How Israel’s war went wrong

“At least 28,000 Palestinians are already confirmed dead, with more likely lying in the rubble. Around 70 percent of Gaza’s homes have been damaged or destroyed; at least 85 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced. The indirect death toll from starvation and disease will likely be higher. One academic estimate suggested that nearly 500,000 Palestinians will die within a year unless the war is brought to a halt, reflecting both the physical damage to Gaza’s infrastructure and the consequences of Israel’s decision to besiege Gaza on day three of the war. (While the siege has been relaxed somewhat, limitations on aid flow remain strict.)

“There’s no doubt that the IDF has done significant damage to Hamas’s infrastructure. Israel has killed or captured somewhere around one-third of Hamas’s fighting force, destroyed at least half of its rocket stockpile, and demolished somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of its tunnel network under Gaza. The more the war goes on, the higher those numbers will become.
But as significant as these achievements are, “none of them come close to eliminating Hamas””

“When I surveyed over a dozen experts about the war back in October, they warned that Israel had a dangerously loose understanding of what the war was about. The stated aim of “destroying Hamas” was at once maximalist and open-ended: It wasn’t clear how it could be accomplished or what limit there might be on the means used in its pursuit.

Israel’s conduct in the war so far has vindicated these fears. The embrace of an objective at once so massive and vague has dragged Israel down the moral nadir documented in Abraham’s reporting, with unclear and perhaps even self-defeating ends. It is a situation that Matt Duss, the executive vice president at the Center for International Policy, terms “an era-defining catastrophe.”

Things did not have to be this way. After the horrific events of October 7, Israel had an obviously just claim to wage a defensive war against Hamas — and the tactical and strategic capabilities to execute a smarter, more limited, and more humane war plan.

The blame for this failure lies with Israel’s terrible wartime leadership: an extremist government headed by Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, a venal prime minister currently on trial for corruption who has placed his personal interests over his country’s even during wartime.”

“For Walzer, Israel cannot wage war justly when Gazan civilians truly cannot escape.”

“In previous wars with Hamas, Israel’s primary objective had been degrading Hamas’s military capabilities and deterring it from attacking Israel in the near future. These are relatively limited aims that can be accomplished through more discriminate military means. Israel didn’t need to destroy every Hamas rocket launcher or kill every commander — but rather do just enough damage to buy itself some safety.”

“A significant level of civilian death is inevitable in urban warfare, and especially in Gaza given Hamas’s despicable tactic of stationing military assets in and around schools and hospitals. The IDF is facing a profoundly challenging operating environment with few true historical parallels.

Yet this does not absolve Israel of its decision to adopt a maximalist war aim or the unusually brutal tactics that followed from it. These were choices Israeli leaders made”

“In the outlines offered by Israeli leadership early in the war, “destroying Hamas” could only be accomplished by replacing its regime in Gaza with something new and durable. In October, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said this explicitly — that the war must end with the “creation of a new security regime in the Gaza Strip [and] the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip.”

Regime change is the only conceivable way Israel could deliver on its long-shot objective of destroying Hamas. Yet, shockingly, Israel has no clear plan for what comes next. Every source I spoke to with knowledge of Israeli planning confirmed this; so does a volume of publicly available reporting and some recent comments from Netanyahu spokesperson Avi Hyman.

“All discussions about the day after Hamas will be had the day after Hamas,” Hyman said during a press briefing.”

“In the long run, making Israel look like the depraved side serves two strategic goals for Hamas. First, it puts the Palestinian issue back at the top of the Arab and international political agenda. Second, it convinces Palestinians that Israel must be fought with arms — and that Hamas, rather than the more peace-oriented Fatah, should be leading their struggle. Polling data both in Palestine and elsewhere suggest that they have made inroads on both fronts since October 7.

By inflicting mass suffering on Palestinians without a long-term plan for addressing the political consequences of their misery, Israel is playing right into Hamas’s hands. The current Israeli approach is less likely to destroy the militant group than to strengthen it.”

Israel’s Supreme Court just overturned Netanyahu’s pre-war power grab

“The ruling, released on New Year’s Day, annulled the single biggest piece of legislation passed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition. The Court’s reasoning fundamentally changes the balance of power in Israel’s democracy — so fundamentally, in fact, that some members of the elected government have vowed not to abide by it. If that happens, Israel will be thrown into a full-blown constitutional crisis.
About a year ago, Netanyahu proposed a sweeping overhaul to Israel’s judiciary — one that would, in effect, put it under his personal thumb. Mass protests succeeded in blocking most of the overhaul. Only one plank — curtailing the power of the courts to overturn government policy — actually became law, an amendment to Israel’s “Basic Laws,” the closest thing the country has to a constitution. This is the law that was just overturned by the Supreme Court.

