Hollow leadership

Since its establishment, Israel faced a long series of challenging security and political crises, and managed to overcome them. The internal resilience of Israeli citizens throughout the generations and their belief in the righteousness of the Zionist endeavor enabled its leaders to navigate these crises to the best of their abilities in various circumstances. The price paid in human life in the various wars was heavy, and in recent months we received a painful reminder of the cost associated with life in this country when we attended funerals in the military and civilian cemeteries across the country.

The question arises, how does the October 2023 war in Gaza differ from all of Israel’s previous wars? For even in the past, we failed, were surprised, fought, prevailed, and eventually recovered. The main difference in my opinion is this: This war is being led, as David Grossman once put it in a painful and unforgettable speech, by a hollow and unworthy leadership. The decision-making in the current government headed by Netanyahu is deeply tainted by personal political interests at the expense of the country’s national interests. Israel’s political and security situation these days, five and a half months since October 7, 2023, is worse than it was at the outbreak of the war.

The main parameters of the crisis were known to all at the outset: Hamas is a terror organization that is integrated into the civilian population; Hamas built a vast network of underground tunnels; in the attack on the southern kibbutzim and localities, Hamas abducted about 240 civilians and soldiers into the Gaza Strip and the event took on the complex dimension of a mega ‘bargaining attack’; the population density in Gaza is high and any military operation should have taken this into account; the diplomatic timetable for a broad military operation in the Strip is limited for international reasons; a normative state with a liberal democratic regime cannot instigate a humanitarian disaster among a non-involved civilian population.

Below are a number of decisions that were either made or avoided by the government that already testify to the failures of the Netanyahu government in managing the war:
The main reason for the serious crisis in which Israel finds itself is that the Netanyahu government sent the IDF to fight against a terror organization entrenched in tunnels, without formulating a realistic policy for itself and without defining what would be a necessary achievement for ending the war. Despite the entreaties of President Biden and American generals who came to advise the IDF at the beginning of the conflict, based on the lessons learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to predefine Israel’s desired “End Game,” when the army is not given clear war objectives on which to base its planning given the complexity of the situation, it cannot achieve victory on the battlefield.

The main issue in this context was the question of control of the Gaza Strip after toppling Hamas’ military power. Israel controlled the Gaza Strip from June 1967 until the unilateral disengagement decision initiated by Ariel Sharon’s government in 2005. Over the years, Israel’s control of the Gaza Strip has exacted a heavy price in human lives and resources. With the exception of an extreme minority on the religious right, which is now a central part of Netanyahu’s government, the sane majority in Israel has no interest in Israel returning to control and manage the day-to-day lives of millions of its inhabitants. Many, including this writer, proposed at the beginning of the war that the US establish an international force based on troops from moderate Arab countries to assume security control while allowing the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza and manage the civilian side.

Netanyahu vehemently opposed this without offering a serious alternative to this day. Today, Israel is facing chaos in the Gaza Strip, Hamas fighters are returning to the northern areas conquered in the first months of the war, partly due to the power vacuum created by Netanyahu’s refusal to promote the plan proposed to him at the beginning of the war.

The humanitarian crisis in the Strip, exacerbated by the lack of governance on the ground, caused a rift in relations between the US and the Netanyahu government. In the initial months of the war, the Biden administration strongly supported Israel in a decisive and unprecedented manner. The Americans prevented the Iranian-backed Hezbollah from joining a full-scale war against Israel, providing extensive military aid and significant political support. On the question of “The Day After,” which is crucial for Israel’s future, President Biden is working to build an entire array of moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, for a comprehensive solution to the situation in the Gaza Strip and its rehabilitation, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. This move is contingent upon Israel agreeing in principle to discuss the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Yet even now, out of personal ambition to stay in power at any cost, Netanyahu is rejecting outright the American initiative to extricate Israel from the Gaza quagmire. Against this backdrop, voices have been heard in Washington that the Israeli prime minister’s conduct poses a threat to Israel’s security, and that Israel should hold elections as soon as possible.

Decision-making on the northern front: The entry of Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot into the cabinet overseeing the war was welcome. Today, we know that they prevented Israel from engaging in an all-out war in the north and a ground war on two fronts. However, the cabinet made a too hasty decision in my opinion to proactively evacuate the northern border settlements in the early days of the war, despite President Biden’s unequivocal warning to Hezbollah and Iran. The evacuation of residents from northern border towns granted Hezbollah a historic achievement. For the first time in the history of the conflicts with Israel, tens of thousands of residents were evacuated from the border area with Lebanon by a government decision, and not by a private initiative of residents in the north. Today, almost six months since the outbreak of the war, Israel is dependent on French and American mediation with Hezbollah and Iran to end the confrontation in the north and return residents to their homes.

Decision-making regarding negotiating a deal for release of the remaining hostages. Netanyahu’s claim that only continued military pressure on Hamas will lead to the release of the hostages never held water. Apart from isolated hostages, the IDF failed to reach the hiding places of the captives and free them. Only many years from now will we know how the negotiations for the release of the abductees are currently being conducted and who is truly hindering reaching a deal: Yahya Sinwar or Benjamin Netanyahu. Given the manner in which the current prime minister is managing the crisis, I would not be surprised if one day it is revealed that the release of hostages languishing in Hamas tunnels was at the bottom of Netanyahu’s priorities throughout the war.

The Israeli public is divided into two camps in this war, largely in accordance with the division in the nine months of the “Legal Reform” initiated by Netanyahu and the minister of justice in his government. Supporters of the government on the one hand and its opponents on the other. Despite the correct slogan that our strength lies in our unity, these days we are not united. Israeli society today is torn and internally divided, as it was before the war. In contrast, as in past wars, the IDF quickly regrouped after the defeat on October 7th. IDF reservists from all political camps mobilized to fight against the enemy that rose against us, and for that they deserve gratitude and appreciation.

Against this background, when a division commander demands in an unprecedented manner from Israel’s leaders to be “worthy” of the sacrifice of his soldiers, it is clear beyond doubt that, until now, he believes that they are not worthy. The officer was rightly reprimanded for his words and apologized. As a member of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War generation and a researcher of Israel’s security, I fully share the harsh assessment that in the toughest months of its history, Israel is being led by a leadership unworthy of its role, and it must be replaced through elections as quickly as possible.

About the Author
Dr. Dan Sagir is a research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book, "Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Secret Behind Israel's Nuclear Power," was recently published (Amazon).