Israel Does Not Know How To End the War in Gaza

Military and political analysts now say the conflict is unwinnable, but no one has an exit plan

Israel Does Not Know How To End the War in Gaza
A Palestinian woman sits amid the rubble of Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital after the Israeli military left the complex in April 2024. (AFP via Getty Images)

Israel is in a “plonter.” The Hebrew word, which translates as “a knot that defies untangling,” is often used to describe an intractable situation. It’s a word one hears frequently from Israeli political commentators these days, as the army grinds through its seventh month of war in Gaza without having achieved the two goals stated at the outset of the campaign — the destruction of Hamas’ military capacity and the release of the captives. Now, the prevailing opinion of establishment experts — journalists, policy specialists, senior military veterans — is that those goals are unachievable and the war unwinnable.

But neither the political leadership nor the army’s high command has thought of an exit strategy, let alone a plan for the day after — assuming there will be a cease-fire at some point. From the Israeli perspective, all the options are bad. A return to the status quo ante, with Hamas resuming its governance of Gaza, is not on the table. Even if the reinstatement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party as the governing body in Gaza were desirable, the obstacles are practically insurmountable (in 2007, Hamas engineered a violent putsch to oust Fatah’s leadership from Gaza). Among Palestinians, the PA is widely considered to be corrupt and ineffective, with no authority to govern. Israel’s far right wants to reestablish the military bases and settlements that were evacuated in 2005; the army’s senior command has vociferously rejected this idea. But no Israeli leader has offered a practical suggestion that would fill the power vacuum created by the war. Nor has the United States or any other outside body proposed a workable, practical solution. And so the world watches as the war drags on and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza grows more acute.

The major factor that makes this plonter particularly resistant to resolution is paralysis. The vast majority of Israeli Jews are so traumatized by the events of Oct. 7 that they cannot think clearly, let alone make a decision. They want a cease-fire but they don’t want to stop killing Hamas fighters; they want revenge and they desperately need to feel they have reestablished military deterrence (which is probably why every military commentator, even the ones who say the war must end, asserts that the army has recovered from Oct. 7 and is now functioning well). They want peace but are convinced that most Palestinians supported the Hamas actions on Oct. 7, which is why they also believe peace is impossible. Because the accuracy of these views is not subjected to critical analysis in mainstream public discourse, positing that there is diversity of political opinion among Palestinians is not a winning proposition these days.

Hamas, meanwhile, seems prepared to wait out the Israelis indefinitely. Already the army has been forced to return to areas of Gaza that it claimed its soldiers had cleared of armed Palestinian fighters months ago, only for new ones to emerge from the warren of underground tunnels.

Memories of the 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, sometimes referred to as “Israel’s Vietnam,” are surely coloring the analysis offered by expert commentators. During the May 16 episode of Haaretz’s Hebrew podcast (the Hebrew podcast reflects an internal Israeli conversation, whereas the English podcast is more of an explainer for non-Israelis) Gadi Shamni, a retired general, told host Lior Kodner that the war would never end without a change in Israel’s government. As long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his current coalition remained in power, he said, the army would be “stuck in the mud of Gaza for years.” Shamni accused Netanyahu of using the army for political purposes; he cited the recent limited military incursion in Rafah, when the army planted the Israeli flag at Rafah Crossing and a tank destroyed the “I Love Gaza” sign. These actions had no military purpose, said Shamni, other than to satisfy Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, who have threatened to withdraw from the coalition — thereby bringing down the government and forcing an election — if Netanyahu were to implement a cease-fire.

Veteran journalist Yossi Melman, known for his high-level sources in the security establishment, said in an earlier episode of the same podcast that members of Israel’s negotiating team had told him Netanyahu was doing everything in his power to torpedo a deal with Hamas. For the tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating weekly for a deal to free the hostages, this observation feels accurate. Melman echoed Shamni in asserting that Netanyahu was prolonging the war because a cease-fire would bring down his government. Every member of the military establishment wants to end the war, said Melman, because they all regard it as unwinnable. “It is the most political war we’ve ever fought,” he said.

