Netanyahu’s Total Victory – OpEd


The term “total victory” has been on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lips a great deal recently. It has about it the ring of the phrase adopted by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at Casablanca in the middle of World War Two – “unconditional surrender” – implying that the Allies would be content with nothing less than the complete and utter defeat of the Nazi enemy.  There would be no armistice, no haggling over the terms of a cessation of hostilities.  Unconditional surrender became the ultimate war aim of the Allies.

Total victory could be described as Netanyahu’s ultimate war aim.  It implies both the complete elimination of Hamas as a fighting force and the liberation of all the hostages held by them.  The military defeat of Hamas would mean also the end of its control of the Gaza Strip.  How Gaza is to be administered and its reconstruction put in hand are urgent problems that will require attention and cooperative international action as soon as the Hamas military machine is no more.

Netanyahu used the term “total victory” several times on February 8 in response to the most recent hostage-for-ceasefire offer by Hamas.  Back in November negotiations conducted with the help of intermediaries produced a pause in the fighting in Gaza and the freeing of 105 hostages held by Hamas, matched by the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Ever since there has been a constant to-and-fro of further negotiations in an attempt to reach a another deal acceptable to both Hamas and Israel.

Hamas’s aim has been to secure Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.  Israel is seeking the liberation of all the hostages held by Hamas in return for as short a pause in the fighting as possible, to prevent Hamas regrouping and reversing Israel’s gains in the Strip.

Talks in Paris involving intelligence chiefs from Israel, the US and Egypt, together with the prime minister of Qatar, resulted on January 30 in new proposals for a ceasefire and release of hostages.  Hamas said it was studying them.

A senior Hamas official then told Reuters news agency that the proposal involved a three-stage truce, during which the group would first release remaining civilians among hostages it captured on October 7, then soldiers, and finally the bodies of hostages that were killed.  Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh left his luxurious home in Doha to fly to Cairo to discuss them. 

While the people of Gaza have undergone untold misery following Hamas’s horrendous actions on October 7, the leaders of Hamas have been enjoying sumptuous lifestyles in Qatar.  Between them Ismail Haniyeh, Moussa Abu Marzuk and Khaled Mashal are estimated by the  New York Post  to be worth a staggering $11 billion, accumulated heaven knows how.. 

The discussions in Cairo resulted in a counter-offer from Hamas, made public on February 7. Using the same three-stage formula but spread over 135 days, Hamas proposed in the first 45 days a temporary halt to military operations and the repositioning of Israeli forces outside populated areas.  On its part Hamas would release Israeli civilian women and children together with elderly and sick hostages in return for the release of Palestinian women, children, elderly and sick from Israeli jails.

The second 45 days would see Israeli forces withdraw outside the Gaza Strip and Hamas release all Israeli male civilian and military hostages in exchange for other Palestinian prisoners.  

In the third 45 days the exchange of bodies and remains from both sides would see the virtual end to the conflict.  Israel would have withdrawn from Gaza, and all the hostages would have been released.

Netanyahu’s reaction?  Total rejection.  Dubbing the proposals “delusional”, he renewed his pledge to destroy Hamas.  To a media conference he said that total victory in Gaza was within reach and that there was no alternative for Israel but to bring about the collapse of Hamas.  He insisted that total victory against Hamas was the only solution to the Gaza war. “Continued military pressure,” he said, “is a necessary condition for the release of the hostages.” Is he right?  Or is he, as a tranche of Israeli opinion holds in a somewhat ungenerous interpretation of his motives, mainly interested in the personal and political advantages he derives from spinning out the war scenario for as long as possible?

US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, was less clear-cut in his reaction.  At a late-night press conference in a Tel Aviv hotel, he suggested forging a truce agreement was not a lost cause.

“There are clearly nonstarters in what (Hamas has) put forward,” he said, without specifying what the nonstarters were.  “But we also see space in what came back to pursue negotiations, to see if we can get to an agreement. That’s what we intend to do.”

One obvious non-starter is that at the end of the Hamas-proposed process, Hamas would be left in control of a Gaza Strip from which the IDF had withdrawn completely, and would be totally free to rebuild its military infrastructure and resume its relentless campaign aimed at destroying Israel and killing Jews.  Another, from Washington’s point of view, is that Hamas is fundamentally and inflexibly opposed to the two-state solution, that article of faith so cherished by the UN, US, EU, UK and much of world opinion.

And here is the great dilemma, for a negotiated ceasefire does have an appeal to those concerned above all for the fate of Israel’s hostages still in Hamas’s hands, and it commends itself also to the great swath of world opinion concerned above all for the protection of the Gazan civilian population.  

It is a prospect, however, unlikely to commend itself to Netanyahu, who perceives the long-term implications for Israel – a reversal to the failed policies of the past, with Hamas, Israel’s implacable enemy, reinstalled in power a hand’s breadth away from Israeli citizens, and the whole nation in range of ever more sophisticated missiles and rockets.  Netanyahu attempts to square the circle by arguing that the best hope of liberating the hostages lies not in deals that allow Hamas to regain its control of Gaza, but in maintaining Israel’s military pressure until the complete defeat of Hamas – in other words, total victory. 

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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