Netanyahu, the Palestinians, and the Price of Neglect
By Aluf Benn
March/April 2024 Published on February 7, 2024
Illustration by Mark Harris / Reuters
PRISMA news. Turin, February 8, 2024 – Foreign Affairs. One bright day in April 1956, Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), drove south to Nahal Oz, a recently established kibbutz near the border of the Gaza Strip. Dayan came to attend the funeral of 21-year-old Roi Rotberg, who had been murdered the previous morning by Palestinians while he was patrolling the fields on horseback. The killers dragged Rotberg’s body to the other side of the border, where it was found mutilated, its eyes poked out. The result was nationwide shock and agony.
If Dayan had been speaking in modern-day Israel, he would have used his eulogy largely to blast the horrible cruelty of Rotberg’s killers. But as framed in the 1950s, his speech was remarkably sympathetic toward the perpetrators. “Let us not cast blame on the murderers,’’ Dayan said. “For eight years, they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages where they and their fathers dwelt into our estate.” Dayan was alluding to the nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” when the majority of Palestinian Arabs were driven into exile by Israel’s victory in the 1948 war of independence. Many were forcibly relocated to Gaza, including residents of communities that eventually became Jewish towns and villages along the border.
Dayan was hardly a supporter of the Palestinian cause. In 1950, after the hostilities had ended, he organized the displacement of the remaining Palestinian community in the border town of Al-Majdal, now the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Still, Dayan realized what many Jewish Israelis refuse to accept: Palestinians would never forget the nakba or stop dreaming of returning to their homes. “Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs living around us,’’ Dayan declared in his eulogy. “This is our life’s choice—to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.’’
On October 7, 2023, Dayan’s age-old warning materialized in the bloodiest way possible. Following a plan masterminded by Yahya Sinwar, a Hamas leader born to a family forced out of Al-Majdal, Palestinian militants invaded Israel at nearly 30 points along the Gazan border. Achieving total surprise, they overran Israel’s thin defenses and proceeded to attack a music festival, small towns, and more than 20 kibbutzim. They killed around 1,200 civilians and soldiers and kidnapped well over 200 hostages. They raped, looted, burned, and pillaged. The descendants of Dayan’s refugee camp dwellers—fueled by the same hatred and loathing that he described but now better armed, trained, and organized—had come back for revenge.
October 7 was the worst calamity in Israel’s history. It is a national and personal turning point for anyone living in the country or associated with it. Having failed to stop the Hamas attack, the IDF has responded with overwhelming force, killing thousands of Palestinians and razing entire Gazan neighborhoods. But even as pilots drop bombs and commandos flush out Hamas’s tunnels, the Israeli government has not reckoned with the enmity that produced the attack—or what policies might prevent another. Its silence comes at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has refused to lay out a postwar vision or order. Netanyahu has promised to “destroy Hamas,” but beyond military force, he has no strategy for eliminating the group and no clear plan for what would replace it as the de facto government of postwar Gaza.
His failure to strategize is no accident. Nor is it an act of political expediency designed to keep his right-wing coalition together. To live in peace, Israel will have to finally come to terms with the Palestinians, and that is something Netanyahu has opposed throughout his career. He has devoted his tenure as prime minister, the longest in Israeli history, to undermining and sidelining the Palestinian national movement. He has promised his people that they can prosper without peace. He has sold the country on the idea that it can continue to occupy Palestinian lands forever at little domestic or international cost. And even now, in the wake of October 7, he has not changed this message. The only thing Netanyahu has said Israel will do after the war is maintain a “security perimeter” around Gaza—a thinly veiled euphemism for long-term occupation, including a cordon along the border that will eat up a big chunk of scarce Palestinian land.