Haaretz columnist Ravit Hecht described a pervasive feeling of failure among Israelis across the political spectrum. The slogan “Bring them home — now!” referring to the hostages, is on everyone’s lips. At the weekly demonstrations, where protesters call for an election and demand that Netanyahu make a deal for the release of the hostages, the moderator on the stage engages in a call and response, shouting rhythmically into the microphone: “Bring. Them. Home!” with the mass of people below answering full-throatedly: “Now!!” The slogan #BringThemHomeNow is stenciled on shop windows, imprinted on yellow rubber bracelets and on T-shirts. It was even the Wi-Fi password (all lowercase, no spaces) at a Tel Aviv cafe I frequent.

But the army has managed to find and free only three of more than 100 captives still in Gaza, not including the three who escaped on their own in December only to be killed in a devastating “friendly fire” incident. Israelis are increasingly pessimistic about the captives’ chances of survival, a feeling that was no doubt reinforced by the news, reported on May 17, that the army had retrieved three corpses of Israelis previously believed to have been live captives. This feeling of hopelessness exacerbates the pervasive sense of failure that Hecht described.

According to a May 17 poll commissioned by Channel 12, the most-watched mainstream news broadcast, 61% of Israelis believe that the prime minister’s motivations for continuing to prosecute the war are political considerations and/or self-interest. And yet the soldiers continue to fight, often at considerable personal sacrifice, even as each day brings reports of new Israeli casualties (with the exceptions of Haaretz, +972 Magazine and Local Call, Israeli media does not report Palestinian casualties in Gaza). Many of the soldiers have been in Gaza for months, with almost no furloughs. Israeli news programs have devoted significant coverage to the hardship suffered by wives and children due to the extended absence of reserve soldiers called up for combat. So far, however, there have been no reports of reservists refusing call-up notices.

In a development unprecedented in wartime, Israel’s military and political leaders are now openly feuding. On May 15, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant accused Netanyahu, in a public statement, of undermining Israel’s security with his wrongheaded management of the war. Gallant said he would never agree to indefinite military rule in Gaza and called upon the prime minister to put forward a plan for the day after the war ended. In response, Netanyahu released a video statement in which he growled that there would be neither “Hamastan” nor “Fatahstan” in Gaza. Meanwhile, the far-right settlers, proponents of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s racist ideology, are agitating to reestablish the Israeli settlements that were evacuated in 2005. For Israel’s traditional establishment, the idea of resettling Gaza is too extreme and unlikely even to discuss. But these are the same people who for years dismissed the Kahanists as fringe and who would have ridiculed the notion of their ever joining a governing coalition. And yet here we are.

Unwinnable or not, Israelis across the political spectrum are, with few exceptions, convinced that the war was a necessary response to Hamas after the attacks of Oct. 7. There are two main disagreements between center-right establishment figures like Shamni, the populist right (Netanyahu’s traditional base, drawn heavily from Israelis of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern and North African background) and the Kahanist right, represented by Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power party. The first is over whether or not the time has come for a cease-fire; the second is over how to conduct Israel’s relationship with the United States in general and the Biden administration specifically.

The center-right establishment figures were enraged when Ben-Gvir, a notorious Kahanist, posted “Hamas loves Biden” on X (formerly Twitter) after the U.S. president announced he would not continue to supply arms if the Israeli army deployed in Rafah. Ben-Gvir, they said, was undermining Israel’s relationship with its only friend, the ally on whom it depends for its diplomatic legitimacy and its military deterrence. But for the populist right, Netanyahu is their man, right or wrong. For the fascist right — the Kahanists — chaos is the goal.

Chaos is what the centrists and the center-right fears, and they can feel it coming. They know they must get rid of Netanyahu, but after 15 years of going along to get along, of downplaying his racism and — most seriously — of failing to realize the urgency of ending the occupation, they simply do not know how. By playing an expert game of wedge politics over the past 15 years, Netanyahu eviscerated the opposition and turned the old establishment into a toothless, aging, out-of-touch elite while they weren’t paying attention, though they have not quite grasped that they are in precipitous decline. The Kahanists are now calling the shots — pun intended.

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