Six Months Later... Multi-Front Stalemate (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- April 1, 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The Israel-Hamas War began six months ago, on October 7, 2023. The end does not appear near. What has happened to Israel in half a year? What has it learned?

A. More than 610 Israeli soldiers and police have been killed since October 7; around 700 civilians. Nearly 7,000 soldiers wounded. More than 100,000 Israeli civilians evacuated from homes along two borders; many of the homes destroyed. Most Israelis remain traumatized by the events of October 7 and their aftermath.

Israel is stalemated, muddling through on all fronts. Yediot Aharonot’s Nachum Barnea summed it up on Friday: “The muddling [my translation of the Hebrew dishdush] in hostage negotiations parallels the muddling in Gaza, the muddling in Lebanon and the muddling in Washington.” 

The war’s half-year mark and the sense of stalemate mandate an interim stocktaking or summing-up.

Q. Start with the muddling in hostage negotiations. Shouldn’t this issue be at the top of Israel’s war aims?

A. It should be, but it is not, thanks to Prime Minister Netanyahu. A second hostage deal means a long ceasefire, which in turn could mean an end to the war without the decisive or ‘total victory’ demanded by Netanyahu. It also means exposing the public to more devastating accounts of hostage rape, torture, and murder by Hamas that took place on Netanyahu’s watch. It means Israel yielding to Hamas demands for what ultimately has to happen in any case: Palestinian residents will return to the northern Strip, more humanitarian aid will be delivered and more Hamas terrorists will be released. 

All this could hasten the fall of Netanyahu’s 64-MK-strong coalition, which thus far has held despite his government’s blatant failures. It could postpone any attempt by the Israel Defense Forces to conquer Rafah at the southern end of the Strip and, ostensibly, ‘finish off’ Hamas--even as it emerges day-by-day that Hamas, while licking its wounds, is still alive, still functioning, and its leaders still making decisions from their still-concealed tunnels.

So a second hostage deal is still not happening. Instead, Israel’s hostage negotiators are repeatedly sent back to Doha and Cairo with instructions to keep bargaining--while hostages die and the stigma of abandoning them sticks to Netanyahu and his incredibly incompetent government.

Q. Well, what could bring down that government? Surely there is no lack of war-related issues: broken relations with the Biden government; the hostages; the crisis over Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription?

A. And no lack of candidates that the media, drawing on perpetual leaks, suggests might conceivably withdraw in protest from the coalition and precipitate a parliamentary landslide to bring it down. Defense Minister Yoav Galant, a pragmatist, appears to be constantly deadlocked with the extremists in Netanyahu’s government regarding tactics and aims in Gaza. Those extremists, especially ministers Smotrich and Ben Gvir, are constantly threatening to bolt unless the government follows their messianist-racist roadmap. 

Currently the most acute tensions within the coalition concern Haredi conscription, a veteran national headache that has been acutely exacerbated by the war and wherein, by High Court mandate since April 1, the Haredim no longer enjoy the protections of status quo understandings and agreements. That this key religion-and-state controversy has been primed by the war and the IDF’s manpower needs is perhaps the most blatant manifestation of the dominance of the Gaza conflict and its trauma over every aspect of Israeli life.

Then there are opposition ministers Gantz and Eizenkot, who joined the coalition half a year ago in the name of national solidarity, who tend to ally with Galant against Netanyahu, and who are constantly maligned from all sides for helping enable the current multi-front stalemate coupled with the evaporation of international support. The two former IDF chiefs of staff nevertheless claim credit, by staying in the government, for preventing even worse decisions than those made so far.

Finally, mass anti-government demonstrations have been renewed, calling for hostage release and new elections. Prior to the war, they had some effect in restraining Netanyahu’s attempts to remake Israeli governance in his anti-democratic image. Could they now hasten change? Or will they also metamorphose into a muddling-through exercise?

Q. Right now it looks like the primary danger of escalation and potential factor for change is not in Gaza but in Lebanon . . .