But Israel can no longer be so blinkered. The October 7 attacks have proved that Netanyahu’s promise was hollow. Despite a dead peace process and waning interest from other countries, the Palestinians have kept their cause alive. In the body-camera footage taken by Hamas on October 7, the invaders can be heard shouting, “This is our land!” as they cross the border to attack a kibbutz. Sinwar openly framed the operation as an act of resistance and was personally motivated, at least in part, by the nakba. The Hamas leader spent 22 years in Israeli prisons and is said to have continually told his cellmates that Israel had to be defeated so that his family could return to its village.
To live in peace, Israel will have to finally come to terms with the Palestinians.
The trauma of October 7 has forced Israelis, once again, to realize that the conflict with the Palestinians is central to their national identity and a threat to their well-being. It cannot be overlooked or sidestepped, and continuing the occupation, expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, laying siege to Gaza, and refusing to make any territorial compromise (or even recognize Palestinian rights) will not bring the country lasting security. Yet recovering from this war and changing course is bound to be extremely difficult, and not just because Netanyahu does not want to resolve the Palestinian conflict. The war has caught Israel at perhaps its most divided moment in history. In the years leading up to the attack, the country was fractured by Netanyahu’s effort to undermine its democratic institutions and turn it into a theocratic, nationalist autocracy. His bills and reforms provoked widespread protests and dissension that threatened to tear the country apart before the war and will haunt it once the conflict ends. In fact, the fight over Netanyahu’s political survival will become even more intense than it was before October 7, making it hard for the country to pursue peace.
But whatever happens to the prime minister, Israel is unlikely to have a serious conversation about settling with the Palestinians. Israeli public opinion as a whole has shifted to the right. The United States is increasingly preoccupied with a crucial presidential election. There will be little energy or motivation to reignite a meaningful peace process in the near future.
October 7 is still a turning point, but it is up to Israelis to decide what kind of turning point it will be. If they finally heed Dayan’s warning, the country could come together and chart a path to peace and dignified coexistence with the Palestinians. But indications so far are that Israelis will, instead, continue to fight among themselves and maintain the occupation indefinitely. This could make October 7 the beginning of a dark age in Israel’s history—one characterized by more and growing violence. The attack would not be a one-off event, but a portent of what’s to come.
In the 1990s, Netanyahu was a rising star on Israel’s right-wing scene. After making his name as Israel’s ambassador to the UN from 1984 to 1988, he became widely famous by leading the opposition to the Oslo accords, the 1993 blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation signed by the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization. After the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by a far-right Israeli zealot and a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israeli cities, Netanyahu managed to defeat Shimon Peres, a key architect of the Oslo peace agreement, by a razor-thin margin in the 1996 prime minister’s race. Once in office, he promised to slow the peace process and reform Israeli society by “replacing the elites,’’ whom he viewed as soft and prone to copying Western liberals, with a corps of religious and social conservatives.
Netanyahu’s radical ambitions, however, were met with the combined opposition of the old elites and the Clinton administration. Israeli society, then still generally supportive of a peace agreement, also quickly soured on the prime minister’s extreme agenda. Three years later, he was toppled by the liberal Ehud Barak, who pledged to continue the Oslo process and solve the Palestinian issue in its entirety.
But Barak failed, as did his successors. When Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in the spring of 2000, it was subject to cross-border attacks and threatened by a massive Hezbollah buildup. Then the peace process imploded as Palestinians launched the second intifada that fall. Five years later, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip paved the way for Hamas to take charge there. The Israeli public, once supportive of peacemaking, lost its appetite for the security risks that came with it. “We offered them the moon and the stars and got suicide bombers and rockets in return,” went a common refrain. (The counterargument—that Israel had offered too little and would never agree to a sustainable Palestinian state—found little resonance.) In 2009, Netanyahu returned to power, feeling vindicated. After all, his warnings against territorial concessions to Israel’s neighbors had come true.
