Breaking Analysis | November 14th, 2023
The prime minister bet that he could block Palestinian statehood by quietly bolstering Hamas and making a “separate peace” with Arab monarchies. It undermined Israel’s security.
The aftermath of the terrible events of October 7 will play out for years to come. Awful as the despicable Hamas attack and its consequences are, they were foreseeable—perhaps not in their specifics, but certainly in fact that Hamas would not accept the direction regional politics was moving. No doubt there will be myriad investigations, official and otherwise, into the wide variety of factors that led to the massacres. As happened after the 1973 war and other military disasters that have befallen Israel, there is a need to learn lessons and apportion blame.
One of the many issues to be studied must surely be the complex tracks of secret diplomacy conducted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the years leading up to October 7. By pursuing years of largely contradictory policies, through parallel back channels—including with Hamas itself—Netanyahu helped create the dynamics that sparked the attacks. This does not absolve the group of responsibility for the atrocity; its killers attacked innocent civilians. But the context needs to be understood if we are ever to achieve a full accounting of what happened and why.
The Corrosive Expedient of Netanyahu’s Back Channels
When Netanyahu was briefly out of office (June 2021 to December 2022) I published an article examining Netanyahu’s use of secret diplomacy. The central thesis was,
Netanyahu’s reliance on back channels, both for “doing business” with Hamas, and for contacts with Saudi Arabia, was...a strategy intended to both appease his political base and prevent peace with the Palestinians, while seeking to tactically manage relations across the region. However, this strategy contains a fundamental tension which may be difficult to ignore for much longer.i
Netanyahu used back channels as means to achieve two contradictory policy ends: first, as a tactical goal, a period of relative calm with Hamas; second, more strategically, a new relationship with Arab states that would lead to the ultimate prize, normalized relations with Saudi Arabia. This would be achieved in several steps:
An extended period in which a relative lack of violence would remove any interest among the Israeli public (or the United States) to seek a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) would be emasculated, while Hamas would remain strong in Gaza. The group’s stated goal of destroying Israel would further Netanyahu’s arguments that “there is no partner for peace” and that the collapse of the peace process is the fault of the Palestinians.
Under these conditions, Netanyahu would not have to confront the illegal activities of Israel’s extreme right and the settler movement, which he sought to make a key part of his political base in order to remain in power and escape justice for corruption.
Formal relations with Arab states, leading to normalization with Saudi Arabia, would fundamentally alter the dynamics of the region in Israel’s favor, particularly in the larger regional contest with Iran.
I do not disapprove of back channels per se or diplomatic secrecy more generally. Sometimes these techniques are necessary, and they have been effective in helping to broker peace from South Africa to Northern Ireland. Instead, my criticism is over the way Netanyahu used these tools to further the policies he pursued.
The Israel-Hamas Channel
It is often forgotten that Hamas once offered Israel a 10-year “truce” (hudna). Israel found unacceptable the idea that Hamas would consolidate its rule over Gaza and emerge stronger. At the time, some analysts believed that a hudna, and Hamas itself, might be capable of evolving into a longer-term peace, but others saw the proposal as a trap.ii
Though Israel rejected the hudna, Hamas and Netanyahu later sought to secretly manage the conflict, each side confident that it would prevail when the time for fighting returned. These steps included a quiet Israeli blessing for Qatari funding of initiatives in the Gaza Strip and Israeli permits for Gazan workers. This did not completely stop the fighting but instead calibrated it while allowing each side to argue that peace was not possible. When rounds of fighting did break out, each could claim that it was the only one prepared to stand up for the national interest.iii In the 2018 words of a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, “Neither side (Israel or Hamas) believes in a permanent resolution of the conflict, so they can each accept interim arrangements stretching over a long period of time.”iv
This approach left the PA, the Palestinian entity prepared to talk to Israel overtly and reach agreement with it, out in the cold. Indeed, there have been no formal peace talks between Israel and the PA since 2014. Both Israel and Hamas regard this as the key achievement. Netanyahu adviser Jonathan Urich stated that the prime minister’s policy “managed to achieve a split between Gaza and Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for the West Bank), and in fact crushed the vision of a Palestinian state in these two areas.”v As two former high-ranking Israeli officials have written, “As absurd as it may sound, Netanyahu’s intrepid and gung-ho right-wing governments have become de facto partners of Hamas in perpetuating its rule and the status quo.”vi
This suited the goals of Netanyahu and Hamas on multiple levels. For Netanyahu, it furthered the demise of the two-state solution while playing to his political base. If there was no pressure from the Israeli public (and not much from the United States) for peace talks, settlement expansion could proceed. This would also enable steps to weaken Israeli democracy and allow Netanyahu to bring his extremist partners into the political mainstream and degrade the impediments to their fundamentally anti-democratic project. These measures would strengthen the prime minister’s continued hold on power.
