All eyes on Hamas

The Gaza war is at a pivot point and a tunnel-dwelling psychopath holds the key

President Joe Biden’s decision to publicly present an end-of-war proposal – which he claimed, weirdly, was Israel’s own proposal – creates a pivot point that could potentially change the course of the Gaza war, which is already the longest Israel has fought since 1949.

If Hamas accepts the plan, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems set to collapse because the extremist parties on whose support it depends have warned that they will bolt. But it could also revive the prime minister’s sagging fortunes by ending a frustrating war and ushering in peace with Saudi Arabia. Elections would likely be brought forward, but Netanyahu might – miraculously given his epic failures – be competitive again.

There were missing pieces in Biden’s presentation last week, as he did not explicitly address who would rule Gaza going forward. But the default appears to be ending the war with Hamas degraded but still in power and with the hostages returned. It would be an excruciating comedown for an Israeli government that promised “total victory.”

So all eyes are on Hamas, as its leadership huddles in a massive network of tunnels surrounded by the remaining Israeli hostages as protective shields. There has been much discussion about whether Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader, is a psychopath; we are in danger of overthinking what is obvious.

If Hamas rejects the plan, preferring to fight on and hold on to the hostages for longer, Netanyahu will keep his extremist allies. The centrist party of Benny Gantz, which joined the government right after the Oct. 7 massacre, will probably bolt soon in this scenario, as they had intended to do (they are frustrated with the overall strategy of a prolonged war with no strategic goals) – but that would leave in place  Netanyahu’s core coalition of 64 out of 120, which has proven resilient during its tumultuous year and a half in power.

Netanyahu will then try to present himself internationally – and in his apparently upcoming speech to a joint session of Congress – as a peacemaker whose far-reaching offers were rejected by Hamas.

Netanyahu almost surely wishes Hamas could stay in power, but chastened, and without him looking that he enabled it. It’s not clear how any such thing can happen now, so Netanyahu has been dragging out the war. In his twisted worldview Hamas ruling Gaza has been good because it created a split in Palestinian politics and enabled him to wriggle out of any process promoting Palestinian independence.

Returning the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority to Gaza — which is basically a no-brainer — might help make Palestinian statehood look more reasonable, so even though this is the only viable alternative Netanyahu has rejected it. If all that sounds odd, it is because Netanyahu is odd.

It gets more difficult for the embattled prime minister if Hamas accepts the plan. And, on paper at least, it should. That’s because for Hamas to survive in power after having staged the largest single-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust would enable a major – and quite dangerous – jihadi victory narrative. Many Palestinians will buy it, even though Hamas’ action brought ruin to Gaza and caused tens of thousands of deaths among its people.

Netanyahu may try to wriggle out of the implementing the plan. He would accuse Biden of having somehow misrepresented it, and to an extent he is doing this already. Biden will  be livid – he needs the war to end because it is upsetting his reelection campaign – and international pressure on Israel, already huge, will grow.

In this scenario Gantz will bolt the coalition, denying it of even minimal respectability. Down this path lie arrest warrants for Netanyahu and others from the International Criminal Court, more talk of arms embargos, more countries recognizing the state of Palestine, and other such punishments.

If Netanyahu instead agrees to proceed with the plan, it looks like the extremist party leaders, Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, will bolt. Without them the coalition loses its majority even if Gantz stayed. So Netanyahu will try to buy them off with more Jewish settlement in the West Bank (which is disastrous for all sides), perks and positions for their cronies, and so on. This could work, but it is not likely; these are purists not given to deals. The mercurial Ben-Gvir, in particular, is said to believe that a spell in opposition and an election loss by Netanyahu might help him position himself as the next leader of the overall right.

In theory, that could trigger immediate early elections. And yet, if the extremists bolt in the context of Netanyahu doing what most Israelis (and essentially the entire world) view as the right thing, there will be pressure to find a way to put politics aside at least for enough time to implement the deal smoothly.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid – together with Gantz – would probably agree to give Netanyahu some rope to finish the winding down of the war.  That means they will use their seats in the Knesset to prop up the government for a few more months.

But they will not want to see Netanyahu get credit for the Saudi peace deal Biden is promising, nor enable him to put much more time between Oct. 7 and the reckoning for it. So it would then be quite likely that a no-confidence vote will be called by the summer, and the government will fall, and that new elections will be set by the end of the year.

Why would Netanyahu go down this path, instead of scuttling the deal?  The only reasons would be if he cared about Israel and cared about his legacy more than holding on to power. I give it even odds. I am an optimist.

Trying to arrest Netanyahu could actually make him more powerful

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