Back in office, Netanyahu offered Israelis a convenient alternative to the now discredited “land for peace” formula. Israel, he argued, could prosper as a Western-style country—and even reach out to the Arab world at large—while pushing aside the Palestinians. The key was to divide and conquer. In the West Bank, Netanyahu maintained security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, which became Israel’s de facto policing and social services subcontractor, and he encouraged Qatar to fund Gaza’s Hamas government. “Whoever opposes a Palestinian state must support delivery of funds to Gaza because maintaining separation between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu told his party’s parliamentary caucus in 2019. It is a statement that has come back to haunt him.
Israeli soldiers near Sderot, Israel, October 2023
Amir Cohen / Reuters
Netanyahu believed he could keep Hamas’s capabilities in check through a naval and economic blockade, newly deployed rocket and border defense systems, and periodic military raids on the group’s fighters and infrastructure. This last tactic, dubbed “mowing the grass,” became integral to Israeli security doctrine, along with “conflict management” and status quo maintenance. The prevailing order, Netanyahu believed, was durable. In his view, it was also optimal: maintaining a very low-level conflict was less politically risky than a peace deal and less costly than a major war.
For over a decade, Netanyahu’s strategy appeared to work. The Middle East and North Africa sank into the revolutions and civil wars of the Arab Spring, making the Palestinian cause far less salient. Terrorist attacks fell to new lows, and periodic rocket fire from Gaza was usually intercepted. With the exception of a short war against Hamas in 2014, Israelis rarely needed to go head-to-head with Palestinian militants. For most people, most of the time, the conflict was out of sight and out of mind.
Instead of worrying about the Palestinians, Israelis began to focus on living the Western dream of prosperity and tranquility. Between January 2010 and December 2022, real estate prices more than doubled in Israel as Tel Aviv’s skyline filled with high-rise apartments and office complexes. Smaller towns expanded to accommodate the boom. The country’s GDP grew by more than 60 percent as tech entrepreneurs launched successful businesses and energy companies found offshore natural gas deposits in Israeli waters. Open-skies agreements with other governments turned foreign travel, a major facet of the Israeli lifestyle, into a cheap commodity. The future looked bright. The country, it seemed, had moved past the Palestinians, and it had done so without sacrificing anything—territory, resources, funds—toward a peace agreement. Israelis got to have their cake and eat it, too.
Internationally, the country was also thriving. Netanyahu withstood U.S. President Barack Obama’s pressure to revive the two-state solution and freeze Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in part by forging an alliance with Republicans. Although Netanyahu failed to stop Obama from concluding a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington withdrew from the pact after Donald Trump won the presidency. Trump also moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his administration recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Under Trump, the United States helped Israel conclude the Abraham Accords, normalizing its relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates—a prospect that once seemed impossible without an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Planeloads of Israeli officials, military chiefs, and tourists began frequenting the swank hotels of Gulf sheikdoms and the souks of Marrakech.
Israel, Netanyahu argued, could prosper as a Western-style country while pushing aside the Palestinians.
As he sidelined the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu also worked to remake Israel’s domestic society. After winning a surprise reelection in 2015, Netanyahu put together a right-wing coalition to revive his old dream of igniting a conservative revolution. Once again, the prime minister began railing against “the elites” and initiated a culture war against the erstwhile establishment, which he viewed as hostile to himself and too liberal for his supporters. In 2018, he won passage of a major, controversial law that defined Israel as “the Nation-State of the Jewish People” and declared that Jews had the “unique” right to “exercise self-determination” in its territory. It gave the country’s Jewish majority precedence and subordinated its non-Jewish people.
The same year, Netanyahu’s coalition collapsed. Israel then sank into a long political crisis, with the country dragged through five elections between 2019 and 2022—each of them a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule. The intensity of the political battle was heightened by a corruption case against the prime minister, leading to his criminal indictment in 2020 and an ongoing trial. Israel split between the “Bibists” and “Just not Bibists.” (“Bibi” is Netanyahu’s nickname.) In the fourth election, in 2021, Netanyahu’s rivals finally managed to replace him with a “change government” led by the right-wing Naftali Bennett and the centrist Yair Lapid. For the first time, the coalition included an Arab party.
