Israeli leader’s war cabinet wants a cease-fire to secure the return of hostages, but his Likud party wants unrelenting war.
As he tries to cling to power, Benjamin Netanyahu is being buffeted by contradictory demands over the direction of the war in Gaza. His war cabinet is increasingly urging a cease-fire deal to be struck with Hamas — to secure the return of Israeli hostages — while lawmakers in his own Likud party are pushing in the opposite direction and pressing for military operations to remain unrelenting.
Unable to square the circle, the Israeli leader appears to have chosen to postpone decisions about the direction of the war, but it is doubtful they can be delayed for much longer. A public groundswell is starting to build for military operations to be put on hold and for a cease-fire to be reached with Hamas for the release of more than a hundred Israelis still being held in Gaza.
There’s rising alarm about the captives’ treatment and the conditions they are enduring. Thousands of Israelis took to the streets over the weekend calling for the hostages to be prioritized over the military campaign. And in a television interview Thursday, a war cabinet minister, Gadi Eisenkot, a former and highly popular chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), warned the only way to save hostages in the near term is through a deal even if that comes at a high price.
Eisenkot, whose 25-year-old son and 19-year-old nephew died fighting in Gaza in December, also appeared to criticize Netanyahu’s management of the war with Hamas, suggesting the Israeli leadership is not telling the Israeli public the truth about the conflict and that talk of destroying Hamas is over-blown. A complete victory over the militant group is unrealistic, he said.
“Whoever speaks of the absolute defeat [of Hamas in Gaza] and of it no longer having the will or the capability [to harm Israel], is not speaking the truth. That is why we should not tell tall tales,” Eisenkot said.
Eisenkot also said elections should be held soon to restore public trust in the Israeli government following the devastating October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas. Eisenkot is seen by some as a future prime minister candidate, favored by some even over Benny Gantz, a former defense minister. The two are leaders of the centrist National Unity Party and agreed to join Netanyahu’s war cabinet after October 7 as a demonstration of national solidarity.
The Eisenkot interview, broadcast by Israel’s Channel 12 News, was especially damaging as it was broadcast hours after Netanyahu rejected in a press conference the idea of holding elections in the middle of a war. Netanyahu said he could continue in power well into 2025. He vowed to “bring about a complete victory” over Hamas.
Netanyahu’s indecision is also infuriating his own lawmakers — they worry there is a lack of defined goals beyond the slogan of “destroying Hamas,” and fear the prime minister will cave to pressure for a cease-fire. And they complain about a throttling back of military operations, which has seen the IDF move away from large-scale ground operations and air strikes to conduct more targeted missions.
Senior Israeli military officials first confirmed on January 8 the tactical transition, with military spokesman Daniel Hagari saying the IDF would reduce troop numbers in the Palestinian enclave and conduct “one-off raids there instead of maintaining wide-scale maneuvers.”
Described as Phase 3 in the military campaign, officials in briefings cast the transition as necessary to give reservists some rest for the long haul in a war they say will take months, and to return others to their jobs to help the country’s ailing economy. The officials also said some troops needed to be redeployed to Israel’s tense northern border, where Hezbollah attacks have prompted Israel to threaten a ground campaign in Lebanon.
But the reasons given for the adjustment are disputed by some Likud lawmakers, including by Danny Danon, a former U.S. envoy to the U.N. He and others view the shift more than anything as an effort to placate the Biden administration and European governments anxious about the civilian death toll in Gaza. And there’s mounting talk of a possible future party leadership challenge to Netanyahu.
“We hear a lot of declarations both from the prime minister and [Defense Minister] Yoav Gallant almost every day about how we’re going to eradicate and destroy Hamas. But when you look at what’s happening now, I’m not sure it’s going in that direction,” Danon told POLITICO in an exclusive interview. “If he will not win the war, then I’m sure there will be another leader from the right that will step in because that will be the time,” he added.
Danon has twice challenged Netanyahu for the party leadership, in 2007 and 2014, but waves off a question about whether he will again seek the party’s leadership, saying merely that Likud is growing uneasy. “I speak with a lot of people and I hear them. They demand victory,” he said. “He’s being tested. Netanyahu has done a lot for Israel over the years, but he will be remembered by the way he finishes the war.”
Danon said the only acceptable conclusion to the war is “either Hamas surrenders or it is destroyed.” Military pressure is what led to the release of some hostages in December, he said. “What has happened now is that we have changed the way we are conducting the operation because of the pressure coming from the U.S.,” he added.
With opinion polls suggesting Likud has lost a third of its electoral support since October 7, Danon suggested victory could restore the party’s fortunes as well as being necessary for the security of Israel. “We need to hit Hamas so hard they will not be able to come against us anymore,” he said, adding that prime ministers, including Netanyahu have too often pulled up short before and announced Israel has been made safe and its enemies have now been deterred only for attacks to resume. “You cannot play that game anymore,” he said.
With Likud members becoming increasingly restless, Netanyahu is more and more focusing on trying to tamp down internal party dissent. “It is all about Likud at the moment,” said a senior Israeli official, who was granted anonymity to talk about a sensitive issue. The official acknowledged that talk of a party rebellion might be premature and that Likud critics would have to calculate that an attempt to oust Netanyahu could ultimately trigger early elections that would see Likud lose badly. Nonetheless, the Israeli leader is agitated about the unease within the ranks of a party that he molded over the years in his own image, stacking it with loyalists and promoting those who share his views.
Likud disapproval partly explains Netanyahu’s strong push back last week on Washington’s readout of a phone conversation between the Israeli leader and U.S. President Joe Biden — their first since December. Israeli officials on Saturday took issue with Biden’s remarks after the call in which he said a two-state solution may still be possible even while Netanyahu is in power. Biden told reporters some “types” of two-state solution may be acceptable to the Israeli premier, even though Netanyahu has frequently ruled out the notion of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Netanyahu’s office reiterated his rigid opposition in a statement sent to POLITICO following Biden’s take. “In his conversation with President Biden, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his policy that after Hamas is destroyed Israel must retain security control over Gaza to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel, a requirement that contradicts the demand for Palestinian sovereignty,” his office said.
A two-state solution is anathema for the right-wing of the Likud party.