Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Netanyahu’s Interests: The Final Obstacle to Ending the War

It appears that Netanyahu’s personal political interests remain the primary obstacle to a final cease-fire on both the Gaza and southern Lebanon fronts.

Netanyahu's Interests
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shaul GOLAN/ AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

For the first time since the onset of Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, a convergence of pressing factors is pushing toward ending the conflict entirely. Among these factors is the Israeli army’s own admission of the impossibility of achieving the government’s stated goals of eliminating Hamas and ending its rule over Gaza.

Additionally, the U.S. administration, Israel’s largest and most significant supporter, has grown increasingly concerned about the potential for expanded confrontations on the southern Lebanon front, with all the regional consequences such an escalation would entail. This concern has exacerbated the sharp contradictions between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government.

Despite these pressures, the war has not yet come to an end.

It appears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal political interests remain the primary obstacle to a final cease-fire on both the Gaza and southern Lebanon fronts.

Netanyahu’s interests may lead to further escalation at Israel’s northern front which the Jewish state may not be militarily prepared for, as American officials warn their allies in Tel Aviv.

Ultimately, the prospects for the end of the war or its escalation hinge on Netanyahu’s ability to navigate these external and internal pressures. His aim may be to sustain the conflict to postpone early elections and solidify his political position.

The Solidity of Hamas’ Position during the Negotiations

To identify the key obstacle preventing a final cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, it is useful to revisit the impasse reached in the indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

A significant milestone in these negotiations was the initiative announced by U.S. President Joe Biden, which outlined a roadmap intended to lead to a “sustainable cease-fire” and the “release of all hostages.” Biden emphasized that his offer was accepted by Israel and even represented an “Israeli proposal,” thereby placing Hamas in a position where it had to either approve or reject it.

The proposal, as detailed in Biden’s speech, consisted of three stages. During these stages, Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners would be gradually released in parallel with the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip.

The initial temporary truce was to automatically and definitively transition into a final cease-fire in the second phase, provided both parties adhere to their commitments. These steps were intended to pave the way, according to Biden, for a “settlement” that would offer better political conditions for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Hamas quickly welcomed Biden’s offer, particularly appreciating the aspect related to the cease-fire in the besieged Strip. Similarly, the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a traditional mediator between Israel and Hamas, viewed Biden’s offer as establishing a permanent cease-fire, though it expressed doubts about Israel’s actual position.

The Security Council resolution that followed added momentum to Biden’s proposal, with unanimous approval from all members except Russia, which abstained from voting.

However, this optimism was short-lived. The written Israeli offer differed significantly from the content of Biden’s speech and the roadmap he presented. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ skepticism proved accurate: Biden’s proposal did not reflect the Israeli position but rather his understanding of it.

The written Israeli offer outlined a first phase of 42 days featuring a temporary truce, during which 33 Israeli hostages would be released in exchange for 50 Palestinian prisoners per hostage. However, the offer did not guarantee a transition to a second phase with a final cessation of the war; this transition was contingent on reaching a subsequent agreement.

The offer also did not ensure complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, during or after the first phase, and allowed Israel to refrain from releasing 100 Palestinians from the lists provided by Hamas.

In essence, the Israeli offer aimed to relieve domestic pressure on Netanyahu by releasing some Israeli hostages without committing to an end to the war in Gaza. Hamas, aware of the gravity of this issue, was cautious, having experienced previous prisoner exchanges that did not lead to a final cease-fire.

Gradually releasing Israeli hostages without securing a final cease-fire would mean forfeiting Hamas’ leverage to compel Netanyahu to end the war under public pressure. This could prolong the conflict and worsen its consequences.

Thus, Hamas reiterated its reservations about the Israeli offer, which “does not meet the movement’s demands to end the war,” according to Hamas leader Osama Hamdan. Hamas’ demands included ensuring a sustainable cease-fire, the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, and lifting the siege with a “fair deal” for exchanging prisoners and hostages.

Hamas has firmly maintained its negotiating stance, refusing to make concessions on the hostage and prisoner exchange issue despite the media and political pressure following Biden’s announcement of the roadmap. The Netanyahu government had hoped to capitalize on the positive momentum surrounding Biden’s initiative and the suffering in Gaza to push through the deal without committing to ending the war.

Instead, Hamas’ reaction intensified pressure on the Israeli government from the families of the Israeli hostages, who demanded a successful negotiation.

Increasing Internal Political Pressure

Hamas’ insistence on ending the war through negotiations coincided with significant internal challenges. In June 2024, Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari made a surprising announcement: He admitted for the first time that the idea of destroying Hamas was an illusion, as long as the movement remains an idea. This was the first time the Israeli army publicly acknowledged that eliminating Hamas was an impossible goal, contradicting the rhetoric of Netanyahu and his government.

Netanyahu was infuriated by Hagari’s statements, especially since they coincided with the Israeli army’s decision to agree to a tactical truce in parts of Gaza without consulting the political leadership. In an unprecedentedly sharp tone, Netanyahu criticized those “seeking to change the war’s goals,” asserting that Israel is “a state with an army, not an army with a state.”

Despite Netanyahu’s reaction, Hagari’s statements significantly impacted Israeli public opinion. An opinion poll conducted by Channel 12 two days later revealed that over half of Israelis believed a complete victory over Hamas was unattainable.

