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In ceasefire talks, Netanyahu is letting Hamas win Gaza war

The great mystery is: Why?

In the Cairo ceasefire talks, Netanyahu is snatching diplomatic defeat from the jaws of military victory. I have no explanation for why he’s doing this and I have yet to hear a convincing one. There must be something Netanyahu knows that no one else does. Otherwise his concessions at the Cairo talks, after blitzing the Gaza Strip for five weeks, leaving Hamas able to do no more than fire short-range rockets over the Israeli border, and being hailed in Israel as a warrior king, make no sense at all.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz at the Defense Ministry. (photo: Haim Zach / GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz at the Defense Ministry. (photo: Haim Zach / GPO)

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On gave an accurate reading of the situation:

This is what Netanyahu promised during Operation Protective Edge: Demilitarization of Gaza, bringing Hamas to its knees, and achieving long-term deterrence. And this is what we now have: Israel is holding direct talks with Hamas in Cairo, has agreed not to demand Gaza’s demilitarization, and is discussing a series of steps such as opening the crossings, bringing in goods and expanding fishing zones, which will be credited to Hamas and to those who side with violence.

Also, the emerging truce calls for talks on construction of an airport and seaport for Gaza to begin within a month of the document’s signing.

Personally, I’m in favor of Gaza getting all those things. But Netanyahu could have offered them to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the Kerry talks, or to the Fatah-Hamas unity government that Abbas forged, and the Palestinian benefactor would have been the non-violent, moderate PA instead of the violent, immoderate Hamas. Oh, one other thing: There wouldn’t have been a war that killed 2,000 people, made much of Gaza look like the Warsaw Ghetto, and traumatized hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the south. Gal-On again:

Netanyahu dragged us to a war of choice and a war of folly, gave Hamas a lifeline to climb out of the biggest hole it was ever in, strongly reinforced the organization’s understanding that it pays to keep digging deeper tunnels and stockpiling deadlier rockets, and it has proved to the Palestinians once again that Israel only understands the language of force.

It’s not just leftists like Gal-On and me who see the Cairo talks in this light. “In the hands of Hamas” was the title of the highly-influential Friday column in Yedioth Ahronoth by Nahum Barnea, the country’s leading print journalist:

If it wants, Hamas will fire on us, if it wants, it will stop. Hamas got out of Gaza with a tie, and triumphed in Cairo.

In the cabinet, meanwhile, the only sure ally Netanyahu has left is Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, his partner in devising the Cairo negotiating strategy. The other ministers, certainly to the right of Netanyahu but even those to his left, are turning away from this deal. Netanyahu, for his part, is barely talking to them. Political correspondent Yossi Verter in Friday’s Haaretz:

By yesterday, [Netanyahu] remained alone in the political arena. All that was left of the collective hug and the broad support from right, center and left, in whose light he basked for 30 days, was a dull fog. Even Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced that he’s not in Netanyahu’s pocket, and that he will not necessarily vote for the agreement when the time comes.

A week ago, Netanyahu seemed to have clear sailing; he didn’t need anything or anybody. With Hamas’ tunnels destroyed, most of its rocket arsenal wiped out and the Iron Dome behind him, he could pull the army completely out of Gaza and all he would have to deal with is the “drizzle” of Hamas’ short-range rockets over the border, which cause much more fear than injury or damage, and for which Israel could make Gaza pay a heavy price. This is how Israel had lived for years. As for the mess it left in Gaza, let the world clean it up. What did Netanyahu need with a ceasefire? Why would he want to negotiate with Hamas as an equal? Above all, why would he want to let Hamas say to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, “We fought Israel, and in the end it lifted the blockade”?

File photo of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: PPO/Thaer Ghanaim - Handout)

File photo of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: PPO/Thaer Ghanaim – Handout)

This seems to go against everything Netanyahu is about, and utterly against the spirit of Operation Protective Edge. So what got into him? Did Obama finally, truly lay down the law to Bibi in their reportedly angry phone conversation a few days ago? That would seem to go against everything Obama is about, so that’s not a likely explanation. Even more unlikely was that Netanyahu had an epiphany, changing from hawk to dove in the space of last weekend. But maybe he thinks he can scam the Palestinians on the terms of the truce, and make promises he doesn’t intend to keep. But then the rockets would resume, defeating the purpose of such a scam, and anyway Hamas has won a moral victory already, so that explanation doesn’t make sense, either. It’s all a great mystery, one that presumably will be solved when more information comes to light.

