The tanks are rolling into Gaza, as the Israeli invasion seems to finally be happening, after a pause for humanitarian aid and mostly-fruitless negotiations for the release of 220 hostages being held by Hamas.
No one knows how this will end, but one thing is clear: This will be remembered as Bibi’s war.
Yes, of course, Hamas started this round of violence, with their appalling mass slaughter of over 1,400 innocent civilians and the kidnapping of hundreds more. They bear a profound moral responsibility that cannot be justified or excused, no matter the justice of the Palestinian cause or the brutality of the Israeli response.
But while Hamas bears moral responsibility, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu created the conditions that led to the Oct. 7 massacres, the Israeli reprisals, and now the ground invasion – and, if it’s any consolation, Israelis are holding him accountable.
First, of course, Netanyahu’s government is accountable the astonishing military and intelligence failures that allowed Hamas operatives to break through Israeli defenses and occupy several towns and kill ravers, peace activists, grandparents, little kids, and entire families. The equivalent death count in the United States population would be over 49,000 people.
This devastating massacre is unprecedented, but also is reminiscent of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when a coalition Arab armies caught Israel by surprise and inflicted heavy damage before being turned back. Ultimately, Prime Minister Golda Meir was forced to resign as a result, and after the inevitable investigations into this government’s shocking failures, it’s quite likely that Bibi will be too. This, at least, is a sliver of good news for anyone who wants peace and justice for Israel and Palestine.
But there is another, deeper reason why Bibi owns this war: his overt and covert support of Hamas in his zeal to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Zoom back to 2000. After a long process begun with secret negotiations in 1993, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, were inches away from a final agreement that would create a state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. As has been exhaustively narrated (mostly in US envoy Dennis Ross’s 880-page-long account) Arafat balked at the 11th hour, not offering a counterproposal to Israel’s best offer. The peace process ended in failure, right wing former general (and alleged war criminal) Ariel Sharon incited a new round of violence and, on its heels, won the Israeli election. Peace was dead.
Only, not entirely. The framework for Palestinian statehood was clear, and pro-peace factions on both sides (including Abu Mazen, now the elderly Palestinian leader) continued to hammer out the final details. There was still hope.
And that was what the Likud – the right-wing faction now headed by Netanyahu – feared the most. Some in the coalition were concerned about security; others were nationalists; some were religious fanatics with messianic dreams and more than a tinge of racism. But for all these reasons and more, the Israeli Right viewed an independent Palestine as the greatest threat facing Israel.
And so, for the last 20 years, the Likud and Netanyahu have done everything possible to torpedo the process. They undermined the Palestinian Authority, squelched Palestinian economic development, built new settlements, cracked down on dissent, and incited Palestinian rage. All of the institutions and forces that one would want to prop up in the service of peace – private enterprise, non-governmental organizations, joint educational and cultural activities, and security infrastructure – were systematically undermined.
And they deliberately aided Hamas as a rejectionist rival to the Palestinian Authority. When the Likud-led government closed Israeli settlements and withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it was ostensibly a step toward peace (and drew heated Israeli opposition), but it also had the immediate impact of strengthening Hamas. Arafat’s cronies in Gaza were corrupt, siphoning off aid and doing nothing to help Gaza’s residents And in 2007, Hamas won a popular election and took control of the territory. Now Palestinians were split in two.
More recently, Netanyahu stated in 2019 that he had allowed Qatari money to support Hamas as a tactic to keep Palestinians divided. “Whoever is against a Palestinian state should be for” this arrangement, Netanyahu reportedly said, because it cut Hamas off from the PA, making a viable Palestinian state impossible. For him, even the evil of Hamas was preferable to a Palestinian state. As Tal Schneider put it in The Times of Israel, “Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset.”
To be clear, this isn’t about some conspiracy theory. There’s no evidence that Bibi knew of the attacks of Oct. 7. It is simply to note the horrifying, mutually beneficial arrangement wherein Bibi and Hamas are the perfect enemies for one another. Both thrive when there is no hope for peace, when Israelis and Palestinians hate one another, where pro-peace factions on both sides seem naïve or foolish. Netanyahu’s claim that there is no Palestinian partner for peace has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Only now, after the unconscionable evil of Hamas’s massacre, has this symbiosis finally ended.
The great mystery at the center of it all is Bibi himself. Netanyahu is, in part, a patriot; his brother died a young war hero in 1976, and his father wrote hard-right revisionist Zionist tracts. But more than anything else, Bibi has primarily acted in the interests of his own survival, changing political positions whenever the wind shifts. His most recent government, before the opposition joined to present a united front in the war, was propped up by fanatics and theocrats who sought to dismantle the Supreme Court and core institutions of democracy, replacing them with an authoritarian ethno-state. This was never Bibi’s agenda, but he’s also on trial for corruption, and in danger of going to jail, and so he sold out the soul of democratic Israel in order to save his skin.
The only “good” news in the current catastrophe is that Israelis are now sick of him. Not just the peace camp – they’ve loathed him for years. But also ordinary Israelis who voted for Bibi because he promised to keep them safe. Which he has utterly failed to do.
I want to close with the words of a 19-year-old survivor of the Kibbutz Be’eri massacre who watched her friends be gunned down by Hamas terrorists. Sheltering at a hotel at the Dead Sea, she made an astonishing video which has gone viral in Israel and typifies the rage many Israelis feel. (The video is subtitled; a translation is here.)
The video describes the horrifying events of Oct. 7, and the appallingly delayed response from Israel’s security services. “The worst thing,” she says, “was to hear in real time the voices of people on the kibbutz, people I have known since I knew myself, begging for help—and no-one came.”
Then she continues, “there’s a lot of rage directed at Bibi, and I feel it… I wonder how many people have to die for his ego and his interests?… Those rockets they shoot at us? It’s as if our government is shooting them at us. Because that’s the government that abandoned me. All the years of my life. And now the worst has happened.”