Breaking Analysis | November 7th, 2023
Netanyahu claims “indefinite” right of Israeli military to secure the territory, imperiling the American vow to revive the moribund peace process; the journal has long provided analysis of this dynamic.
If anyone maintained hopes that an Israeli “victory” in Gaza would create a path toward the security of the Jewish state and the sovereignty of the Palestinian people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought them crashing down with a declaration that his defense forces will maintain security responsibility in the territory for an “indefinite period.”
This appears to be another way for Netanyahu to frustrate the two-state solution. The prime minister has long supported Hamas in order to weaken the Palestinian Authority and claim that Israel does not have a partner for peace. (On this point, see Fadi Nahhas in Middle East Policy.) As Tal Schneider documents in the Times of Israel,
at a Likud faction meeting in early 2019, [Netanyahu] was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Middle East Policy has covered Netanyahu’s career from before he was first elected prime minister, documenting his attacks on the peace process. Please see below for links to our coverage; you can also search our entire library. Our analyses through the present day provide an understanding of the possibilities for an enduring political solution.
Netanyahu’s statement that Israel sees the war as indefinite flies in the face of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s claim that “Israel has made it clear it has no intention or desire to...resume control of Gaza.” Like other US officials and analysts, Blinken has promised to focus on the “day after” the war—that is, the moment when a UN, Arab, or even US authority can swoop in, run the territory, and prepare the ground for a two-state solution or at least for an interim Palestinian administration.
These American dreams appear to rely on an expectation that, on the “day after” the war, Netanyahu will be removed from office and that the Israeli government will owe its US benefactor. This belief that Netanyahu will leave the scene may seem reasonable: As the Biden administration has suggested, “the buck stops on the prime minister’s desk.”
In addition, critics in Israel lay some of the blame on Netanyahu for Hamas’s atrocities on October 7. The prime minister had allowed the transfer of security forces to protect settlers who are expanding their claims in the West Bank, allegedly leaving Gaza vulnerable.
Netanyahu’s diversion of resources away from protecting the Gaza border and his support for Hamas have been backed by far-right figures like Bezalel Smotrich, one of the key hardline members of the governing coalition. Smotrich recently blocked the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and demanded more military protection for Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. One of the many results of such a security zone would be the blocking of Palestinian farmers from the olive harvest.
These issues—as well as his attempt to overhaul the judicial system—have drastically undercut Netanyahu’s support. Polls show that the prime minister is backed by less than 30 percent of the people and that 80 percent hold him responsible for security failures. And his attempts to shift the blame for the October 7 massacres have led even his staunchest supporters to demand his resignation.
But many questions remain for US officials and Western analysts who see an opportunity to restart the moribund peace process when the war is “over”:
If Israel maintains indefinite security responsibility, will there actually be a “day after”?
Should American officials really expect Netanyahu’s days to be numbered if the war never really ends?
Or, if Netanyahu is able to declare victory over Hamas, can they be sure the prime minister will really face a day of reckoning?
Will a Prime Minister Benny Gantz be any more open to a lasting political solution? He once boasted of blasting Gaza back “to the stone age.”
And what leverage is the United States willing to use to prevent the de facto or actual annexation of the Jordan Valley? The administration claims that despite its rhetorical and monetary support for the Gaza bombardment that it cannot dictate to Israel the terms under which it fights (and Zvi Bar’el believes the Americans are losing patience). But should we expect the United States to make political demands on the Israelis “after” the war?
Of course, it could take years for Israel to even come close to “winning”—at the expense of unfathomable deaths of civilians, of whom 10,000 are estimated to have been killed in just one month of war. In which case there could literally be no day after.
Understanding Netanyahu’s Obstruction of Palestinian Sovereignty
Middle East Policy has been covering the politics of occupation since 1982. You can search our archives to find the breadth of analysis. Here are five articles that help readers understand the arc of his career and effect on the Palestine question.