As things stand, it doesn’t look like the truce coming out of Cairo will be approved by the Israeli cabinet. And it may not get that far – Netanyahu could try to cut his losses and exit the talks in a way that allows him to blame the Palestinians for the failure (not that anybody outside of Israel and the Republican Party would believe him).

Myself, I hope the truce is made. Better an agreement with Abbas than with Hamas, but better an agreement with Hamas – one that ends the war and revives Gaza – than no agreement, which keeps the war going and leaves Gaza for dead.

The battle over numbers: Gaza conflict is about quality not quantity
U.S. halts transfer of Hellfire missiles to Israel
The world is letting Israel get away with it again

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    1. Mohamed ElKhateeb

      Maybe, Bibi waged this war cause he wants to give a lifeline to Hamas and make them feel overconfident and then maybe the national unity will fall apart and we’re back in square 1?
      If true that would be twisted logic!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lynn

      Personally, I believe the ONLY way for there to be any peace in the region is for concessions to be made on both sides. The first concession MUST come from Israel…and that would be the lifting of the seige and freedom of movement both of people and goods. There are many other issues to be resolved, but without first making this step, the door to resolving everything else will remain closed.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lurk

        if Israel removes blockade completely right now – Israelis would die, just like they did between 2005 and 2007 before blockade was imposed, the first thing that should happen is demilitarization with assurances to Hamas/PA that blockade will be lifted, and then lift the blockade.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Darcha


      Reply to Comment
    4. Joel

      Better Hamas than ISIS?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Whiplash

      It is very much premature to say Netanyahu has succeeded or failed. To measure whether Netanyahu has failed or passed, one must first know what the Israeli state’s goals are for the negotiations. Is it to get an unconditional cease fire of quiet for quiet, while giving up similar enticements to the Palestinians as in 2012, a softening of the blockade while maintaining the status quo? Is Israel attempting to put Hamas in a position that it has to negotiate its own disarmament in order to get the blockade lifted? Is Israel trying to negotiate a transfer of power to the PA and a marginalization of Hamas as a political organization in Palestinian Politics?

      Until we know the positions taken, the goals sought and the results, it is much too early to prognosticate on the matter.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Piotr Berman

      “… and it has proved to the Palestinians once again that Israel only understands the language of force.”

      I am with Whiplash in the assessment that Larry’s concern is very premature. But suppose that he is right? If it is not just “Palestinian misguided belief” that “Israel only understands the language of force”, but a fact? Would Netanyahu have any chance to convince his cabinet to offer meaningful concessions to PA without any “force” exhibited by Palestinian, be it military, however ineffective, or diplomatic, in the form of international judicial decisions or sanctions of Israel at least “looming”? Perhaps not, opponents including many, if not most, members of his own party.

      So if Netanyahu could preside over the government without portfolios for Jewish Home and Likud (and what is the current name of Lieberman’s party?), or if he could elicit some unequivocal pressure from USA (he even tried insults, and that failed!), he could perhaps do what Larry thinks that he should, but that did not happen.

      Reply to Comment
    7. annie

      i think it very well could be he has no other option if he wants to end the rocket fire. setting a goal of disarming hamas was foolish because it can’t be done without killing hundreds of thousands of people, including (probably) many more israeli soldiers.

      thus far i have not heard one palestinian say they support a ceasefire without ending the siege on gaza. not one. they’ve said they are dying anyway, a slow death, so why agree to a ceasefire that guarantees them nothing but decades more suffering and imprisonment?

      israel started a revengeful pogrom in the WB, killing and detaining scores of people and for whatever reason went back on it’s word for the prisoner exchange for gilad shalit, so there’s no traction in making a deal with israel that doesn’t include releasing those people.

      israel doesn’t know where hamas’ weapons are stored or how many they have. if israel starts genociding palestinians en mass as the world looks on it could a)start a regional war b) be a very bad thing.

      ultimately israel needs to release palestinians from their imprisonment, that’s why hamas (and the palestinians) will not agree to the ceasefire. what do people have to lose when they know what awaits them every few years is israel mowing the grass? think about it. it’s not for israelis to decide who their leaders are.

      plus, maybe palestinians made some deal wrt the ICC. it can’t go on forever like this in maintenance mode.

      end the occupation.

      Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        Agree with all of the above from Annie.

        But am somewhat puzzled by the notion in the article that the possibility of Obama ‘laying down the law’ is unlikely given that ‘would seem to go against everything that Obama is about’.

        Surely Obama is just someone who has a good understanding of the limitation of power. I cannot believe that he is sympathetic to Israel’s occupation and treatment of the Palestinians.

        Obama seems to me to understand that not all desirable things are politically possible. He has made it clear that the US is not going to enter into every fray but will only act if it is politically possible and there is a good possibility of achieving goals.

        I also think that when he decides the time is right to act, he would be ruthless in execution; he would be more than able to express one view for public domestic consumption (support for Israel’s right to defence etc) whilst calmly laying down the law in private.

        Am not saying that Obama has, just that if and when he thinks its time to put a check on Israel he will do so, and he do so in a manner that leaves no doubt that he is serious and will follow through. I don’t think he would care too much if others got the initial credit for any breakthrough.

        I think that he is one tough bastard who should not ever be underestimated, taken for granted or messed with. Netanyahu, on the other hand appears to be a showman without a brain.

        Reply to Comment
    8. BR

      some other factors:

      – Maybe part of the deal is to not be prosecuted by UN’s ICC committee, or be held accountable

      – Maybe international pressure, like that of Latin America, played a part in this, or Netanyahu is more aware of a shift of public perception than the rest of us

      – Maybe he made a deal with Obama, one that involved money or more ‘funding’

      Even these things seem pretty small in comparison… interesting article.

      Reply to Comment
    9. BR

      another very vague possibility, maybe he made some sort of an agreement with Hamas to fight anyone who may be a potential mutual enemy, such as other Palestinian political factions or ISIS.. That may be diving into the realm of conspiracy, but anything’s possible, no?

      Reply to Comment
    10. He miscalculated

      The theory was this: a swift bit o’ brutalization would cower the Hamas militants in Gaza, leaving him free to complete the task of mopping up the Hamas political machine in the West Bank.

      The theory has floundered on a simple miscalculation: the people in Gaza will no longer agree to be cowered. They will no longer agree to any “deal” that leaves the siege intact.

      A 72 hour ceasefire?
      Sure, that should give Bibi time to agree to end the siege.

      He doesn’t agree?
      Well then, so sorry, the fight is on again.

      So Bibi is stuck: he either agrees to end the siege OR he’s going to have to kill them all.

      Bibi has made a fundamental mistake i.e. it only takes one person to start a brawl, but the punch-up doesn’t end until EVERYONE agrees to lower their fists.

      Reply to Comment
    11. bar

      “Did Obama finally, truly lay down the law to Bibi in their reportedly angry phone conversation a few days ago? That would seem to go against everything Obama is about, so that’s not a likely explanation”

      Actually, that’s the primary explanation. And your assessment of Obama is way off base.

      Second, Netanyahu wants to and needs to appease the Egyptians who are driving this deal. They want to keep their side of the border as closed as possible and Hamas defanged but not destroyed.

      Third, the Egyptians and Netanyahu realize that a defanged Hamas is an open door to ISIS. ISIS is scary beyond belief even to Egypt and Israel.

      Fourth, Netanyahu needs two years of quiet. In two years’ time, new anti-tunnel technology will be in place (according to recent news reports), new anti-mortar technology will be ready, Iron Dome will be far more advanced than today, intermediate and long-range anti-rocket systems may be ready for initial deployment…and Netanyahu will be facing a new election.

      The last reason, the fourth, explains what you need explained. Israel neutralized an active threat in the rockets and tunnels for a couple of years and those couple of years are what it needs to leave Gazans to their own devices.

