The end of the Netanyahu doctrine

Did his plan to preserve Hamas in Gaza as a tool for keeping the strip separate from the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority weak finally backfire?


Is what happened a backfire? I’m not 100 percent sold on that idea

This fact is not just a historical anecdote; it has a direct political meaning. This murderous and inhumane attack by Hamas arrived just as it seemed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was about to complete his masterpiece: peace with the Arab world while completely ignoring the Palestinians. This attack has reminded Israelis and the world, for better or for worse, that the Palestinians are still here, and that the century-old conflict here involves them, not the Emiratis or the Saudis.

In his speech at the UN General Assembly two weeks ago, Netanyahu presented a map of “The New Middle East,” depicting the State of Israel stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and building a “corridor of peace and prosperity” with its neighbors across the region, including Saudi Arabia. A Palestinian state, or even the collection of shrunken enclaves that the Palestinian Authority ostensibly controls, does not appear on the map.

Since he was first elected prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu has tried to avoid any negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, instead choosing to bypass it and push it aside. Israel does not need peace with the Palestinians to prosper, Netanyahu repeatedly claimed; its military, economic, and political strength is sufficient without it. The fact that during the years of his rule, especially between 2009 and 2019, Israel experienced economic prosperity and its international status improved, was, in his eyes, proof that he is following the right path.

The Abraham Accords signed with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and later also Sudan and Morocco, reinforced this belief conclusively. “For the past 25 years, we have been told repeatedly that peace with other Arab countries will only come after we resolve the conflict with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu wrote in an article in Haaretz before the last election. “Contrary to the prevailing position,” he continued, “I believe that the road to peace does not go through Ramallah, but bypasses it: instead of the Palestinian tail wagging the Arab world, I argued that peace should begin with Arab countries, which would isolate Palestinian obstinacy.” A peace agreement with Saudi Arabia was supposed to be the icing on the “peace for peace” cake that Netanyahu has spent years preparing.

Netanyahu did not invent the policy of separation between Gaza and the West Bank, nor the use of Hamas as a tool to weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization and its national ambitions to establish a Palestinian state. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2005 “disengagement” plan from Gaza was built on this logic. “This whole package called the Palestinian state has fallen off the agenda for an indefinite period of time,” said Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s advisor, explaining the political goal of disengagement at the time. “The plan provides the amount of formaldehyde required so that there will be no political process with the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu not only adopted this way of thinking, he also added to it the preservation of Hamas rule in Gaza as a tool for strengthening the separation between the strip and the West Bank. In 2018, for example, he agreed that Qatar would transfer millions of dollars a year to finance the Hamas government in Gaza, embodying the comments made in 2015 by Bezalel Smotrich (then a marginal Knesset member, and today the finance minister and de facto West Bank overlord) that “the Palestinian Authority is a burden and Hamas is an asset.”

Netanyahu wants Hamas on its feet and is ready to pay an almost unimaginable price for it: half the country paralyzed, children and parents traumatized, houses bombed, people killed,” Israel’s current information minister, Galit Distel Atbaryan, wrote in May 2019, when she was yet to enter politics but was known as a prominent Netanyahu supporter. “And Netanyahu, in a kind of outrageous, almost unimaginable restraint, does not do the easiest thing: getting the IDF to overthrow the organization.

“The question is, why?” Distel Atbaryan continued, before explaining: “If Hamas collapses, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] may control the strip. If he controls it, there will be voices from the left that will encourage negotiations and a political solution and a Palestinian state, also in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] … This is the real reason why Netanyahu does not eliminate the Hamas leader, everything else is bullshit.”

Indeed, Netanyahu himself had effectively admitted as much a couple of months before Distel Atbaryan made her comments, when he declared in a Likud meeting that “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state needs to support strengthening Hamas. This is part of our strategy, to isolate Palestinians in Gaza from Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.”

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