Israel Shahak, “Israeli Land Seizure in the Occupied Territories,” Middle East Policy, June 1992.
Guilain Denoeux and Jonathan Fox, “Electoral Upset in Israel,” Middle East Policy, October 1996.
Lev Grinberg, “The Arrogance of Occupation,” Middle East Policy, March 2002.
Ian Lustick, “Israel Needs a New Map,” Middle East Policy, Summer 2013.
Fadi Nahhas, “Assessing Israel's Motives in Annexing the Jordan Valley,” Middle East Policy, Summer 2023.
The first mention of Netanyahu came in the June 1992 issue, in an article by Israel Shahak titled, “Israeli Land Seizure in the Occupied Territories.” Shahak, a Holocaust survivor, argued that Israeli seizures of land had been carried out with the express purpose of preventing an effective Palestinian sovereignty. He quotes Netanyahu’s thinking at that time, one year before the Oslo accords, about West Bank policy:
These areas will not be connected one with the other, there will be no central authority linking them, and each area will be surrounded by Israeli military installations, roadblocks and Jewish settlements.
Four years later, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by an Israeli nationalist who sought to undo the peace process (settlers had long opposed his policies, another Middle East Policy analysis from 1992 shows), Netanyahu was elected for the first time. In an article on that 1996 contest, “Electoral Upset in Israel,” Guilain Denoeux and Jonathan Fox analyze the electoral processes that put Netanyahu over the top. But they also raise a red flag about the new prime minister’s use of the politics of fear, which has become a hallmark of his appeal:
This strategy was most evident during the televised debate between the two candidates [the other was interim Prime Minister Shimon Peres], when Netanyahu used the word “fear” eleven times in fourteen minutes, accused Peres of having put the security of Israeli children in [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat's hands, and stated that every time they board a bus Israelis wonder whether they might become the victims of the next terrorist attack. Never, he implied, had the country felt more vulnerable.
During his first stint as prime minister, writes Israeli sociologist Lev Grinberg in a 2002 Middle East Policy article, Netanyahu offered Israelis an “openly arrogant discourse” that denied Palestinian control over the resources required for true sovereignty and a path toward statehood: “borders, water, electricity, telephones, ports and airports, movement between the cities, and the Palestinian economy.” Indeed, Grinberg’s analysis applies today if we substitute the Palestinian Authority or its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, for “Arafat”:
Arafat was expected to do what the Israeli army had failed to do: restrain Palestinian extremists and provide security to the Israelis. However, he wasn’t entitled to protect the security of the Palestinians, still ruled by the Israeli IDF [Israel Defense Forces], or to struggle for independence for his people. Hence, Arafat’s authority was not derived from the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights but rather from Israel’s consent to his presence.
After losing the position to Ehud Barak in a decisive 1999 vote, Netanyahu retook power in 2009 and has served as prime minister ever since (with a very short interlude before his ascension in late 2022 in coalition with far-right nationalists). A decade ago, Ian Lustick told an audience convened by the Middle East Policy Council that despite the churn in Israeli politics since Netanyahu’s first election and upheavals in the region, including the Arab Spring, there was a surprising continuity. “Virtually nothing has changed to deflect the trajectory of the West Bank and its relationship to Israel as a tightly subordinated, politically impotent, and developmentally stagnant region,” Lustick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, lamented.
That brings us to the present. In the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy, Fadi Nahhas explains that the Israeli mainstream rejects the overt annexation of the West Bank preferred by the far right. (Indeed, we are seeing this nationalist project play out during Israel’s onslaught of Gaza, with state-sanctioned land grabs by settlers in the West Bank and more than 100 Palestinians reported killed.) But the preferences of the military and the bulk of the Israeli political elite should not be seen as leading toward a two-state settlement.
Even if Netanyahu does not survive, and the far-right government is replaced by more moderate politicians, we should expect a de facto annexation, Nahhas argues.