      By the way, shame on you (again) for gratuitously and falsely using the Warsaw Ghetto analogy as part of your article.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Sharon Ellis

      I suspect that his concessions will go the way of other concessions; they will be agreed to and not implemented. By the way, it doesn’t look like a victory from where I sit; it looks as though the rest of the world is finally catching up to the inherent racism and colonialist punishments that are the core of the Israeli military.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Lo

      PM Netanyahu seems to be the sort of political operator who wins exceedingly well at the tactical level of politics, but suffers from a chronic failure in the strategic side of things. He was extremely adept at whipping up the Israeli public into an angry froth following the unity deal and kidnappings, but he doesn’t seem to have any control over the long term situation. Look at the ground invasion: for whatever military objectives were achieved, Israel suffered casualties and international opprobrium not seen since the 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

      Regarding the US, it actually is possible now that PM Netanyahu’s blunt arrogance has managed to override Obama’s venal cynicism. Based on the recent, public announcement that shipments of Hellfires would be suspended, it does look like something has changed in how the administration is weighing the benefits and costs of untrammeled support for Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Aaron Gross

      Same thought here, very strange.

      Reminds me of the 1990s, when Ehud Barak was prime minister. He kept doing one apparently stupid, crazy thing after another. A dyed in the wool Labor Party woman I knew would say after each one, “Barak is a very smart guy. Believe me, he has some strategy behind this that we can’t see yet. Just wait and see, you’ll all be surprised.” Finally, though, she gave up and stopped trying to defend him.

      It turned out that there was no hidden strategy. Barak was and is a very smart guy, but it turned out that for some reason he was acting stupidly, just as it appeared. I hope it’s different today.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Scottish chap

      I think Israel lost heavily in this war. Sure they got the weapons for free but everything else has cost them dear. Israel’s economy totally disrupted for a month by people continually rushing to the shelters. Tourism a busted flush at the moment. Tens of thousands of reservists out of productive work for a month and having to be funded. BDS gets a huge boost – Israel has difficulty selling ANY produce in European supermarkets at the moment. Chils blocks Israeli trade and South Africa talks about the same, Bolivia has revoked the non-visa agreement. The biggest anti-Israel protests ever seen in London and Cape Town, while thousands take to the streets in Paris despite a government ban backed by draconian sanctions. A seriously damning UNHRC report coming that could lead to ICC prosecutions this time. At least 64 soldiers dead and 400 injured. Not sure if Palestinians hold one or two dead bodies of soldiers, but that needs further protracted negotiations with an obdurate opponent to sort out. Obama has frozen deliveries of Hellfire missiles and there is an application for judicial review on weapons from Britain to Israel. Germany has already stopped subsidising warships to Israel because of Netanyahu’s intransigence over peace talks. And still the rockets keep coming, and Fatah and Hamas have not broken the unity government: so what was it all for? This war was a major political, PR and economic disaster which gained nothing apart from convincing Palestinians to keep fighting to the death. Perhaps Bibi has seen the light after all, that giving in to the fanatical right-wing in the Knesset will destroy Israel, and if he really believes in what is good for the country he has to get it out of this mess by paying whatever price is necessary.
      And if you have pissed off just about everybody except the US Senate it’s going to take an awful lot of humble pie to get out of the hole that fanatical Zionism has dug this time.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Richard Witty

      Things change so quickly.

      Hamas is walking. Israel is walking. They both are scared shitless, that the other might win.

      Hamas got the credibility of being at the table (a stupid move), but didn’t get anything for it.

      They are still desparately trying for street cred, believing again that they “won the war”.


      Their approval rating went up from what 30% before the fight to 50% (in Gaza), and is now dropping again now that Gazans have time to think about their recent past, and prospects for future.

      How in hell, will Hamas walking (thereby greatly delaying the restoration effort in Gaza) result in any progress for anyone?

      Reply to Comment
    17. bar

      Instead you should try to imagine what would happen when Israel realizes that fighting with lawyers looking over the officers’ shoulders is not helping them win the war OR the PR war OR the UN battles. Then they will realize they are free to fight to the finish. Can your imagination cope with a fight that has no warning phone calls or leaflets and where Israel simply decides to win? I bet not.

      Reply to Comment