For Hamas, the tacit deal not only scuttled a two-state settlement of the conflict, but it kept open the option of war at some unspecified point in the future and painted it as the only Palestinian organization prepared to continue the fight against Israel.
The different back channels between Israel and Hamas were thus tactical; each side knew that an eventual return to war was inevitable. It was always understood that, once the tacit understandings faded and the strategic picture that made the implicit truce attractive to both sides changed, one or the other would reignite the conflict.
The Israel-Saudi Back Channel
Israel carried much more strategic objectives into its secret diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, part of a wider set of back channels with Arab states that have existed for many years. Throughout much of its history, Israel has used such channels to manage relationships with countries that refused to recognize it but with whom business nevertheless needed to be conducted.vii Beginning in the last decade, however, things started to change. Some Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, began to see in Israel a partner to confront two interrelated nightmares: a resurgent Iran and the perception that the United States, distracted by dysfunctional politics at home and other challenges in Asia, might no longer be a reliable security partner. Though carried out clandestinely, the talks were periodically alluded to publicly (and as often theatrically denied), perhaps as a way for those involved to demonstrate to interested audiences that they had other diplomatic and security options.viii
These talks, unlike previous instances of Israeli-Arab back-channel diplomacy, were not simply aimed at managing relations. Over time, and with American backing, they came to be explicitly framed as an attempt by the countries involved to normalize relations and develop a new regional security framework.ix These discussions culminated in the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel and certain Arab states—first the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, followed by Morocco and Sudan.x Though Saudi Arabia did not formally join, it certainly approved and gave every sign that it would eventually do so under certain conditions, including progress on the Israeli-Palestinian file and other concessions from the United States in relation to Saudi security. In the meantime, (barely) clandestine relations continued to develop between Israel and Saudi Arabia over issues of mutual concern, such as Iran.
The Inherent Contradiction
There is, however, an inherent contradiction between these policies and the secret diplomacy used to carry them forward. One back channel was intended to manage the Israel-Hamas conflict in the short to medium term while further undermining the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace and allowing extremists on both sides to consolidate power. The other back channel allowed a more strategic set of discussions to create an anti-Iran coalition between Israel and Arab states, though it would require progress on Palestinian sovereignty to succeed. The anti-Iranian character of the Israel-Saudi back channel is especially significant, as Hamas is backed by the Islamic Republic.
The dynamics that the two processes set in motion inevitably pitted the policies, and their back channels, against each other. For Hamas and Iran, progress toward an ultimate anti-Iranian coalition that would bring Israel into the Gulf is unacceptable. Even though Saudi Arabia was at pains to state that formal recognition of Israel would not happen without steps toward peace with Palestine—and Riyadh sought to reduce its own bilateral tensions with Iran through a China-brokered rapprochement—the prospect of an eventual Saudi-Israeli deal was just too much. (Despite this, Netanyahu gleefully played up a breakthrough as being “just around the corner” every chance he got.) Aside from the implications of such a relationship for Iran’s interests in the Gulf and the wider region, the idea that Israel might ultimately gain recognition from the last holdouts in the Arab world must have rung alarm bells among the Hamas leadership. Their dream, however chimerical, of eventually “destroying” Israel would be significantly damaged if this were to happen.