Even so, Netanyahu’s opposition never challenged the basic premise of his rule: that Israel could thrive without addressing the Palestinian issue. The debate over peace and war, traditionally a crucial political topic for Israel, became back-page news. Bennett, who began his career as Netanyahu’s aide, equated the Palestinian conflict to “shrapnel in the butt” that the country could live with. He and Lapid sought to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians and simply focus on keeping Netanyahu out of office.
That bargain, of course, proved impossible. The “change government” collapsed in 2022 after it failed to prolong obscure legal provisions that allowed West Bank settlers to enjoy civil rights denied their non-
Israeli neighbors. For some of the Arab coalition members, signing on to these apartheid provisions was one compromise too many.
Military and intelligence incompetence cannot shield Netanyahu from culpability for October 7.
For Netanyahu, still facing trial, the government’s collapse was exactly what he had been hoping for. As the country organized yet another election, he fortified his base of right-wingers, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and socially conservative Jews. To win back power, he reached out in particular to West Bank settlers, a demographic that still saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its raison d’être. These religious Zionists remained committed to their dream of Judaizing the occupied territories and making them a formal part of Israel. They hoped that if given the opportunity, they could drive out the territories’ Palestinian population. They had failed to prevent an evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 when Ariel Sharon was prime minister, but in the years since, they had gradually captured key positions in the Israeli military, civil service, and media as members of the secular establishment shifted their focus to making money in the private sector.
The extremists had two principal demands of Netanyahu. The first, and most obvious, was to further expand Jewish settlements. The second was to establish a stronger Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, the historic site of both the Jewish Temple and the Muslim mosque of al Aqsa in Jerusalem’s Old City. Since Israel took control of the surrounding area in the Six-Day War in 1967, it has given the Palestinians quasi-autonomy at the site, out of fear that removing it from Arab governance would incite a cataclysmic religious conflict. But the Israeli far right has long sought to change that. When Netanyahu was first elected in 1996, he opened a wall at an archaeological site in an underground tunnel adjacent to al Aqsa to expose relics from the times of the Second Temple, prompting a violent explosion of Arab protests in Jerusalem. The second Palestinian intifada in 2000 was similarly sparked by a visit to the Temple Mount by Sharon, then the opposition leader as the head of Netanyahu’s party, Likud.
In May 2021, violence erupted again. This time, the main provocateur was Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician who has publicly celebrated Jewish terrorists. Ben-Gvir had opened a “parliamentary office” in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem where Jewish settlers, using old property deeds, have pushed out some residents, and Palestinians held mass protests in response. After hundreds of demonstrators gathered at al Aqsa, Israeli police raided the mosque compound. As a result, fighting erupted between Arabs and Jews and quickly spread to ethnically mixed towns across Israel. Hamas used the raid as an excuse to target Jerusalem with rockets, which brought yet more violence in Israel and another round of Israeli reprisals in Gaza.
Still, the fighting dissipated when Israel and Hamas reached a new cease-fire in shockingly quick order. Qatar kept up its payments, and Israel gave work permits to some Gazans to improve the strip’s economy and reduce the population’s desire for conflict. Hamas stood by when Israel hit an allied militia, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in the spring of 2023. The relative quiet along the border allowed the IDF to redeploy its forces and move most combat battalions to the West Bank, where they could protect settlers from terrorist attacks. On October 7, it became clear those redeployments were exactly what Sinwar wanted.
