Israel must define its endgame before it’s too late

Smoke billows after an Israeli strike on Jabalia as seen from Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip on May 19, 2024
Smoke billows after an Israeli strike on Jabalia as seen from Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip on May 19, 2024

Benny Gantz has threatened to quit the Israeli war cabinet unless it endorses an exit strategy from Gaza. If he were an American student, the police would lock him up. Were he a Labour MP, Starmer would remove the whip.

It feels harder to have a conversation in Britain and America about Israel than in Israel itself, probably because the well was poisoned by domestic simpletons who could barely disguise their support for Hamas on October 7. Their cruelty drew us away from debating what Israel should do to whether Israel should exist at all, triggering a rallying effect among political elites. While the kids in the tents chant “from the river to the sea...”, my fellow conservatives tell Netanyahu to invade Rafah and “get the job done”.

But what job? And how will we know when it’s over? If the mission is the recapture of hostages, it’s not working: about 125 are still held, 39 are presumed dead and, in the past few days, four bodies have been recovered. A number of their relatives accuse Netanyahu of jeopardising their safety by refusing to make concessions to Hamas, and there have been anti-government protests in Tel-Aviv to rival the bitterness of London or New York. One of the tragic ironies of this conflict is that some of those directly affected by October 7 were doves living on the border to express solidarity with Gazans – and now find their suffering exploited by Israelis on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Over the weekend, Gadi Kedem, a protester who lost six family members, says he was beaten up by Right-wing activists bearing a placard that read: “Leftist traitors.” His wife claims she was called “a degenerate, a stinking Leftist” and told: “It’s a good thing your children died.”

Never mind our views on Zionism, it is Israelis who are now debating the existential questions – the meaning of their country, its rightful borders and how to remain a Jewish state when half the local population is Arab. In 2005, the Right found an answer. Israel withdrew from Gaza and abandoned its settlements, leaving Palestinians emasculated and divided between rival administrations – Fatah vs Hamas – allowing Israel to focus on internal security and make peace with its neighbours. Hamas sought to upend that strategy with violence. It worked. Today Israel is back running the strip, overstretched and isolated from global opinion.

Its greatest challenge is a weakening relationship with the US. Israel relies on America for survival; during the Iranian attack on April 13, the US shot down at least a quarter of the incoming missiles.

But Biden made it clear that he wouldn’t be sucked into a regional war, for his goal has always been to withdraw from Europe and the Middle East in order to refocus on China. Thanks to Ukraine and Israel he instead finds himself defending small nations against emergent empires, all the while trying to establish a red line around Taiwan. This is not sustainable. It is also unpopular. Incredibly, some 75 per cent of Democrats say they “disapprove” of Israel’s war in Gaza.

In this context, Gantz’s proposal makes sense; cauterise Gaza, let the international community try running it if we care so much. But Netanyahu labels his plan a recipe for defeat. Finance minister Bezalel Smotrich makes a robust counter offer: Israel should not only maintain a permanent military presence in Gaza but occupy part of southern Lebanon, too. One suspects this is not mere realpolitik. There are sections of Israeli society who believe the land was granted to them by God in his second career as a real estate agent. Hence the leader of the radical Nachala settler group says she is taking requests for strips of Gazan coast – “beautiful golden sand”, she told the BBC, as if organising a timeshare.

Religious conservatives are growing in number and, thanks to the bizarre electoral system, over-influential in government – a fact that generates resentment among liberals. Another of Gantz’s demands is that all Israeli citizens be considered for conscription. For decades, the ultra-Orthodox have evaded military service, a quirk that irritated secularists who felt fanatics were stirring up conflicts they were exempt from. By Western standards, Israel can be highly unusual; in that it enjoys a free press and judiciary, a democracy and a civil society that appears in constant, noisy disagreement, it is perfectly normal.

The point is, it is messily real. Neither a shining city on a hill, as conservatives imagine, nor an octopus manipulating the world, as the far-Left insists. It desperately needs fresh, transformative leadership that reaches beyond race and religion to emphasise common humanity – but America and Britain don’t have that either, so we can’t judge the vitriol of Israeli politics too harshly. Much of it is horribly recognisable.

When I last wrote on this subject, a reader asked me what – if I were Israeli – I would have done after October 7? The honest answer: probably what Netanyahu did. That scale of carnage had to be avenged. But short-term, decisive action has mutated into an open-ended military commitment that risks Israel’s security and reputation as an answer to racist persecution – the historic cause upon which so much goodwill previously hung.

Put it this way: for years critics smeared Israel by saying it occupied Gaza. It didn’t. But it does now.