Anyone looking critically at the flow of events in the region would have seen this coming. Netanyahu himself should have been on watch for an explosion that his own analysis should have seen as inevitable. He knew that large-scale violence with Hamas would eventually resume. He knew that a fundamental change in Israel’s status in the region, and particularly the Gulf, was something neither Hamas nor Iran could accept. The implications of the security failures are disturbing. He either did not anticipate that playing the two sets of policies and back channels against each other could not go on forever or—if he did understand that he could not cynically balance these competing forces indefinitely—he was manifestly unable to anticipate the warning signs that would indicate when the end of his double game was approaching. He was so busy managing day-to-day events in order to remain in power that the ultimate consequences of his contradictory machinations were beyond his view.
Netanyahu thus shirked his primary duty, and the failures are multilayered. He refused to admit, to himself and the Israeli people, that the short-term political expediency of his contradictory strategy, though it allowed him to play various forces against each other, would ultimately weaken Israel. There is no way to forge lasting agreements with the broader region without addressing the Palestinian issue, and efforts that retard the peace process will condemn Israel to a bleak future. Tacitly accepting Hamas for a period, facilitating Israeli extremists in gaining control of settlement policy, all the while loudly proclaiming that Israel has no Palestinian partner for peace, was cynical and ultimately self-defeating.
Perhaps most important, Netanyahu failed not only to safeguard Israel’s security but also its democracy. The purpose of his strategy was to retain power by creating conditions that would empower Israeli extremists, and by changing the very nature of the country’s political and legal system. The social polarization that took place on his watch contributed significantly to the weakening of Israel.
Netanyahu offered ordinary Israelis a dream of acceptance by the wider Arab world without having to make the difficult choices necessary for peace with the Palestinians. He allowed Hamas an implicit, if temporary, truce to allow each side to further its hold on power while weakening moderate internal opponents. He proposed to Saudi Arabia the prospect of security cooperation against Iran in hopes that Riyadh would eventually come to accept his version of Israel. The contradictory offers did not open a path for Israelis to live in peace.
With the massacres of October 7 and the brutal war now raging, Netanyahu’s cynical balancing act lies in ruins. Well more than 10,000 innocent civilians are dead, with many more to come, and over a million have been displaced. The prime minister’s only strategy to retain power is to blame everyone else for the disaster he should have seen coming. The intelligence officials charged with monitoring Hamas who missed, or failed to understand, the preparations for the attack of October 7 should be called to account. However, Netanyahu himself should not escape blame for his leading role in creating the context in which the attacks happened. His short-sighted policies, contradictory diplomatic tactics, and hubris played a large part.
Netanyahu’s choices, if he is to survive politically, are limited. To hold together his political coalition, he cannot accept a serious revival of any process aimed at the two-state solution; his extremist right-wing partners and their settlement project cannot live with this. Similarly, calls for Gaza and the West Bank to be reunited under a moderate self-governing body (probably in the form of a revived Palestinian Authority, if this is possible) are unacceptable. And yet both of these—a new push toward two states and the revival of the PA in the West Bank and Gaza—are exactly what the United States and other major Western powers are calling for in their frantic diplomacy of the moment.
Netanyahu’s only hope is to play for time and to paint Gaza as being beyond redemption in terms of its ever being able to be pacified and de-radicalized, and also to throw in the idea that the West Bank is not far behind. Neither territory can ever really be self-governing: They must be separated, and Israel must retain overall “security” control in both. The prime minister must hope that, if he can sell these ideas to a still-traumatized Israeli public—and continue to argue that he is the only leader able to deliver these policies in the face of Western pressure—he can live politically to see another day. On November 11, Netanyahu laid out this case to the Israeli people. “The massacre of October 7 proved once and for all that in every place that Israel does not have security control, terrorism entrenches itself,” he said in televised remarks. “In the end it comes back to hit us, and that is also true of Judea and Samaria.”xi Netanyahu failed to mention that Hamas was, at least in part, able to “entrench” itself thanks to his tacit acceptance of it over many years.
