Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a dilemma: Free the hostages or continue the war in Gaza?
As Israel’s war with Hamas drags into its fourth month, some Israelis are becoming increasingly angry at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government’s inability to free the remaining 136 hostages in the Gaza Strip.
The Conversation U.S. spoke with Dov Waxman, a scholar of Israeli politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to better understand the public pulse in Israel, and why some experts – including him – are saying that Netanyahu does not want to end the war.
How is Israeli public opinion on the war shifting?
For the first three months or so of the war, Israelis, specifically Jewish Israelis, strongly supported the war and the government’s declared goal of defeating and dismantling Hamas. That consensus and unity are rapidly fraying.
Netanyahu says continuing the war is the best way to release the hostages, but more and more Israelis, including the families of the hostages, are arguing that with every passing day that the war continues, the lives of the hostages are in greater danger.
There’s also growing doubts about whether Israel can actually decisively defeat and destroy Hamas. More than three months into the war, Hamas is still standing and firing rockets into Israel. While Israel has assassinated mid-level Hamas commanders, Hamas leaders are still alive and able to call the shots.
You have said that Netanyahu does not want to end the war. Why would that be?
Netanyahu is widely unpopular in Israel. Many Israelis, including some of Netanyahu’s supporters on the right, hold him accountable for the cascade of failures that resulted in Hamas’ massive incursion and horrific attack on Oct. 7, 2023.
To restore his domestic support, Netanyahu’s only hope is to continue the war and try to achieve the “total victory” over Hamas that he has been promising. If he fails to deliver on this, and on the release of the hostages, his Likud party is likely to lose the next election and he’ll be out of office.
How does this political pressure influence Netanyahu’s response to the war?
In order for Netanyahu to hold his coalition government together and avoid an election, he has to appease the far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in his government. For the ultra-Orthodox parties, that means ensuring that their constituents receive the generous government subsidies and welfare benefits that they depend on, not requiring them to serve in the Israel military – unlike other Israeli Jews – and maintaining the religious status quo in Israel. For the far-right parties, it means supporting Israeli settlers in the West Bank and expanding settlements there, and also preventing anything that will strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which the far-right wants to get rid of.
To keep his far-right allies in the government, Netanyahu has to block any post-war plan that gives the Palestinian Authority control over Gaza. Merely discussing the question of post-war Gaza is treacherous for Netanyahu because the far-right is calling for Israel to reestablish Jewish settlements there. The Biden administration opposes any long-term Israeli presence in Gaza and wants a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority to eventually return to oversee the territory.
Netanyahu’s way to evade these conflicting pressures is to avoid any discussion of the post-war governance of Gaza as much as possible.
What are most Israelis increasingly focused on, regarding the war?
Most Israeli Jews are focused on the fate of the hostages and on Israeli military casualties – these are the stories that dominate Israeli media coverage. The families of the hostages have made sure that their plight is not forgotten. And since some of the hostages who were released back in November are recounting their harrowing experiences in captivity, this is also keeping public attention focused on the hostages still in Gaza.
The deaths of Israeli soldiers in Gaza also receive a lot of attention – on Jan. 23, the Israeli military had its deadliest day since the war began when 24 soldiers were killed. Most Israeli Jews have served in the military, and most have family members or friends currently serving. So they are very connected to the military, and military deaths resonate very powerfully in Israeli society.
What most Israelis are not focusing on is the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Many are not even aware of what is happening to Palestinians in Gaza, because it receives little coverage in the Israeli media.
Families of the hostages are speaking out against the Israeli government and its inability to free the hostages. What kind of pressure is this creating?
It has a big effect. There is great empathy for what these families are going through. There is also a strong ethos that the state has a moral obligation to rescue its citizens, including its soldiers.
Many people feel that the state fundamentally failed its citizens on Oct. 7 because it failed to prevent or stop the massacre and abductions that took place. So it is now especially incumbent on the government to bring the hostages home. Even if Israel defeats Hamas but doesn’t free the hostages, it will leave an open wound in Israeli society and damage, if not rupture, the relationship between the Israeli state and its citizens.
Why is it unlikely that the military can free the hostages?
The hostages are kept underground in tunnels that are hundreds of miles long. It’s likely they are frequently moved around, so it is next to impossible to even locate them. And even if they are located, actually reaching them before they are killed by their captors would be very, very difficult.
The only feasible option to free the hostages is to strike another deal with Hamas. But it will be very hard for Netanyahu to accept the terms that Hamas is demanding, particularly ending the war. Netanyahu and his defense minister argue that the more military pressure Hamas is under, the more likely it is to accept a deal on terms that are acceptable to Israel. But the other members of the war cabinet, and growing numbers of Israelis, now believe Israel should make a deal to release the hostages whatever the price, even if that means ending the war without defeating Hamas.