A. The low-level combat arena against Hezbollah is one area where sane Israelis who are alarmed by Netanyahu are counting on Gantz and Eizenkot on the one hand and the Biden administration on the other to impose restraint. The idea is to prevent the kind of escalation that could turn the current stalemate into a renewed full-scale war involving huge dangers for Israeli civilians. But how to constrain Hezbollah’s patron, Iran?

Q. The Biden administration just allowed a Gaza ceasefire resolution to pass the UN Security Council over Israel’s objections. Is Netanyahu losing his last source of support, in Washington?

A. Yes, but also in a muddling way. After the UNSC resolution passed, the administration zigzagged back with renewed arms supplies to Israel. Netanyahu bounced back by renewing US-Israel talks over Rafah. Nothing spectacular is anticipated in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, as along other fronts, in the next few weeks, at least until the end of Ramadan (another element contributing to the current stalemate) and the Id al-Fitr and Passover holidays that follow.

Beyond this short-term outlook, however, we are clearly witnessing the broader mixing of Israel’s Gaza War crisis--hostages, humanitarian, Rafah, West Bank escalation, arms resupply, Hezbollah--with American electoral politics. Normally, Netanyahu would be thankful for the opportunity to play Democrats off against Republicans. But for the moment Donald Trump, who just told Netanyahu “You are losing a lot of the world”, is not cooperating.

Q. Your intelligence analysis background usually leads you at times like this to try to frame the situation with questions rather than answers. What is it we need to know? Where are the gaps in our understanding?

A. Right. So here we go with the unanswered questions. Objectively, in my view, they cannot currently be answered. Anyone who claims to know the answers is engaging in magical thinking.

First, when will this end? And how will we know it has ended? With the elimination of the last Hamas leader and/or battalion? That is very unlikely to happen. With transfer of control over the Strip to an international, inter-Arab, and/or intra-Palestinian force? Israel is not about to forego security control over the Strip in the aftermath of October 7. With a declaration that the war is over? Hamas is not a sovereign state, its declarations are worth nothing and, lest we forget, on October 7 it unilaterally broke a ceasefire. 

In other words, there is no obvious military or diplomatic end to this war.

Second, is this war primarily over defeating Hamas, or is it over resolving the nation’s hostage trauma? Ask Netanyahu and company and they will say the former. Ask much of the public and it will say the latter. Ask 100,000 displaced Israelis, and what will they say?

Third, why is Israel losing the media war and, accordingly, the war over global opinion? Is it due to anti-Semitism crawling out of the woodwork at this time of crisis, blaming the Jews for wartime death and hardship while ignoring both October 7 and the worse humanitarian crises in Ukraine, Sudan, Congo, Iran, etc.? Is this just a case of poor Israeli media management--the wrong ‘messages’, the wrong blogs, the wrong spokespersons? 

The wrong messages? Is it Israel’s seeming inability to explain well over 30,000 Gazan dead, and counting?

Apropos anti-Semitism, why did Russia’s President Putin turn against Israel from day one? Surely he is not pro-Islamist. Why the ‘sudden’ anti-Semitism on American campuses? 

On the other hand, why have Israel’s Sunni Muslim Arab state neighbors, like Egypt and the UAE, not turned against Israel to the extent even of breaking off relations? Why are the Saudis still declaredly waiting to normalize relations once the war is ‘over’? Are they suddenly pro-Israel? Is Israel fighting their war against Hamas’s Sunni Islamic fanaticism? Do they sense that Israel is becoming more like them: overtly religious, authoritarian, indifferent to the Palestinian dilemma?

On a different plane, seen six months later, is the Holocaust the right Jewish cultural-historical prism for viewing the events of October 7? Alternatively, the pogroms of the turn of the nineteenth century? Or was October 7 another drop--this time a major drop--along Israel’s descent down a slippery slope toward a violent, conflicted binational one-state reality? Too soon to tell.

Finally, October 7, 2023 arrived 50 years and a day after a previous shocking and traumatic mass-casualty strategic military surprise, on October 6, 1973: the Yom Kippur War. Will this sort of surprise happen every 50 years? Is 50 years the Israeli time span for completely losing track of strategic priorities and understanding? For completely neglecting both deterrence against genuine enemies and peace with willing neighbors?