Netanyahu faces one of biggest days in his political career

Benjamin Netanyahu illustration
Benjamin Netanyahu says the war in Gaza will continue until Israel frees all its hostages

If you take Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, at his word, there can be little doubt what will happen next in Gaza: just as Jews around the world prepare to light the first candle of Hanukkah next week, he will launch a new blitz on Gaza in a bid to finish off Hamas.

“I have sworn to destroy Hamas. Nothing will stop us,” he told the visiting US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, in Jerusalem on Thursday.

The war in Gaza will continue until Israel frees all its hostages, vanquishes the Palestinian terror group and guarantees that no similar threat to its Oct 7 massacre will ever be posed again, Mr Netanyahu added.

If you are a believer in the read-my-lips school of politics, you would have to conclude that Mr Netanyahu’s mind is made up. More than that, the logic of his approach dictates that once Hamas is eradicated in Gaza, a new front will be opened against Hezbollah, Iran’s much more powerful proxy in Lebanon.

After all, why go to the trouble of obliterating Hamas, a junior party in Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance”, if you are going to leave its big brother ready to launch a devastating attack of exactly the same nature in the north?

Antony Blinken meets with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday
Antony Blinken meets with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday - GPO/AMOS BEN-GERSHOM HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

As an Israeli general explained recently, the mistake in Gaza was to assess the threat posed by Hamas in terms of both its military “capability” (which was broadly known) and its “intention”. It was the group’s intention which Israel got wrong, so all future threats would be judged by reference to an enemy’s capacity only, said the general. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.

Yet reading Mr Netanyahu’s lips may not be the best way forward. He is a populist renowned for pivoting on a dime.

He is also a realist, who knows that the great bulk of Hamas’s fighters in Gaza have vanished into the general population there and that hunting them down would come at huge human cost; either to Israeli troops if they try to fight surgically, as the US is insisting, or to the civilian population if they repeat the devastating air campaign waged in the first phase of the war.

Already the estimate of 15,000 dead from the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza is draining support for Israel across the world. On Thursday, Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, said he had “genuine doubts” about whether Israel was complying with international humanitarian law, sparking fury in Israel.

At the same time, the hostage releases – cynically and cruelly curated by Hamas – have softened hearts. By Thursday evening more than 100 hostages had been freed, bringing scenes of jubilation and the hope that the remaining 143 captives who remain will also return safely.

“If we don’t get them back; all of them back, then Israel won’t recover,” Orit Meir, whose son Almog, 21, is still held captive, told The Telegraph on Wednesday. “It’s a test of the institutions of the state. The first duty in the contract between a country and its citizens is security.”

So how to square the circle? It’s a long shot but Mr Blinken, who is on his third visit to the region since Hamas’s attack, is a clever man and there were suggestions in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that a plan is being hatched that may suit both Israel and Hamas.

It borrows from the US-brokered deal that saw Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his fighters flee Beirut during Israel’s 1982 siege of the Lebanese capital, and envisages Hamas’s leaders and its soldiers leaving Gaza for a third country in order that it becomes – as Mr Netanyahu has promised – a Hamas-free zone.

“Israeli and US officials are discussing the idea of expelling thousands of lower-level militants from the Palestinian enclave as a way to shorten the war”, the newspaper reported.

“A separate proposal that envisions the creation of a ‘Gaza Restoration Authority’, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that would be charged with rebuilding a Hamas-free Gaza Strip”, was also being discussed, it added.

Israeli troops in Gaza
Hunting down Hamas fighters in Gaza will come at a huge cost to Israeli troops

Could such a deal really be pulled off? It’s a long shot but it may just be possible if sweetened with a comprehensive release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

For Mr Netanyahu, however, there would almost certainly be one more hoop to jump through.

Israel would likely have to agree to engage in talks aimed at brokering a long-term peace, via a two-state solution, as the price of winning support from the Palestinian Authority and surrounding Arab states.

Mr Blinken reiterated that the US remained committed to “advancing tangible steps for a Palestinian state”, according to a readout of his meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, on Thursday.

Mr Abbas, for his part, reiterated his willingness to take on responsibility for post-war Gaza, subject to talks on the creation of an independent “State of Palestine”.

There is of course one last hurdle in the equation – Hamas itself. While its political wing may be up for a deal, say experts, the military wing in Gaza is another question altogether. For them, martyrdom may remain the preferred objective.