Lack of leadership in Israel is undermining the Gaza war – opinion

As a large-scale offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah looms, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on the media offensive this week to push three main messages.

Did he speak to the Israeli media? Of course not. That is something he only does when elections are called. Then, he is willing to give interviews to anyone willing to listen – to the main TV channels and newspapers, but also to every local radio station, from Eilat to Kiryat Shmona.

On second thought, if an election were called today, he wouldn’t have to interview with the local Kiryat Shmona station. There aren’t exactly people living there right now, and his government has failed to present a plan for when residents will return. He can knock that one off his list.

The reason he doesn’t give the Israeli media interviews is because they would ask tough questions, ones he does not want to have to attempt to answer.

Netanyahu avoids taking responsibility 

He would be asked about his failures ahead of October 7, his unclear policies since, why he prefers to fight with Biden and not Ben-Gvir, and why he refused to show up at any of the Independence Day ceremonies that have, since the founding of the state, been attended by the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Remembrance Day ceremony at Mount Herzl. May 13, 2024. (credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The reason for his absence is obvious. Netanyahu feared that he would be heckled or that some of the Israel Prize laureates would refuse to shake his hand.

And while he spent part of the day visiting wounded soldiers – admirable in its own right – that is something he could and should be doing all the time and on any other day. Not coming to the President’s residence for the military ceremony and not attending the Bible quiz or the Israel Prize ceremony is not only an insult to the Israeli people but a sign of failed leadership.

Yes, he may have been heckled, and yes, some of the soldiers or laureates may have refused to shake his hand. But that is what happens when, as prime minister, you are in charge while the greatest disaster for the Jewish people since the Holocaust takes place. That is the price you pay for wanting to be in power.

Being prime minister is about knowing you have to pay the price for your decisions and policies. 

Refusing to do so says something about a lack of leadership and, I fear, even strengthens Hamas, which sees that its campaign against Israel is working – not only on the international stage, where Israel is becoming more and more isolated, but also domestically, where the prime minister is increasingly closed off from his own people.

Returning to the interviews he does give, he conveys three key messages: If the US cuts off weapons supplies, Israel will fight alone and with its “fingernails”; Israel will need to go into Rafah to break the Hamas battalions and then continue to “mop up”; and Israel will look for “local Gazans” to transfer control to once the war is over.

Let’s break this down. First of all, Israel will not have to fight with fingernails. What it is fighting with are our children, the young men and women in the IDF, many of whom have spent more than 150 days already fighting inside Gaza. These soldiers are not fingernails. They are our sons and daughters, and as seen this past week, the price being paid continues to be horrific.

 Israel needs to degrade Hamas’s capabilities, but there are serious and legitimate questions that need to be asked about the Rafah operation. While the Hamas battalions there need to be broken, maybe the larger-scale offensive can wait if, anyhow, the soldiers are going to be “mopping up” the place for months and possibly years to come. Maybe it does not need to happen right now.

There are answers but so far, we are not getting them.

And then there is the “local Gazans” claim. Beyond the fact that no one in the IDF has a clue who the prime minister is talking about and which local Gazans he thinks would be willing or even have the resources to stand up to Hamas, why does he continue to refuse to articulate where Israel is going and what is going to happen?

Netanyahu’s government fails in governing war 

IF ANYTHING, the last few weeks have illustrated a stark failure in the way Netanyahu’s government has been managing the war. The IDF was in Jabalya and Zeitoun, and when it pulled out, Hamas came back, forcing the IDF to go back in and clear the place out once again and paying an unimaginable price in terms of the number of dead soldiers.

If Israel had been willing, from the beginning of the war, to coordinate with another force to fill the vacuum that it was creating, the whole situation might have looked different today. Not only is it possible that Gaza would not be as lawless as it is right now, enabling Hamas to easily take over, but articulating a plan would have also shown the world that the IDF offensive is not just about destruction but, rather, part of something bigger.

The writing has been on the wall for months, but unfortunately, Netanyahu’s government preferred to bury its head in the sand and chose populistic slogans like “total victory” over what was realistic. 

The Palestinian Authority is far from being a peace partner for Israel, but imagine for a moment that each time Israel left a place, it enabled a small PA force to come in and fill the void. Would the anarchy in Gaza be what it is today, or would the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Americans have stepped in and tried to help ensure that the PA did its job and prevented Hamas from popping back up again? Hard to know.

This vacuum has become so dire that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant finally spoke up about what senior officers in the IDF have been warning about for months: without a political plan, the military plan will keep getting stuck. A former US four-star general, who was one of the leaders of the campaign against ISIS in Syria a few years ago, told me something similar this week. When Donald Trump took office and started throwing out slogans that were not grounded in reality as war objectives, he said, the military campaign suffered.

“The rhetoric that is coming out of the political side of the Israeli government is difficult to translate into operations,” he explained.

On Wednesday, Gallant went as far as to warn that Netanyahu’s refusal to articulate a day-after plan means that there are only two options: either Hamas returns to rule Gaza or the IDF remains inside and rules the territory. Both options, he said, are dangerous and are the result of an intentional indecisiveness by the prime minister. 

Even the IDF spokesperson this week couldn’t hold himself back when asked a question about the political plan. “An alternative to Hamas would most certainly put pressure on the group,” the usually diplomatic Daniel Hagari said.

The reasoning behind the government’s indecision here is obvious: Netanyahu is choosing political expediency over what is right for Israel. But this is not the way to run a war, just like skipping state ceremonies is not the way to lead a country. 

It is time that Netanyahu recognizes the gravity of this moment in time and does what is right or steps aside, calls for early elections, and allows the Israeli people to decide who will lead them. Staying stuck like we are now is not a plan.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.