Netanyahu architect of own destiny


The war in the Middle East has been described as a “strategic cul-de-sac,” meaning that it is essentially a multilateral military action with no provisions for strategic or political resolution. It has also been said that “war is nothing but a continuation of politics by other means.”

The attack by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7 was abominable, and beyond the pale, but Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsession with making Hamas an extinct entity flies in the face of years of lessons dealing with terrorist organizations. Think of attempts to eliminate the likes of ISIS, the Taliban, Al-Shabaab or Al-Qaeda. Decapitate the head of the snake and the snake grows another head.

One of the tragedies of this war, beyond the massacre of Israeli settlers, is that the Palestinian people are unwitting subjects of Hamas. They are being used by Hamas leaders as shields and obliterated by Israeli artillery and bombs.

The way to limit or neutralize terrorist groups is to neutralize ambient grievances. For example, in the case of the war in the Middle East most world leaders think a carefully crafted two-state solution is the only way to resolve the hostile state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinian people. That seems a distant prospect, at least at the time of this writing.

Which brings me to “Netanyahu’s Dilemma.” He faces a multifaceted set of critical issues for himself, for the state of Israel, and for his own fate. Every man, as they say, is the architect of their own destiny. In my view, these are the things that positioned Mr. Netanyahu on the horns of a dilemma.

First, Netanyahu governs with a razor thin majority in his own parliament. His backers are largely of the far right and ultra-orthodox to whom he has to make significant concessions to ensure their loyalty to remain in power. This parcel of his political support wants him to aggressively prosecute the war into Raffa. The most notable and powerful of these influencers is ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir, who could single handedly bring Mr. Netanyahu’s government down, and he knows it.

Remaining in power not only has egotistical considerations but in Mr. Netanyahu’s case, it also delays his legal liabilities. In 2019, he was officially indicted for breach of trust, fraud and for accepting bribes. His trial has been delayed since he was re-elected as prime minister. According to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 15% of Israelis want him to stay in power after the war ends.

Netanyahu is under enormous pressure from world leaders to limit civilian casualties and to allow food and medicines into Gaza as he continues to prosecute the war. To ignore this pressure from strategic friends and critical economic partners risks not only isolating Israel on the world stage, but as criticism mounts, it untethers the dormant racism that exists in cultural hollows around the world.

The International Court of Justice is holding hearings on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and has ordered Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza. That alone is damaging Israel’s reputation regardless of the court’s decisions on the matter.

In addition to the pressure of world leaders, Mr. Netanyahu is also feeling domestic pressure to agree to terms of a ceasefire, especially as a means to bring about an agreement for the release of Israeli hostages, now into their seventh month of deleterious captivity. As time goes by, hostages are dying and the Israeli people are losing patience with Netanyahu’s seeming fixation of first killing every last Hamas leader before securing the release of the Israeli hostages.

Finally, Mr. Netanyahu risks severe damage to the U.S.-Israeli relationship if he decides to ignore U.S. warnings to change tactics, limit civilian casualties, and refrain from using weapons that indiscriminately adds to the 35,000 Palestinian civilians (mostly women and children) killed so far in the war. The Biden administration has embargoed any additional civilian-killing weapons to make the warnings clear to the Israeli war cabinet.

While there has been much affected behavior in this election year about President Biden’s words of warning to Mr. Netanyahu about his “damn the torpedoes,” approach to the war, similar presidential warnings to Israel have come in the past, especially from Republican presidents.

President Ronald Reagan leveraged American arms supplies in warnings to Israel regarding its war policy, ordering war planes and munitions to be delayed or withheld. Peter Baker of the New York Times reported that, “The president (Reagan) was livid. Reagan had been shown pictures of civilians killed by Israeli shelling, including a small baby with an arm blown off. He ordered aides to get the Israeli prime minister on the phone and then dressed him down sharply. “ He told the prime minister, “It is a holocaust.”

Baker went on to report that “President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened economic sanctions and an aid cutoff to force Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula after it invaded Egypt in 1956. President Gerald Ford warned that he would re-evaluate the entire relationship with Israel in 1975 over what he considered Israel’s recalcitrance during peace talks with Egypt. President George H.W. Bush postponed $10 billion in loan guarantees in 1991 in a dispute over settlements in the West Bank.” These historic examples paired with today’s circumstances, reminds me of the old adage that a close friendship is like a marriage, they work well when you are frank and honest about potentially flawed behavior.

Benjamin Netanyahu needs to stay in power to stall legal problems. Global leaders are becoming increasingly critical of Netanyahu’s current military plans and the absence of any post-war plans for Gaza. Several nations have already cut trade ties with Israel. Hospitals in Gaza are dysfunctional. Famine is increasingly pervasive in Gaza. Demands for a cease fire to allow for the release of hostages and access to humanitarian aid are mounting. U.S. relations with Israel are fraying. America’s attempts to diplomatically reimagine the Middle East with trilateral relationships between Israel, the U.S. and moderate Arab nations are on hold because of the war.

All these matters manifest themselves in a colossal dilemma for Mr. Netanyahu. Will his obsession with remaining in power and ultimately exterminating Hamas smother worldwide hopes for a more careful conclusion to the war? It remains to be seen but the reputation of Mr. Netanyahu and for that matter Israel are at risk. All that being said, Mr. Netanyahu will at the end of the day be the architect of his own destiny.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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