What Israel’s Leaders Can’t—or Won’t—Say About Biden’s Ceasefire Announcement

On Friday, President Joe Biden publicly called on Hamas to agree to what he said was an Israeli ceasefire proposal that would bring the war in Gaza to an end. Since then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given conflicting signals about whether he even supports the deal, which, if accepted, could cause right-wing ministers in the Knesset to leave Netanyahu’s coalition, resulting in its collapse. Moreover, last month, Benny Gantz, the retired army general and centrist Israeli politician, announced that he would leave Netanyahu’s war cabinet if the Prime Minister did not announce a plan for post-war Gaza by June 8th. (Biden’s publicly announced proposal mentions the need for reconstructing Gaza.) Israel’s military campaign has been going on for eight months, and despite an enormous number of Palestinian deaths—more than thirty-five thousand, by current estimates—Israel is continuing its invasion of the city of Rafah. Netanyahu has still offered no plan for what to do when the war eventually concludes. (Several members of his far-right coalition have spoken in favor of permanently occupying Gaza.)

I recently spoke by phone with Ofer Shelah, a military analyst and onetime member of the Knesset who helped lead the government’s coronavirus response in 2020. Shelah also helped found the Blue and White coalition, which tried to unseat Netanyahu in 2019; he was a co-founder of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a centrist party, which Shelah eventually left. He is currently at the Institute for National Security Studies, in Tel Aviv, where he analyzes political and defense issues.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. We started by discussing the political situation in Israel, and the prospects of dislodging Netanyahu from power, and then transitioned to discussing why Israeli society has seemed unconcerned with the death toll in Gaza.

How do you understand Gantz’s threat to leave the government?

Well, there’s been mounting pressure on Gantz from his electorate. In October, he and [the former I.D.F. chief of staff] Gadi Eisenkot joined the government, and this was a very popular move because we were all in shock by what had transpired on October 7th. There was a feeling that, really, the country was in danger. Gantz was, as we say in Israel, the one to step under the stretcher.

Now it has become more and more evident that the stretcher is really going nowhere. I can refer you to a poll that we’ve been conducting at the I.N.S.S., where the number of people who’ve been saying Israel is going to win the war, however you define that victory, has dropped from ninety-two per cent to sixty-four per cent. All of that creates mounting pressure on him to leave, and that is outside of the difference of opinion that he and definitely Eisenkot have with Netanyahu on the issues themselves. That’s why he put out this statement.

He placed the date at June 8th, which was three weeks from the day he spoke. A lot of people expected it to be a lot sooner. That reflects the kind of political crossroads he’s at. He and especially Eisenkot are not pleased with the way the war is going. They have real differences with Netanyahu about what we should do now, but [Gantz is] still reluctant to drop his position of being the responsible adult who stepped under the stretcher and moved into Netanyahu’s government. I think the bottom line is that he won’t be able to go beyond the June 8th date. If he does that, then he’ll be ridiculed in Israeli public opinion.

How would you characterize those differences with Netanyahu right now? What is Gantz’s criticism, and what message is he telling the Israeli public about his problems with Netanyahu’s government?

I dare say that his criticism is a little—I don’t know—convoluted? But, with your permission, I’d like to speak about the situation as it is. We’ve reached the crossroads. Since December, especially since the end of January, when the biggest part of the military operation ended and some reserves were being sent home, it was obvious that there were two paths for Israel. One is what the Biden Administration is suggesting, and that is creating a diplomatic framework for not only the future of Gaza but the future of the Middle East, creating a coalition, a partnership with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, which would entail some kind of defense agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and actually create a counterweight to Iran. If you want to create some kind of alternative to Hamas, any kind of regime or any kind of entity leading civilian life in the Gaza Strip, you need that.

On the other hand, there’s a road that leads us to—and nobody will say it explicitly, not Netanyahu, maybe the extreme right-wing of this government, maybe [Bezalel] Smotrich and [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, but Netanyahu won’t say it out loud—the de-facto Israeli occupation of Gaza. Gantz understands this. Eisenkot definitely understands this.

Netanyahu wants Israel to achieve normalization with Saudi Arabia, but he’s not ready to even utter the words “Palestinian Authority” or “two-state solution,” even as some kind of remote goal that will not happen now. Why Netanyahu does not do that has to do with his own political survival.

But Gantz himself is not saying that we need a two-state solution, either, correct?

Yes, because he knows Israeli public opinion. Therefore, his message was somewhat convoluted. He said in his six-point plan that he wants normalization and an American-European-Arab-Palestinian force in Gaza that is not Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Why won’t he say “two-state solution?” Because he knows it’s very unpopular in Israel, but there’s really no other way.

You are suggesting that Gantz and Eisenkot or whoever else is going to campaign against Netanyahu by saying, “Look, the problem is Iran. We need this regional alliance to counter Iran. We need to make this deal with the Saudis.” But a crucial part of the deal was always going to be a Palestinian state. So how would that work?

You’re right. Right now, no Israeli politician of any weight, not even Yair Golan, who was just elected to be chairman of the Labor Party, and supposedly the next leader of the Israeli left, is saying the words “two-state solution” or “Palestinian state,” even though everybody knows that you have to go for the whole package with this deal. In my mind the deal is crucial because Iran will be very problematic for Israel to face by itself.

Netanyahu understands this, and is actually planning to campaign on saying Gantz will bring you the Palestinian state and the Palestinian state is Hamas, so Gantz will bring Hamas to your homes. This is going to be his whole campaign. On the other hand, nobody is embracing fully and publicly the inherent outcome of normalization with Saudi Arabia—of bringing Saudis, Emiratis, and Palestinians to rule Gaza. Nobody goes the whole nine yards because they know how unpopular that sounds.

President Biden himself needs to present this as a plan, backed by M.B.S., backed by Egypt and so on, and create a situation where the Israeli people will have to ask their politicians, “Are you for or against the American plan?” Right now Gantz can say these things that don’t add up.

But if Biden is to announce some giant normalization plan and the Saudis formally get behind it, it’s just hard for me to imagine that the political situation in Israel will change such that anyone, especially while they are trying to win an election, is going to embrace the plan if it includes a Palestinian state.

No, but the question will be there. This is the whole thing in politics, and I was a politician for eight years, so I know this firsthand. In politics, you’re going to try to evade. You love the gray areas because once you state your mind on a topic like this, clearly you lose support. That’s why I think this should be posited by the United States. Otherwise, you will get all those very obscure, not-adding-up things that Gantz is saying, that anybody who tries to present himself as an alternative to Netanyahu had been saying.

In terms of this recent ceasefire plan, was it understood in Gantz’s circles to be a way for the Americans to put pressure on Netanyahu, and do a version of what you were talking about with the Saudi deal?

Yeah. The only problem is—and I don’t know why—Biden did not specify the whole plan. I was hoping for him to lay out the complete plan, the grand vision to stand against Iran and so on with a regional alliance, and Gaza is a part of that. What he specified outright only included how to end the war in Gaza and bring back the hostages. The problem is that if you don’t lay out the complete plan, what Israelis see now is only the end of the war in Gaza in return for an uncertain return of the hostages. What I fear is that Israel will now be left alone occupying Gaza and standing alone against Iran.

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