In Israel’s November 2022 election, Netanyahu won back power. His coalition captured 64 of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats, a landslide by recent standards. The key figures in the new government were Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of a nationalist religious party representing West Bank settlers, and Ben-Gvir. Working with the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben-Gvir devised a blueprint for an autocratic and theocratic Israel. The new cabinet’s guidelines, for example, declared that “the Jewish people have an exclusive, inalienable right to the entire Land of Israel”—denying outright any Palestinian claim to territory, even in Gaza. Smotrich became minister of finance and was put in charge of the West Bank, where he initiated a massive program to expand Jewish settlements. Ben-Gvir was named national security minister, in control of police and prisons. He used his power to encourage more Jews to visit the Temple Mount (al Aqsa). Between January and October of 2023, about 50,000 Jews toured it—more than in any other equivalent period on record. (In 2022, there were 35,000 Jewish visitors on the Mount.)
Netanyahu’s radical new government stirred outrage among Israeli liberals and centrists. But even though humiliating Palestinians was central to their agenda, these critics continued to ignore the fate of the occupied territories and al Aqsa when denouncing the cabinet. Instead, they focused largely on Netanyahu’s judicial reforms. Announced in January 2023, these proposed laws would curb the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court—the custodian of civil and human rights in a country that lacks a formal constitution—and dismantle the legal advisory system that provides checks and balances on executive power. If they had been enacted, the bills would have made it much easier for Netanyahu and his partners to build an autocracy and might even have spared him from his corruption trial.
The judicial reform bills were, without doubt, extraordinarily dangerous. They rightfully prompted an enormous wave of protests, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrating every week. But in confronting this coup, Netanyahu’s opponents again acted as if the occupation were an unrelated issue. Even though the laws were drafted partly to weaken whatever legal protection the Israeli Supreme Court would give Palestinians, demonstrators shied away from mentioning the occupation or the defunct peace process out of fear of being smeared as unpatriotic. In fact, the organizers worked to sideline Israel’s anti-occupation protesters to avoid having images of Palestinian flags appear in the demonstrations. This tactic succeeded, ensuring that the protest movement was not “tainted” by the Palestinian cause: Israeli Arabs, who make up around 20 percent of the country’s population, largely refrained from joining the demonstrations. But this made it harder for the movement to succeed. Given Israel’s demographics, center-left Jews need to partner with the country’s Arabs if they ever want to form a government. By delegitimizing Israeli Arabs’ concerns, the demonstrators played right into Netanyahu’s strategy.
Ben-Gvir calling for Israel to rebuild settlements in the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, January 2024
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
With the Arabs out, the battle over the judicial reforms proceeded as an intra-Jewish affair. Demonstrators adopted the blue and white Star of David flag, and many of their leaders and speakers were retired senior military officers. Protesters showed off their military credentials, reversing the decline in prestige that had shadowed the IDF since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Reservist pilots, who are crucial to the air force’s preparedness and combat power, threatened to withdraw from service if the laws were passed. In a show of institutional opposition, the IDF’s leaders rebuffed Netanyahu when he demanded that they discipline the reservists.
That the IDF would break with the prime minister was not surprising. Throughout his long career, Netanyahu has frequently clashed with the military, and his strongest rivals have been retired generals who became politicians, such as Sharon, Rabin, and Barak—not to mention Benny Gantz, whom Netanyahu made part of his emergency war cabinet but may eventually challenge and succeed him as prime minister. Netanyahu has long rejected the generals’ vision of an Israel that is strong militarily but flexible diplomatically. He has also scoffed at their characters, which he views as timid, unimaginative, and even subversive. It was therefore no shock when he fired his own defense minister, the retired general Yoav Gallant, after Gallant appeared on live television in March 2023 to warn that Israel’s rifts had left the country vulnerable and that war was imminent.
Gallant’s firing led to more spontaneous street protests, and Netanyahu reinstated him. (They remain bitter rivals, even as they run the war together.) But Netanyahu ignored Gallant’s warning. He also ignored a more detailed warning delivered in July by Israel’s chief military intelligence analyst that enemies might strike the country. Netanyahu apparently believed that such warnings were politically motivated and reflected a tacit alliance between incumbent military chiefs at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv and former commanders who were protesting across the street.
Netanyahu’s humiliation of the Palestinians helped radicalism thrive.
