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Why don’t ceasefire talks ever go anywhere? Ask Netanyahu.

To hold onto power, Netanyahu has to appease the US — without ending the war

We’re living in Groundhog Day, Israel-Palestine edition.

Every time talks on a deal to return the remaining hostages from Gaza in exchange for a ceasefire seem to be nearing a breakthrough, they fall apart. They resume when the clamor in Israel grows loud enough, only to fall apart again. 

And despite high hopes in recent days, this scenario may well once more be playing itself out.

The reason for this cycle is depressingly simple and cynical: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to end the war in exchange for the hostages, because he expects that if he does, his coalition will collapse, since the ultranationalist flank on which it depends wants the war to go on. 

And Hamas, in turn, refuses to bend, because its leaders have correctly noticed that the war is terrible for Israel — an outcome that nicely aligns with its goal of eradicating the Jewish state. (The war is much more terrible for the people of Gaza, a fact that bothers Hamas not at all.)

Two-thirds of the Israeli public now favors ending the war for now in exchange for the hostages, according to a weekend poll. There is similar support for ending the war in the military, as made evident by leaks from senior security officials and loud protestations by retired ones. This weekend, tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated demanding that the government finally, finally make a deal happen. With the hostages believed to be dying in captivity one by one amid official indifference, their families are now openly attacking Netanyahu.

And yet, predictably, none of this seems to matter to Netanyahu, whose Knesset coalition has shown resilience and is staying intact — as long as he stays the course. The demonstrators — and the military — know what Netanyahu’s government refuses to admit: To get all the hostages back, Israel will have to end the war while leaving Hamas, bowed but unbeaten, in charge of Gaza. 

It is hard to overstate how much this coalition is currently loathed outside its core nationalist-religious base. This government spent nine months focused on an unpopular assault on Israel’s judiciary, creating distractions and divisions that many say contributed to the almost inexplicable breakdown in the face of the Hamas invasion of Oct. 7. This prolonged and plodding war is only the latest result of its malpractice and incompetence; it is far from the only one.

And in marked contrast to recent events in Britain and France — where unpopular leaders bit the bullet and called parliamentary elections —Netanyahu and his minions have circled the wagons, clinging to their seats as if their very lives depended on it.

But the tormented quality of the government’s ongoing response to outrage suggests that it knows its efforts to wrestle this situation into submission aren’t working.

First, about two weeks ago, Netanyahu stated in a rare televised interview that he would favor a “partial” deal to free only some of the remaining hostages in exchange for a temporary truce in the Gaza war. The prime minister’s office then walked his statement back, saying there was no change in “Israel’s offer,” referring to the three-stage proposal revealed by President Joe Biden in late May. In practical terms, that proposal offered a gradual end to the war in exchange for all the hostages. 

There were then a series of reports that the military establishment thought ending the war was a good idea. “Not going to happen,” Netanyahu replied — despite never having denied Biden’s claim that Israel had offered the idea of a permanent ceasefire in the first place.

Then, last Thursday, reports suggested Hamas had abandoned its demand for a formal promise for an end to the war to be in place before the first phases of hostage releases begin. But by Sunday new reports suggested Hamas was backing away from that openness — even as Netanyahu published a series of “non-negotiables,” including the assertion that Israel has the right to resume the war after a deal.

Escalating Israeli military activity in Gaza City on Monday prompted Hamas to issue a statement — oddly similar to the Israeli critics’ claims — saying the action aimed to “thwart all efforts to reach an agreement.”

It’s clear the government’s only plan is to delay, delay, delay. Netanyahu has himself essentially guaranteed the survival of Hamas by refusing to enable an alternative governing structure for Gaza to emerge. Western allies, moderate Sunni neighbors, and the security establishment have been clamoring for an agreement to return the Palestinian Authority to the strip, perhaps with the assistance of an Arab security force. But Netanyahu has mulishly refused for fear of a revolt from the extreme right parties, which prefer an Israeli occupation and renewed Jewish settlement there. 

An end of the war now would offer Netanyahu the hostage release the public seeks, and probably an end to the combustible parallel conflict with Hezbollah in the north. But it would also rob him of the state of emergency that has been his primary excuse for avoiding a political accounting for the epic collapse on Oct. 7. 

He can offer no way forward without sacrificing himself. So instead, around and around we go at his whim — two peoples, and with them, in some ways, the entire world.

As someone who has known and followed Netanyahu for about 35 years, I have no doubt that political survival is his main (and possibly only) concern. I have never encountered a more profound Louis XIV complex — “The state is me” — in a modern leader, with the possible exemption, in a genuine photo finish, with Donald Trump. (As Biden’s reelection campaign flounders in the U.S., Netanyahu may be anticipating a November victory by Trump, with the expectation that such an outcome will give him much freer rein in conducting the war.)  He will cling to power almost no matter the consequences — until he thinks he can win an election again.

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