Israel’s priorities are moving on

Hezbollah, diplomacy and the economy are the new priorities


Outgoing IDF Chief of Intelligence, Major General Herzi Halevy, seen during a a ceremony appointing the new chief of Intelligence, Tamir Heiman (not seen) at Glilot military base, near Tel Aviv, March 28, 2018. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90

May 30, 2024 16:58

On Sunday, the IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi, told a group of relatives of soldiers being held captive by Hamas that “the IDF has achieved 80 percent of its military objectives in Gaza.” What he didn’t say – but could be understood between the lines – was that while the IDF includes rescuing the remaining 125 Israeli hostages as an objective, and has launched a number of operations in recent weeks to retrieve bodies of hostages, from his perspective, securing the release of those remaining is unlikely to happen by military means.

He told them that if a hostage agreement is reached which includes a lengthy ceasefire, “the IDF can deal with it”. Once again, what he wasn’t saying is that the IDF has reached the point where many of its generals believe that there are diminishing returns to prolonging the military campaign.

Even while additional brigade combat teams were going into Rafah this week, the main objective was to the east of the city, capturing the Philadelphi Corridor along the Egyptian border and destroying smuggling tunnels there.

Gadi Eisenkot, a minister in the war cabinet and former IDF chief of staff, echoed this position in a closed session of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on Monday where he said: “Hamas is rebuilding its strength and the fighting in Gaza will continue for years. It’s wrong to speak in terms of ending the war and releasing the hostages. The right thing to do now in Gaza is to reach the end of the fighting in Rafah and simultaneously advance towards a hostage agreement and ceasefire for as long as necessary.”

This is a clear divergence from the war-plan being presented by Benjamin Netanyahu in public, which prioritises “dismantling” Hamas’ battalions in Gaza and achieving “total victory”. So far as the IDF is concerned, the “dismantlement” stage of the war is almost over. Whether that means it now admits that the tactic of taking on Hamas’ military structure in this fashion was not as effective as had been hoped, as some lone voices in the IDF and particularly ex-generals are saying, or that a tactical transition was always going to be necessary, is something that the historians will discuss. What matters now is that the differences between the IDF and Netanyahu are rapidly coming to a head.

What Halevi is referring to as the “20 per cent” of military objectives includes continuing the demolition work in the Philadelphi Corridor and separate raids on remaining targets within Gaza that don’t need any more massive, armoured pushes. Crucially, preventing Hamas from taking advantage of the power vacuum and returning to parts of Gaza, especially as there is no agreement on the alternative to replace Hamas, will occupy the IDF for next few years either way. This is a different type of warfare and Israel has to take care of other priorities in the meantime. These include not just a hostages agreement but the conflict with Hezbollah in the north, shoring up Israel’s alliances abroad which have taken a beating, exploring the Saudi-US option and working out how the Israeli economy and hundreds of thousands of reservists can continue functioning at this level (cue more calls for drafting Charedi yeshiva students).

Then there’s another matter. A lengthy ceasefire followed by a lower tempo of warfare in Gaza means an end to the emergency government and increased demand for an early election. Both reasons for Netanyahu to reject this strategy.

New Labour

On Tuesday evening, the Labour leadership election ended with a North Korean-sized landslide. Yair Golan won 95 percent of the membership vote with none of the three other largely anonymous candidates winning more than two percent. And yet, while Golan’s victory has basically been a procession, with Labour’s MKs (all four of them) either endorsing him or sitting above the fray, it’s easy to detect in conversations with members a feeling of estrangement between Golan and the party.

It’s not just the fact that less than two years ago, Golan was still a Meretz MK running for that party’s leadership. Nor even that Golan must be the first person to run for the leadership of a political party who won’t even use its name in his campaign. Golan is running for the leadership of something which he calls the “Democrats,” which doesn’t exist yet. He is not hiding his opinion that Labour, the party which founded Israel and ruled it for its first three decades, is no longer fit for purpose and that if there was another viable left-wing Zionist platform, he would be running for that. He is clear that once he wins he will do everything to merge Labour with the remnants of Meretz and the pro-democracy protest groups to form a new party.

In electing him the membership have acknowledged that Labour is not fit for purpose. But they have not fallen in love with Golan for pointing that out. His election is, rather, a grim recognition both of their failure and that they need a tough general with no emotional attachments to the party to come in and recreate them in his image, shedding their old identity and even the party’s name.

The polls show that even with Golan at its helm, in a new configuration with Meretz (which failed to cross the electoral threshold in 2022) and some new signings from the protest movement, it will be an uphill struggle. The new Labour, or Democrats, or whatever, are currently projected to win seven or eight seats. They may do better but there isn’t much more potential. Not because the Israeli left has shrunk, though it has. Israeli Labour was never really a left-wing party. When it won elections, from the days of its founder David Ben-Gurion to Israel’s last Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak, it was always as a centrist party, hawkish on security and pragmatic on the prospects of peace.

Golan as a tough-talking former general may fit the mould of Barak or Yitzhak Rabin, but he has no hope of making Labour the party of power as long as the centre-ground is held by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. Even outgoing party leader, Merav Michaeli, said this week at her last party Knesset faction meeting as leader that Labour’s “role for the future is to build a centrist political framework”. Labour has been squeezed out of the centre and in unfamiliar territory, it can at best hope to be a junior partner in the next government.

May 30, 2024 16:58

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