To be sure, the warnings Netanyahu received mostly focused on Iran’s network of regional allies, not Hamas. Although Hamas’s attack plan was known to Israeli intelligence, and even though the group practiced maneuvers in front of IDF observation posts, senior military and intelligence officials failed to imagine that their Gaza adversary could actually follow through, and they buried suggestions to the contrary. The October 7 attack was, in part, a failure of Israel’s bureaucracy.
Still, the fact that Netanyahu convened no serious discussions on the intelligence he did receive is indefensible, as was his refusal to seriously compromise with the political opposition and heal the country’s rift. Instead, he decided to move ahead with his judicial coup, regardless of grave warnings and possible blowback. “Israel can do without a couple of Air Force squadrons,” he declared arrogantly, “but not without a government.”
In July 2023, the first judicial law was passed by the Israeli parliament, in another high point for Netanyahu and his far-right coalition. (It was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, in January 2024.) The prime minister believed he would soon further elevate himself by concluding a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, the richest, most important Arab state, as part of a triple deal that featured a U.S.-Saudi defense pact. The result would be the ultimate victory of Israeli foreign policy: an American-Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran and its regional proxies. For Netanyahu, it would have been a crowning achievement that endeared him to the mainstream.
The prime minister was so self-assured that on September 22, he mounted the stage of the UN General Assembly to promote a map of “the new Middle East,” centered on Israel. This was an intentional dig at his late rival Peres, who coined that phrase after signing the Oslo accords. “I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough: an historic peace with Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu boasted in his speech. The Palestinians, he made clear, had become but an afterthought to both Israel and the broader region. “We must not give the Palestinians a veto over new peace treaties,” he said. “The Palestinians are only two percent of the Arab world.” Two weeks later, Hamas attacked, shattering Netanyahu’s plans.
AFTER THE BANG
Netanyahu and his supporters have tried to shift blame for October 7 away from him. The prime minister, they argue, was misled by security and intelligence chiefs who failed to update him on a last-minute alert that something suspicious was happening in Gaza (although even these red flags were interpreted as indications of a small attack, or simply noise). “Under no circumstances and at no stage was Prime Minister Netanyahu warned of Hamas’ war intentions,” Netanyahu’s office wrote on Twitter several weeks after the attack. “On the contrary, the assessment of the entire security echelon, including the head of military intelligence and the head of Shin Bet, was that Hamas was deterred and was seeking an arrangement.” (He later apologized for the post.)
But military and intelligence incompetence, dismal as it was, cannot shield the prime minister from culpability—and not only because, as head of the government, Netanyahu bears ultimate responsibility for what happens in Israel. His reckless prewar policy of dividing Israelis made the country vulnerable, tempting Iran’s allies to strike at a riven society. Netanyahu’s humiliation of the Palestinians helped radicalism thrive. It is no accident that Hamas named its operation “al Aqsa flood” and portrayed the attacks as a way of protecting al Aqsa from a Jewish takeover. Protecting the holy Muslim site was seen as a reason to attack Israel and face the inevitably dire consequences of an IDF counterattack.
The Israeli public has not absolved Netanyahu of responsibility for October 7. The prime minister’s party has plummeted in the polls, and his approval rating has tanked as well, although the government maintains a parliamentary majority. The country’s desire for change is expressed in more than just public opinion surveys. Militarism is back across the aisle. The anti-Bibi demonstrators rushed to fulfill their reserve duties despite the protests, as erstwhile anti-Netanyahu organizers supplanted the dysfunctional Israeli government in caring for evacuees from the country’s south and north. Many Israelis have armed themselves with handguns and assault rifles, aided by Ben-Gvir’s campaign to ease the regulation of private small arms. After decades of gradual decline, the defense budget is expected to rise by roughly 50 percent.
