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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Ian Parmeter, Research Scholar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set a high bar for victory right at the start of the Gaza conflict: the complete destruction of Hamas and freedom for all of the approximately 250 hostages taken by the group during its raid into Israel on October 7 last year.

He has doubled down several times on these objectives. During a media conference in January, he said:

There are those who claim victory is impossible. I utterly reject this. Israel, under my leadership, will not compromise on less than total victory over Hamas.

On that measure, Israel is still a long way from victory six months into the war. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have had no trouble destroying buildings and other infrastructure in Gaza, resulting in enormous numbers of civilian casualties and immense suffering for residents, but their hold on territory seems tenuous.

Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote in this week’s Sunday Times, for instance, that when he was embedded with an IDF unit recently, he had observed what he believed to be Hamas snipers in the ruins of the Al-Shifa Hospital following the army’s “successful” conclusion of its operations there.

The other goal of freeing the Israeli hostages still seems far off, as well. There were hopes for more releases following the brief ceasefire in November negotiated by Qatar, Egypt and the US, which led to the exchange of 105 hostages for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

But just three Israeli hostages have so far been freed by Israeli military action. About 100 hostages are believed to be still in Gaza, and alive.

Despite these poor results, Netanyahu argues that only military pressure on Hamas will lead to more hostage releases. Netanyahu, who leads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, has the support of his cabinet in this belief.

Some far-right members of the cabinet have threatened to leave the government if he waivers from this aim. And this would cause his government to collapse, requiring fresh elections. On current polling, Netanyahu would surely lose by a substantial margin.

However, Netanyahu’s emphasis on the military defeat of Hamas has raised questions among many Israelis as to whether focus on the military campaign has downgraded negotiations on hostage releases.

An opinion poll by the Hebrew University in mid-January showed that nearly half of those surveyed said the main priority should be the hostages. The large demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in recent weeks against Netanyahu’s management of the war suggest this proportion may now be higher.

So, is Hamas then ‘winning’?

Unlike the Netanyahu government, the Hamas leadership has not publicly set a standard by which it might measure victory. However, it’s obvious: the war is a zero-sum game. If Hamas survives, Israel loses.

That’s a much lower bar, and Hamas seems to believe it has the momentum. Since the temporary truce in November, Hamas has hardened its demands for a new hostage-prisoner exchange deal to include a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and permanent ceasefire.

Hamas is well aware that Israel has lost considerable international support over the course of the war – particularly with the Biden administration in the US, but also with its other traditional sympathisers in the West. The IDF’s targeted, if mistaken, killing of seven aid workers with the charity World Central Kitchen last week has only added to this international anger.

Read more:
More than 200 aid workers have been killed in Gaza, making famine more likely

Following the aid worker killings, Biden had a diplomatically “direct” (read, angry) phone call with Netanyahu, during which he called the overall humanitarian situation in Gaza “unacceptable”. He also demanded Israel implement specific and concrete measures to address civilian harm and the safety of all aid workers.

Biden then made a scarcely veiled threat to reassess US “policy with respect to Gaza” if Netanyahu failed to take immediate action.

Netanyahu has become accustomed to facing down US presidents over his years in power, but Biden’s message certainly got through to him. He hurriedly convened a cabinet meeting to approve the opening of three aid pathways into Gaza.

But did this really mark a turning point for US support for Israel? The US has already reduced its diplomatic support for Israel, having abstained on a ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council last month, which allowed it to pass.

A far more serious step would be to reduce or place conditions on US weapons sales to Israel. However, such a move is not likely at this stage. It would run counter to the long-held bipartisan US policy towards Israel, which virtually since the creation of the Jewish state has been to ensure its survival in a region where it is surrounded by enemies.

US restrictions on military aid are even more unlikely in Israel’s current security environment, facing threats not only from Hamas, but also Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iranian-backed militants in Iraq and Syria. Iran has also made threats against Israel following an apparent Israeli strike against the Iranian consulate in Damascus last week.

Can the stalemate be broken?

Netanyahu’s problem is that Biden has now limited Israel’s freedom of action in prosecuting the war. Invading the southern Gaza area of Rafah would cause huge numbers of civilian casualties and incur further American wrath, so Israel is likely to hold off for the time being.

Both the US and Israel will be hoping the negotiations that resumed in Egypt this week can achieve a breakthrough. Even though Egyptian media is saying progress has been made on a deal, the negotiations have dragged on for months, it remains to be seen whether both sides can find a compromise on the most contentious points of disagreement.

Read more:
The UN Security Council has finally called for a ceasefire in Gaza. But will it have any effect?

Biden’s other main problem when it comes to reining in Netanyahu is the US does not have an alternative plan for dealing with Hamas.

Biden’s warning to Netanyahu was focused on reducing civilian casualties and allowing more aid into Gaza. But he is not saying the Israeli objective of destroying Hamas in Gaza has to be abandoned.

Biden’s plan for a political settlement in the territory is for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to be revitalised and take over management of Gaza after Hamas’s defeat. How that might be achieved given the Palestinian Authority has little credibility with Palestinians and even less with Israelis is not at all clear.

Even more worryingly, Hamas’s demise still seems a long way off.

The Conversation

Ian Parmeter does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Facing enormous pressure at home and abroad, how much longer can Israel continue its war in Gaza? –