In any case, the prime minister clearly has no intention of going anywhere. Indeed, he may well have an interest in making sure that the fight Israel now finds itself in is as lengthy and destructive as possible in order to stymie attempts to revive peacemaking in its wake. The West, and the United States in particular, have pledged virtually unconditional support for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, and rightly so. But if there is to be any hope of a return peacemaking, the time may be upon us when Western leaders will have to make clear that this is not the same thing as unconditional support for Netanyahu’s attempt to survive politically.
i Peter Jones (2022) “An increasingly corrosive expedient? Israel’s evolving relationship with back-channel diplomacy,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2022.2156846
ii See: Tuastad, D., “The Hudna: Hamas’ Concept of a Long-Term Ceasefire,” PRIO Policy Brief, 09/2010; Scham. P. and Abu-Irshaid, O., “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility,” USIP Special Report 224, June 2009; ii See: Kirchick, J., “Hoodwinked by a Hudna,” The New Republic, April 16, 2008, available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/41239/hoodwinked-hudna; and Karmon, E., “Hudna is no solution,” Haaretz, January 2, 2008, available at: https://www.haaretz.com/2008-01-02/ty-article/hudna-is-no-solution/0000017f-e042-d9aa-afff-f95ab5f90000.
iii Hacohen, H., “Hamas Won’t Say It, but the They Prefer Netanyahu,” Jerusalem Post, February 16, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Hamas-wont-say-it-but-they-prefer-Netanyahu-Analysis-580820; Ahronheim, A., “Liberman secretly met with Qatari FM to talk Gaza,” Jerusalem Post, August 23, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Liberman-secretly-met-with-Qatari-Foreign-Minister-to-talk-Gaza-565536; Frantzman, S., “A Secret Mossad Qatar Trip, Hamas Outreach to Egypt and Iran’s Threat,” Jerusalem Post, February 20, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/A-secret-Mossad-Qatar-trip-Hamas-outreach-to-Egypt-and-Irans-threat-618513; Yaari, M., Israel and Qatar: Relations Nurtured by the Palestinian Issue, (Tel Aviv, The Israeli Institute for Regional Studies, March, 2020), at: http://mitvim.org.il/images/Dr._Michal_Yaari_-_Israel_and_Qatar_-_Relations_nurtured_by_the_Palestinian_issue_-_March_2020.pdf; and Kingsley, P. and Kershner, I., “Five More are Said to be Killed as Israel-Gaza Violence Flares Again,” New York Times, August 7, 2022.
iv Hussein Agha quoted in Tibon, A., “Abbas’ Secret Negotiator Says Israel and Hamas Now ‘Natural Partners’ for Peace Deal,” Haaretz, September 3, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-abbas-secret-negotiator-says-israel-and-hamas-now-natural-partners-1.6435755. See also, Tamir, N., “Netanyahu’s cooperation with far Right, Islamists unsurprising – opinion,” Jerusalem Post, Dec. 20, 2020, accessed at: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/netanyahus-cooperation-with-far-right-islamists-unsurprising-opinion-653549
v Of course, Netanyahu did not create the PA/Hamas split of 2006/07, but he worked assiduously to further it. Quoted in Lehrs, L., “Peace Spoilers or Negotiation Partners; Netanyahu’s Understandings with Hamas,” Haaretz, 13 February, 2020, also published as research report by the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, at: https://www.mitvim.org.il/images/Dr._Lior_Lehrs_-_Netanyahu_Seeks_Understandings_with_Hamas_-_February_2020.pdf
vi Golan (Maj. Gen) Y., and C. Freilich, “Hamas Came Out Ahead in the Gaza War,” Haaretz, 24 May, 2021, accessed at: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-hamas-came-out-ahead-in-the-gaza-war-here-s-how-israel-can-turn-adversity-into-vict-1.9838251
vii For general histories of Israel and back-channel talks see: Wanis-St. John, A., Back-channel Negotiation: Secrecy in the Middle East Peace Process, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011); Kleiman, A., Statecraft in the Dark: Israel’s Practice of Secret Diplomacy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982); Kleiman, A., “Israeli Diplomacy in the Back-channel,” Leonard Davis Institute Occasional Paper No. 80, Hebrew University, 2000; and Jones, C., and T.T. Petersen, (eds)., Israel’s Clandestine Diplomacies (London: C. Hurst, 2013).
