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Israeli government divisions deepen as cabinet minister says defeating Hamas is unrealistic

Divisions within the Israeli government are deepening after war cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot suggested the key war aim of defeating Hamas is unrealistic and called for elections within months.

“Those who say that there was a major blow and demolition of the capabilities in the north of the strip are telling the truth,” Eisenkot told told Israeli broadcaster Channel 12 News on Thursday evening. “Those who talk about an absolute defeat and lack of will and ability do not tell the truth. This is why there is no need to tell tall tales.”

Eisenkot was speaking shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again said Israel’s military campaign would continue until it achieved “complete victory” over Hamas. His comments also come after Israel withdrew some troops from northern Gaza and signaled a new phase of the conflict would begin soon.

But Eisenkot said: “A strategic achievement was not reached … We did not demolish the Hamas organization.”

The remarks are the latest symptom of rifts within Israel’s coalition government, as well as growing discontent with Netanyahu’s war plans. Established shortly after Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack, the Israeli war cabinet includes some ministers already at odds with one another.

Calls for fresh elections

In his interview, Eisenkot said Israel needed fresh elections because the public no longer has trust in Netanyahu’s leadership.

He also dismissed concerns over holding elections in the country while it’s at war. “Lack of trust among the public in its government is no less severe than lack of unity during a war,” he said.

“We need to go to the polls and have an election in the next few months, in order to renew the trust as currently there is no trust,” he said. “The state of Israel is a democracy and needs to ask itself, after such a serious event, how do we go forward with a leadership that is responsible for such an absolute failure?”

While the cabinet was created to show unity, it “does not disguise the fact that there are already major differences in policy and approach,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in Jerusalem, adding that these divisions are now surfacing.

Over three months into Netanyahu’s war on Gaza, there is no end to the conflict in sight. Israel began its campaign after Hamas launched surprise cross-border attacks, killing 1,200 people and seizing more than 240 hostages. The Israeli authorities believe that around 100 are still alive in captivity, after 105 were released during a temporary truce in December. Dozens of hostages have been killed and their bodies remain in Gaza.

In the meantime, more than 24,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in the enclave, and swathes of the territory have been flattened.

Hazan says the Israeli government has decided it has two goals in this war, which may not both be attainable. “One is to destroy Hamas, and the other is to return the hostages home,” he said, “And as we’ve seen, after over a hundred days, you cannot achieve both.”

Eisenkot said the government had failed to achieve what he says should be its highest priority: securing the release of the hostages.

“There’s no question for me what task is of highest priority,” he said. “There’s no dilemma: for me, the mission is to save civilians (hostages) before eliminating the enemy,” Eisenkot said, adding that there would be time later to eliminate Hamas.

A poll by Israel Democracy Institute conducted in November found that while Israelis overwhelmingly support both defeating Hamas and retrieving hostages, they see the return of the hostages are more important.

Tensions with US over Palestinian statehood

Israel’s relations with its strongest ally, the US, have also been on a downward spiral. On Thursday the Israeli prime minister voiced a strong rejection of a post-war scenario that entails the creation of a Palestinian state, which the US and other countries have called for.

The idea of creating a Palestinian state would clash with the security of Israel, Netanyahu said. Netanyahu has made clear his opposition to a Palestinian state several times prior to his remarks on Thursday.

“In any arrangement in the foreseeable future, whether with or without an arrangement, the State of Israel must control the security of all the land, which is west of the Jordan River,” he told a press conference in Tel Aviv when asked about reports that he told US officials he opposes the idea of Palestinian sovereignty that would encompass both the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu added that Israeli politicians asking for him to step down are essentially asking for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Hazan sees the relationship between Israel and US as likely to worsen, particularly, he said, because Netanyahu wants to cling to power.

Current and former Israeli politicians have asked Netanyahu to step down.

When asked if he thought Netanyahu had been prolonging the conflict to ensure his own political survival, Eisenkot said he did not believe that to be the case.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has also called for fresh elections. In an op-ed published in Haaretz on Thursday, he warned that Netanyahu’s current strategy risks alienating the US and leaving Israel “mired in the Gaza quagmire.”

Netanyahu’s political survival

Once the war comes to an end, the Israeli public’s focus may shift to Netanyahu’s pre-war shortcomings, some analysts say. More attention could fall on responsibility for the October 7 attack, as well as a new mandate for leadership, according to Plesner.

“Given Netanyahu’s situation in public opinion, I am not sure he is very keen on seeing this phase unfold,” he added.

The prime minister, who before the war was facing mass protests against his plans for a judicial overhaul, has so far refused to take any responsibility for the events of October 7. He has also allegedly refused to hold high-level discussions on plans for post-war Gaza, Israeli media reported, leaving a handful of far-right members of the governing coalition to fill the void with ideas viewed by many as extremist.

“(Netanyahu) understands that in order for him to stay in power, the war has to continue,” Hazan of the Hebrew University said, “Because the day the war ends, that’s when the people of Israel will turn against him.”

An opinion poll published earlier this month by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) found that only 15% of Israelis want Netanyahu to remain prime minister after the war. Twenty-three percent said they wanted Gantz as prime minister after the war.

Gantz is widely considered a likely successor to Netanyahu when an election is called.

“So, as horrible as this sounds, it is in the political and survival interests of Netanyahu to continue the war, and that will put him at odds with the Biden administration,” Hazan said.

Even if elections are held in Israel, Netanyahu will likely campaign against the prospect of a Palestinian state, telling those who support him that “only he can say no to the United States, and can say no to a Palestinian state,” Hazan said, adding that the prime minister likely believes this would turn public sentiments back in his favor.

Plesner, however, does not believe Netanyahu is trying to extend the war to remain in power. War decisions don’t come from Netanyahu alone, he said, noting that while Israelis want to see the hostages come home, there isn’t significant support for a permanent ceasefire that may further empower Hamas.

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