to the families and clans of the Strip, as well as figures with no ties to Hamas. The plan also includes the establishment of buffer zones along Gaza’s border with Israel and Egypt, and while he claims that these zones are needed for security reasons, the real objective, as had been feared, is killing any hope for the establishment of a Palestinian state that connects the West Bank and Gaza. Following the assault of Netanyahu and his allies in government on UNRWA, his plan calls for the dissolution of this UN agency that plays a pivotal role in providing aid to the residents of the Strip; in its place, he proposes an overhaul of Gaza's education and social welfare systems that roots out radical ideas and doctrines.
His approach points to a deep shift in the administrative dynamics of Gaza. It lays out a two-pronged framework, combining the imposition of absolute Israeli surveillance over the Strip to ensure security and the enhancement of some sort of local governance. Given the actions that realizing this strategy entails, however, it raises grave concerns regarding the well-being and safety of Palestinians.
Accordingly, the negative reactions that his proposals have sparked should come as no surprise. Indeed, it angered the Palestinians, the region, and many around the world because it excluded all the foundations of the initiatives to reach a solution. The idea of continuing the military operations, with the aim of annihilating Hamas, throws international pleas for a ceasefire and negotiations against the wall. Talk of an Israeli-controlled buffer zone along Gaza's border with Egypt suggests that Egyptian-Israeli relations could deteriorate further, and the same is true for the political (and possibly security) situation in the Middle East as a whole. In addition, the specter of Israel’s military maintaining an indefinite presence in Gaza disregards the staunch Arab, European, and US opposition to an Israeli occupation of the Strip, and its forces would have no legitimacy or political project to stand on.
What, then, is Netanyahu thinking?
First and foremost, Netanyahu’s actions are dictated by his pursuit of political survival. Amid the flood of legal and political challenges he faces, keeping his political career alive requires draconian security policies that reinforce the support of his base.
The high bar Netanyahu has set appeals to the majority of the Israeli public, which is united in rejecting any initiative that entails the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state. The Israeli Prime Minister is a formidable political operator who has found great success in riding Israeli populist waves and adopting populist agendas, even with Israeli rejection and opposition to him at its peak. He is second to none at exploiting domestic dynamics to remain in power. This task can only be made easier by the fact that there is no serious opposition; nor has any party put forward a proposal that is fundamentally different from his own on core Israeli issues, which could have created an alternative to his project.
Moreover, the plan sums up Netanyahu's mindset. His thinking is centered around safeguarding Israel's security, even when that creates friction with his country's regional and international allies. In fact, Netanyahu boasts that he is the only person in Israel capable of pushing back against pressure from Washington when its proposals undermine Israel's supreme interests. He has been incredibly intransigent in his unilateral positions, breaking with matters of international consensus whenever it does not align with his perception of Israel's interests, whether it relates to military operations in Gaza or the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
In Netanyahu's mind, security needs, political ideology, the historical narrative he believes in, and his personal interest are all intertwined, and these considerations push him to always present himself as a reliable leader adept at addressing security challenges and dealing with the pressures applied on his country. Nowhere is that more evident than in his announcement of his controversial plan, which comes at a time when Israel is nearly totally isolated internationally - as it is facing a wave of criticism from the United Nations and the International Court of Justice and its actions in Gaza are being condemned by a long list of countries.
No one is better at playing on Israelis’ long-standing mistrust of international bodies and what is called the international community. The Israeli public’s wariness has been engendered by decades of feeling that their country is perceived by the "international community," especially with regard to how it addresses Palestinian issues.
His stances are overwhelmingly supported by the nationalist right, which is highly sensitive to anything tied to Israeli sovereignty. Netanyahu's logic also appeals to the broader right, which is skeptical of the peace process, making it easier to maintain the support of the coalition he leads - a coalition that pushes him to adopt more cautious or hardline positions vis a vis the Palestinians.
Netanyahu also depends on the political realism that underpins his country's relations with neighboring states and seems to play a more significant role in shaping the views of countries like Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, than it does other Arab states. While these countries have spared no effort to end the war, they also account for national considerations and do not wish to undermine their interests by taking their disputes with Israel too far. The political and economic considerations, developmental and technological partnerships, and national security interests of these countries do not allow for emotionally charged and rash escalation in their relationship with Israel.
Nonetheless, these considerations do not grant Israel a free hand, and Netanyahu's strategy is not without serious challenges. Israel’s reliance on the stability of existing peace agreements or its assuredness that new countries will inevitably eventually make similar deals will be put in jeopardy if Israel continues to block any sensible solution to the Palestinian question.
The broad global condemnation of the situation in Gaza, which has had an impact on American domestic politics, presents a new type of diplomatic challenge for Israel. Modern technology provides youths across the globe with mediums for expressing their opinion, and these youths tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians and more sensitive to the horrors of war in general. Also, these youths do not find the classic narratives that had created an aura of unconditional support for Israel as compelling as older generations.
In light of all of this, Netanyahu stands on a knife's edge. He is caught between his pursuit of security in Israel’s surroundings and that of peace and normalization with the broader Arab region. The announcement of his post-war strategy for Gaza, with its many high-handed proposals and controversial elements, is a critical juncture not only for Israel and Netanyahu but also for the security and stability in the Middle East more generally.