People protesting against Netanyahu’s government, Tel Aviv, Israel, January 2024
Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters
Yet these changes, although understandable, are accelerations, not shifts. Israel is still following the same path that Netanyahu has guided it down for years. Its identity is now less liberal and egalitarian, more ethnonationalist and militaristic. The slogan “United for Victory,’’ seen on every street corner, public bus, and television channel in Israel, is aimed at unifying the country’s Jewish society. The state’s Arab minority, which overwhelmingly supported a quick cease-fire and prisoner exchange, has been repeatedly forbidden by the police to carry out public protests. Dozens of Arab citizens have been legally indicted for social media posts expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, even if the posts did not support or endorse the October 7 attacks. Many liberal Israeli Jews, meanwhile, feel betrayed by Western counterparts who, in their view, have sided with Hamas. They are rethinking their prewar threats to emigrate away from Netanyahu’s religious autocracy, and Israeli real estate companies are anticipating a new wave of Jewish immigrants seeking to escape the rising anti-Semitism they have experienced abroad.
And just as in prewar times, almost no Israeli Jews are thinking about how the Palestinian conflict might be solved peacefully. The Israeli left, traditionally interested in pursuing peace, is now nearly extinct. The centrist parties of Gantz and Lapid, nostalgic for the good old pre-Netanyahu Israel, seem to feel at home in the newly militaristic society and do not want to risk their mainstream popularity by endorsing land-for-peace negotiations. And the right is more hostile to Palestinians than it has ever been.
Netanyahu has equated the PA with Hamas and, as of this writing, has rejected American proposals to make it the postwar ruler of Gaza, knowing that such a decision would revive the two-state solution. The prime minister’s far-right buddies want to depopulate Gaza and exile its Palestinians to other countries, creating a second nakba that would leave the land open to new Jewish settlements. To fulfill this dream, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have demanded that Netanyahu reject any discussion of a postwar arrangement in Gaza that leaves the Palestinians in charge and demanded that the government refuse to negotiate for the further release of Israeli hostages. They have also ensured that Israel does nothing to halt fresh attacks by Jewish settlers on Arab residents of the West Bank.
Israel’s wartime unity is already cracking.
If past is precedent, the country is not entirely hopeless. History suggests there is a chance that progressivism might come back and conservatives might lose influence. After prior major attacks, Israeli public opinion initially shifted to the right but then changed course and accepted territorial compromises in exchange for peace. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 eventually led to peace with Egypt; the first intifada, beginning in 1987, led to the Oslo accords and peace with Jordan; and the second intifada, erupting in 2000, ended with the unilateral pullout from Gaza.
But the chances that this dynamic will recur are dim. There is no Palestinian group or leader accepted by Israel in the way Egypt and its president were after 1973. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction, and the PA is weak. Israel, too, is weak: its wartime unity is already cracking, and the odds are high that the country will further tear itself apart if and when the fighting diminishes. The anti-Bibists hope to reach out to disappointed Bibists and force an early election this year. Netanyahu, in turn, will whip up fears and dig in. In January, relatives of hostages broke into a parliamentary meeting to demand that the government try to free their family members, part of a battle between Israelis over whether the country should prioritize defeating Hamas or make a deal to free the remaining captives. Perhaps the only idea on which there is unity is in opposing a land-for-peace agreement. After October 7, most Jewish Israelis agree that any further relinquishment of territory will give militants a launching pad for the next massacre.
Ultimately, then, Israel’s future may look very much like its recent history. With or without Netanyahu, “conflict management” and “mowing the grass” will remain state policy—which means more occupation, settlements, and displacement. This strategy might appear to be the least risky option, at least for an Israeli public scarred by the horrors of October 7 and deaf to new suggestions of peace. But it will only lead to more catastrophe. Israelis cannot expect stability if they continue to ignore the Palestinians and reject their aspirations, their story, and even their presence.
This is the lesson the country should have learned from Dayan’s age-old warning. Israel must reach out to Palestinians and to each other if they want a livable and respectful coexistence.
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ALUF BENN is Editor in Chief of Haaretz.
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