viii All of this analyzed in Jones, P., “An Increasingly Corrosive Expedient,” op cit. For references to these talks at the time they were beginning to gather pace see: Barak, R., “Wikileaks Blows Cover of Israel’s Covert Ties,” Haaretz, November 29, 2010, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/wikileaks-blows-cover-off-israel-s-covert-gulf-states-ties-1.327758; Lake, E., “Israel, Gulf States Conducted Secret Diplomacy; Adversaries Fearful of Iran,” The Washington Times, December 1, 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/dec/1/israel-gulf-states-conducted-secret-diplomacy/; “Saudi Arabia Denies Lieberman’s Claim of Secret Diplomacy; Israeli Foreign Minister Says Israel in Talks with Arab States Based on Common Fear of Iran,” Haaretz/Reuters, April 15, 2014, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.585658; Roth, D., “Israel, Saudi Arabia Admit Secret Diplomacy for First Time,” The Jerusalem Post, May 6, 2015, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Israel-Saudi-Arabia-admit-secret-diplomacy-for-first-time-405123; Keinon, H., “Top Diplomat: Israel has contacts with Almost Every Arab State,” The Jerusalem Post, January 19, 2016, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Top-diplomat-Israel-has-contacts-with-almost-every-Arab-state-442031; Batrawy, A. and Federman, J., “Secret No More: Israel’s Outreach to Gulf Arab States,” Associated Press, October 31, 2018, https://apnews.com/7447775d984f4f6f87b0bf422122faf2; Swift, R., “Analysis: Speculation over Israel’s Diplomatic Liaisons with Gulf States,” The Jerusalem Post, January 21, 2016, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Analysis-Speculation-over-Israels-Diplomatic-Liaisons-with-Gulf-States-442296; and Ahronheim, A., “Report: IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkot Met with Saudi Counterpart,” The Jerusalem Post, October 17, 2018.
ix Israeli officials, serving and former, private communications. See also: Guzansky, Y., “Israel and the Arab Gulf States: from tacit cooperation to reconciliation?” Israel Affairs, 21(1) 2015; Jones, C. and Y. Guzansky, “Israel’s Relations with the Gulf States: Towards the Emergence of a Tacit Security Regime?” Contemporary Security Policy, 38(3) 2017; Ahren, R., “Netanyahu hails ‘best-ever’ ties to Arab world,” Times of Israel, 6 September 2017. Accessed at https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-hails-best-ever-ties-to-arab-world/; Jones, P., “Chasing the Impossible Dream: Can Israel Achieve a Regional Security Architecture Through Back-channel Diplomacy?” in: M. Hanna and T. Cambannis (eds.), Order From Ashes: New Foundations for Security in the Middle East, (New York: The Century Foundation and the Brooking Institution, 2018); Black, I., “Just Below the Surface: Israel, the Arab Gulf States and the Limits of Cooperation,”, LSE Middle East Centre Report, March 2019, accessed at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/100313/7/JustBelowtheSurface.pdf; and Podeh, E., “Saudi Arabia and Israel: From Secret to Public Engagement, 1948-2018,” Middle East Journal, 72(4), 2018.
x U.S. Department of State, The Abraham Accords Declaration, at; https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/
xi Quoted in Kershner, I., Boxerman, A., and Fuller, T., “Netanyahu Sees no Near-Term Role for Palestinian Authority in Postwar Gaza,” New York Times, November 12, 2023, accessed at: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/12/world/middleeast/netanyahu-gaza-hamas-palestinian-authority.html