In doing so, the Court came to two key conclusions. First, that it has the general power to overturn Basic Laws — a power it had never deployed before. Second, that this new Basic Law was threatening enough to Israeli democracy that the court was justified in overruling it.

In peacetime, a ruling this epochal would transform Israeli politics, reorienting everything around the question of the court’s new claim to power and (plausible) claim to be saving Israeli democracy.

But with the country enmeshed in an existential war in Gaza, the domestic reaction to the court’s ruling is far less explosive than it would be otherwise. Whether this lasts — or whether Israel erupts into a domestic political crisis to match its current international peril — is far from clear.”

The gap between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government over Gaza’s future is widening

“Biden administration officials are increasingly at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over how it is conducting its military assault on Hamas and how the two countries envision the political future of Gaza, current and former U.S. officials say.
Amid dire scenes from hospitals in Gaza and a rising civilian death toll, frustration is building among administration officials who have repeatedly appealed to Netanyahu and his government to take more action to protect Palestinian civilians and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

“We are concerned that they aren’t doing everything possible to reduce civilian casualties,” said one administration official. The comments came as Israeli forces moved in on Gaza City’s main hospital, where they said Hamas militants have been operating from an underground command center.

The friction between the two governments is over crucial long-term questions about who will govern the Palestinian enclave after Israel completes its military offensive. That includes the role of the Palestinian Authority — which currently governs the West Bank — and reviving diplomatic efforts for a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state, current and former officials said.

“There’s a looming gap between the U.S. and Israel on where we’re going to be in a month or two,” one former U.S. official said.

Although the U.S. and Israel have tried to present a united front publicly, the divide was exposed after Netanyahu last week said that Israel would have a security role in Gaza for an indefinite period.

Less than 24 hours later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed back, making it clear the U.S. would not accept any suggestion of a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip or a blockade of the enclave.

The U.S. believes there can be “no reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict, hence, no attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza,” and “no reduction in the territory of Gaza,” Blinken said during a visit to Tokyo.

Blinken also laid out his most detailed vision yet for the future of Gaza, saying it “must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.”

The Palestinian Authority, which was pushed out of Gaza by its rivals in Hamas, administers semiautonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The U.S. and other world powers view the Palestinian Authority, which is internationally recognized but lacks strong popular support, as the only realistic alternative to Hamas, which the U.S. and other Western nations considers a terrorist organization.

Netanyahu, in turn, brushed off Blinken’s proposal, telling NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that Gaza needed to be demilitarized and deradicalized and any Palestinian force including the Palestinian Authority was not up to the job.”

Netanyahu is out and Biden is in. Why Israel is embracing a new ‘father figure’

“About 15 minutes into President Joe Biden’s Zoom call last Friday with families of Americans taken hostage by Hamas, a White House aide started to end the session.
But Biden wouldn’t have it, according to one of the family members on the call.

“The president actually looked at him and said: ‘Last time I checked I’m the president of the United States. And this meeting will end when I say it ends,'” said Ruby Chen of Israel, the father of Itay Chen, a 19-year-old member of the Israel Defense Forces and a dual US-Israeli citizen who is among those missing. “He actually wanted to hear from every single one of us.”

The moment encapsulated Biden’s sudden transformation from a political figure whose commitment to Israel was often questioned by conservative critics inside and outside the Jewish state to – right now – arguably the world’s leading champion of Israel outside the Middle East.

Biden’s actions and words since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, capped by a dramatic visit Wednesday to Israel, have been lauded even by many of Biden’s biggest skeptics in Israel as he stands in solidarity with Israel and pledges “unprecedented” military assistance.

“Israelis were hungry for a father figure that will hug them and show empathy. And the president has done that in such a way that really touched every Israeli,” said Nimrod Novik, a former foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and now a fellow with the Israel Policy Forum.”

The “two revolutions” that explain Israel’s massive protests

“Netanyahu was elected to a sixth premiership this November, but this time with the most extreme, nationalistic, and exclusionary government in Israeli history.

From the get-go, the Israeli government has sought to make significant changes to the high court that would hollow out its independence and its power to serve as a check on the Israeli parliament, or the Knesset. The several bills put forward would restrict the court’s ability to overturn laws it sees as unconstitutional and allow a simple majority in the Knesset to reject its decisions. It would also give government lawmakers and appointees effective power over the committee of nine individuals that appoints judges, and rescind key authorities from the attorney general. These and other changes would weaken the independent judiciary’s power in a parliamentary system that otherwise lacks checks.