Consequently, the Israeli government faced increasing popular pressure to pursue the more realistic goal of negotiating the release of Israeli hostages. This situation pushed Netanyahu back to the Hamas Movement’s conditions, which linked prisoner and hostage exchanges to a final cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Netanyahu’s internal pressures were not limited to disputes with the army. A few days earlier, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, ministers in the Israeli War Council, withdrew in protest against Netanyahu’s “self-serving policies.” This withdrawal severed Netanyahu’s partnership with the “Official Camp” party, which had joined the war council after the events of October 7, 2023.

Following his withdrawal, Gantz joined demonstrations by the families of hostages, advocating for a swift prisoner and hostage exchange deal.

With the “Official Camp” party’s withdrawal, Netanyahu lost crucial political support and his continued rule depends on alliances with far-right parties, giving him a slim majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

This situation has reinforced the perception among the Israeli public that Netanyahu’s decisions are driven by the interests of his partners, who, unlike Gantz, lack experience in military matters and have a tenuous relationship with the military establishment.

The Southern Lebanon Front and American Pressure

On the southern Lebanon front, confrontations escalated significantly in June 2024, especially after Israel assassinated Talib Abdullah, the highest-ranking Hezbollah leader to be killed since the war began.

In response, the group launched a coordinated attack targeting 15 sensitive Israeli sites in one minute, using 150 missiles and 30 attack drones. These strikes hit locations of special significance, including the Northern Region Command headquarters, Israeli Intelligence headquarters in the Northern Region, and the Regular Armored Brigade headquarters.

Throughout this period, the American administration has been focused on controlling the escalation and limiting skirmishes between the two parties, pending the completion of a cease-fire deal in Gaza, which could bring calm to the southern Lebanon front. The U.S. administration’s concerns include doubts about the ability of Israeli air defenses to repel large-scale attacks by Hezbollah in the future.

This concern might necessitate increased U.S. support for Israel or even direct intervention, as seen when Iran retaliated for the targeting of its consulate in Damascus.

Given these possibilities, the U.S. administration prefers to avoid escalation. It is also concerned about the regional repercussions of an open conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli army. The administration understands that Shiite armed groups allied with Hezbollah and Iran in Syria and Iraq have both the capability and motivation to intervene directly, which could increase the potential damage to American interests in the Middle East.

From this perspective, the pressure exerted by the Biden administration on Netanyahu can be understood. This pressure includes regulating arms shipments to Tel Aviv and limiting the flow of certain types of missiles. Netanyahu’s public and sharp reaction to these measures led to the U.S. administration canceling a security coordination meeting with Tel Aviv. Washington aims to control the Israeli government’s actions as much as possible to prevent a dangerous escalation that might not serve the interests of Israel or the United States, despite Netanyahu’s goals of prolonging the war.

In this context, Qatar’s role has also become significant. Over the past months, Qatar has deepened its partnership with the United States by mediating in the ongoing Gaza conflict, in exchange for an enhanced role in Lebanese affairs. Qatar’s interest in investment and economic roles in Lebanon has prompted it to engage with all local political parties, including Hezbollah and its allies. Consequently, many analysts today are betting on Qatar’s role in reducing the likelihood of further escalation in southern Lebanon and contributing to future reconstruction efforts.

Hezbollah’s Strategic Moves

In June 2024, Hezbollah employed several strategic maneuvers to influence media pressure and deter the Netanyahu government from engaging in a full-scale war on the southern Lebanon front. The most notable of these actions was the release of a video recording lasting 9 minutes and 31 seconds, showcasing a comprehensive survey of significant areas in northern Israel, particularly Haifa.

This survey, conducted by a drone named the “Hoopoe,” highlighted sensitive military bases, seaports, weapons depots, as well as civilian and military airports. The video aimed to establish a deterrence, indicating Hezbollah’s capability to target these areas if necessary.

In parallel, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech warning Cyprus that if Cypriot infrastructure, especially airports, were made available to the Israeli military during any extensive confrontation, Hezbollah would consider it a party to the conflict. This warning aimed to limit Netanyahu’s options by potentially denying the use of Cypriot airports for military purposes.

Analysts suggest that Nasrallah’s warning presented a direct message to the United Kingdom, which maintains two military bases and 13 other military sites in Cyprus, previously used to aid Israel against Iranian drone and missile attacks in April 2024.

Thus, Nasrallah preempted the possible future use of these bases by Israel. Furthermore, the European Union, to which Cyprus belongs, is currently on alert due to the possibility of the Mediterranean witnessing an influx of Syrian refugees from Lebanon as a pressure tactic against both the EU and Cyprus.

The Israeli government is simultaneously contending with Hamas’ firm demand to cease the war in exchange for completing the hostage release deal. This demand is bolstered by local pressure from the military, opposition and hostage families advocating for the deal, acknowledging the impracticality of eliminating Hamas.

On the southern Lebanon front, escalating confrontations are linked to the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the United States seeks a dignified resolution for Israel that does not jeopardize American interests in a large-scale conflict.

Netanyahu now faces a critical decision: to acknowledge the current reality, end the war, and finalize the prisoner and hostage exchange, or to risk a dangerous, expansive and unpredictable confrontation with Hezbollah.

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