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Evasive on postwar Gaza, Netanyahu risks saddling Israel with full responsibility

The postponement of Thursday night’s scheduled debate in the war cabinet on the “day after” in Gaza marks the deepening political fault line of the ongoing war.

It is not a fault line between right and left, but rather between those focused on the military campaign in Gaza and those focused on a political campaign in the Knesset. On Thursday, the Knesset forces triumphed.

Under pressure from far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party and an advocate of revived Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu scrapped Thursday’s debate in the narrow war cabinet forum, and said he will instead hold the discussion in the wider security cabinet, of which Smotrich and fellow far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir are members.

The military establishment has been issuing a stream of warnings to the national political leadership, especially in the last week, regarding the day after.

  • None of the generals who sit on the General Staff today were around at the time of the establishment of the South Lebanon security zone, which came into being after Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1985. They were mainly conscripted at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. But most of them know the process of “creeping responsibility.”

Ehud Barak, the prime minister who oversaw the withdrawal from the security zone to the international border in 2000, was wont to speak of “a chair goes out, a table goes in,” in order to describe the gradual process by which Israel found itself the de facto sovereign in south Lebanon during the years when the Security Zone was maintained.

An example of this: Some of the water for the security zone was supplied by Israel via pipes placed and operated by the Mekorot water company. What was that if not assuming civilian responsibility?

  • The situation in Gaza is still a long way from the reality that Israel created in South Lebanon with the security zone. Lebanon was a war of choice. The war of October 7 is a war of no choice. But the principle of a vacuum in governance, in rule, is similar. In Lebanon, Israel was drawn into that vacuum, and filled it, without making a choice and without long-term planning. The danger is of a similar process playing out in Gaza.
  • Reality, too, has a dynamic of its own, which, in the case of Gaza, could rapidly confront Israel with unavoidable facts. A plausible scenario is one where an epidemic breaks out in Gaza and brings down the already teetering health system there. In such a situation, Israel would be required to deal with the sick and maybe even to evacuate some of them to our medical facilities. And that, of course, would represent the absolute opposite of Netanyahu’s declaration, at the start of the fighting, that the goal would be a complete severance of Israeli civil responsibility for Gaza.

Preparing for ‘phase four’

Behind closed doors in the military establishment, there is already talk of “phase four” of the war, the phase at which the Strip is responsible for its own civil governance, and Israel is on the other side of the border, ready to deal with any and every security situation that develops.

(Phase one of this process was the air bombardment of Hamas targets after the terrorists’ invasion on October 7 and the IDF’s restoration of stability within Israel; phase two was and is the high-intensity IAF-backed ground operation designed to dismantle Hamas’s military capabilities and secure the return of the hostages; phase three is the transition to a lower-intensity, more targeted campaign to tackle pockets of resistance.)

Those discussions in the military focus on how to prepare right now for that future phase four, so that when the order comes, the infrastructure will be ready.

  • Part of phase four is a matter of security considerations. In the long term, the IDF would want to create a kind of cut-and-paste situation for Gaza that mirrors today’s situation and operational activities in the West Bank.

The question of Gaza after the war is a central focus for the military establishment right now. It is of course focused on the management of the ongoing military campaign but is already looking to the future.

There are those who say that the military leadership is actually demanding of the political leadership a framework for the day after, since this is necessary in order to effectively plan phase three, which is already being partly implemented in the north of the Strip.

  • A senior source told this writer that without thorough and fundamental preparation right now for the day after, the whole idea of phases could collapse: Instead of transitioning from phase three (targeted fighting) to phase four (withdrawing from the Strip and civil governance there by a local leadership), Israel could find itself returning to phase two (high-intensity fighting). But for now the political echelon is delaying discussion and decisions on the day after.

The interactions between the various forums that are supposed to deal with the “day after” is also not clear.

The National Security Council, which was given responsibility for preparing for postwar Gaza by the prime minister; the IDF’s planning branch; the various teams that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has established, and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset, which has devoted considerable time to the issue lately — all these bodies are working in parallel rather than in close coordination.

Biden’s shouting

  • Presumably, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s scheduled visit at the end of the week will focus primarily on this issue. In a column on Friday in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman dealt with how the White House sees the solution.

Wrote Friedman: “Israel is being surrounded by what I call Iran’s landcraft carriers (as opposed to our aircraft carriers): Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran is squeezing Israel into a multifront war with its proxies. I truly worry for Israel.

  • “But Israel will have neither the sympathy of the world that it needs nor the multiple allies it needs to confront this Iranian octopus, nor the Palestinian partners it needs to govern any post-Hamas Gaza, nor the lasting support of its best friend in the world, Joe Biden, unless it is ready to choose a long-term pathway for separating from the Palestinians with an improved, legitimate Palestinian partner.

“Biden has been shouting that in Netanyahu’s ears in their private calls.

“For all these reasons, if Netanyahu keeps refusing because, once again, politically, the time is not right for him, Biden will have to choose, too — between America’s interests and Netanyahu’s.”

As is often the case at times of crisis between Jerusalem and Washington, Friedman conveys messages from the White House fiercely and in detail. This particular article, for example, was plainly written after a conversation with Biden. It is not coincidental that it refers to Biden’s “shouting” on the phone with Netanyahu in the context of the “day after” for Gaza.

The prime minister has been sounding very firm on the issue of preventing “Hamastan” in Gaza from becoming “Fatahstan” — terminology that resonates and strikes a chord with the public, especially at a time like this.

  • But the fact is that we are not in an election campaign; we are in the midst of war. Along with what is not acceptable to him and his government, therefore, the nation’s leader needs to specify what is acceptable and desired. The military commanders need to know what future Gaza their troops are meant to be preparing for.

At his press conference on Saturday night, Netanyahu made clear yet again that he has no intention of resigning, and that he intends to still be in power after the war to oversee a demilitarized Gaza that can pose no future threat to Israel.

But for now, Netanyahu is keeping the specifics of his intended solution for postwar Gaza close to his chest. That is, if he even has his own vision for a viable Gaza on the day after.

  • This op-ed is translated and edited from the Hebrew original on The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, Zman Yisrael.

Source: Amir Bar Shalom – TOI