This is all complicated by the fact that Israel doesn’t have a constitution, but a set of regulations passed as the basic law. The proposal’s backers, like a group of Israeli academics who recently published an open letter in support, say the court has grown too powerful. But, according to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, “66 percent of Israelis think the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down a law if it is incompatible with the Basic Laws.”

The result of the judicial overhaul would be a form of majoritarian rule, where minority groups — especially Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are about 20 percent of the country’s population — would face serious threats. “Minority rights will be protected by the majority’s benevolence. That contradicts a core element of democracy, of course,” writes Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution.”

“It should be noted that Netanyahu is on trial for alleged corruption — charges that he’s denied but that have plagued his political life in recent years. There’s been speculation that those allegations are why he’s been pursuing a major overhaul to the Israeli judiciary, with the effect of weakening its independence.

But that’s only part of the story.

There are three pillars of his governing coalition — Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, ultranationalist settlers, and the ultra-Orthodox — and they each have something to gain from this massive judicial overhaul. “For the first time, they have a complete alignment of interests with no daylight in between, to destroy the judiciary and institutions, for different reasons,” Shaul told me. “And that’s what makes this moment so dangerous.””

“For the ultranationalist settlers led by Ben Gvir and Smotrich, such judicial changes would open up the opportunity of annexation of the occupied West Bank and other policies that would benefit settlers. And for the ultra-Orthodox supporters, it would — perhaps through changing the makeup of key judiciary appointments — lessen the Supreme Court’s likelihood of ruling that exemptions to the military draft are unconstitutional, among other issues of church and state important to this constituency.
In short, the judicial reforms might be the most incendiary and attention-grabbing of the coalition’s proposals at this moment, but they’re in keeping with its broader goals.”

“Netanyahu’s government is also proposing radical changes to the way the occupation of the West Bank is administered and other legal shifts inside Israel that will severely affect Palestinians.”

The war on Israeli democracy

“The West Bank’s Palestinian residents, who live under the grinding realities of occupation, are not Israeli citizens and don’t have a voice in the policies that profoundly shape their lives. The Israeli settlers, many of whom moved to the West Bank with the explicit ideological purpose of seizing control of Palestinian land, do.

Israel is a democratic country within its internationally recognized borders, but it maintains a military occupation of land on which millions of people live while denying those people the right to vote. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this inherent instability has started to tip toward outright authoritarianism throughout the territory under Israeli control. In a 2019 poll conducted by the nonpartisan Israeli Democracy Institute, a majority of Israelis (54 percent) said their democracy was “in grave danger.”

Since Netanyahu took office in 2009, the nationalist right has mounted an assault on liberal institutions and eroded democracy in Israel. The Israeli parliament has passed a bill formally defining Israel as a state for its Jewish citizens, implicitly slotting the sizable minority of Arab Muslim Israeli citizens into a form of second-class citizenship.”

“Netanyahu allegedly struck a deal with a major newspaper to exchange political favors for favorable coverage.

When this scandal was exposed, Netanyahu was indicted on bribery charges; his response has been to attack the media that reported on the scandal, demonize the prosecutors who brought the case, and attempt to pass a law immunizing himself from prosecution while in office.

Israel is heading down a path already trod by countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela: former democracies whose elected leaders have, gradually and through mostly legal processes, twisted the state’s institutions to the point where the public no longer has a meaningful choice in who rules them. The signs are subtle, but I found them striking during my trip last fall”

“Some of the causes of this anti-democratic drift are uniquely Israeli. No advanced democracy maintains anything like the occupation of the West Bank. The foundational Zionist vision, a state that’s both meaningfully “Jewish” and “democratic,” leads to a constant high-wire act in a country whose citizens are around 25 percent non-Jewish.”

““bad civil society.” These relatively new organizations — the big ones were founded in the 2000s — use the tools of a free society, like court filings and free speech, to attack and shut down people and groups that disagree with them. “These [NGOs] view differences in perceptions of society and the state as being sufficient justification for silencing or delegitimizing others,” as Jamal puts it.

Such “bad civil society” groups are well-funded allies of the right-wing parties in power; they sometimes even share personnel. One prominent far-right MK, Bezalel Smotrich, is a co-founder of the pro-settlement group Regavim. They perform tasks that official members of government can’t or won’t, helping to hollow out Israeli civil society while claiming to be part of it.”