Netanyahu's 'absolute victory' in Gaza looks increasingly unlikely

As Israel becomes increasingly isolated globally and Biden hardens his stance, Hamas sees the tide of the conflict turning in its favour

Netanyahu's 'absolute victory' in Gaza looks increasingly unlikely

No matter how much energy the Biden administration invests in its efforts to arrange a ceasefire in Gaza, the prospect of implementing a lasting cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas remains remote.

The past few weeks have seen a marked upsurge in US-led diplomatic activity in the Middle East aimed at persuading both sides in the bitter Gaza conflict to observe a ceasefire that would enable aid agencies to bring much-needed relief to the estimated one million Palestinian civilians caught up in the conflict.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been at the forefront of Washington’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict, making a succession of shuttle missions to the region during which he has met with key leaders in a bid to arrange a ceasefire.

Blinken’s most recent mission — his fifth tour of the Middle East since the outbreak of hostilities — included visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the Palestinian territories and was primarily aimed at securing agreement on implementing a ceasefire — dubbed a “humanitarian pause” to use the diplomatic jargon — in exchange for the release of hostages by both sides.

The initiative — which resulted in a proposal backed by Egyptian, Qatari, Israeli and US mediators being submitted to Hamas for approval — stalled at the first hurdle after Israel rejected Hamas's demands.

Hamas laid out a detailed, three-phase plan to be implemented over the course of several months, based on the release of all hostages in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including senior Hamas leaders, and an end to the war.

Despite the upsurge in diplomatic activity to end the conflict, the prospect of securing a ceasefire remains remote, as Netanyahu insists the Israeli army will continue until it achieves an 'absolute victory'.

The proposals were immediately rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced them as "delusional" and insisted that Israel would maintain its assault against Hamas in Gaza until it had achieved "absolute victory."

Even Biden appeared surprised by the extent of the Hamas demands, remarking that they were "a little over the top" while insisting that negotiations would continue.  

Biden hardens position toward Israel

Indeed, the failure of the latest US diplomatic initiative appears to have only intensified Washington's determination to break the impasse, with Biden hardening his position toward Israel.

Biden is particularly concerned about the Israeli Defence Forces' (IDF) plans to launch a ground offensive in Gaza's southern city of Rafah without a plan to protect the estimated one million Palestinian civilians seeking shelter in the area.

Following a phone conversation with Netanyahu at the weekend,  the White House said the president stressed that "a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there."

At the same time, the White House is continuing with its diplomatic efforts to arrange a six-week pause in the fighting, a move it believes could be an important step in ending the conflict in the long term.

However, Israel's maximalist objective of destroying Hamas looks increasingly unlikely as the group's key leaders are still alive, its fighters and police forces have returned to northern Gaza, and rocket attacks on Israel continue.

A six-week pause in the fighting could provide "the time to build something more enduring," Biden commented following talks with King Abdullah of Jordan, who is undertaking a tour of Western capitals in his attempts to press for a lasting ceasefire.

"We cannot stand by and let this continue," the King remarked after talks at the White House. "We need a lasting ceasefire now. This war must end."

Remote prospects

The prospect, though, of any ceasefire in Gaza resulting in a more permanent cessation of hostilities still appears exceedingly remote, not least because the Netanyahu government remains committed to its stated goal of destroying Hamas's military infrastructure in Gaza.

As Netanyahu commented after rejecting Hamas's three-stage proposal for ending the war, "There is no alternative to the military collapse (of Hamas)." Unless Hamas is destroyed, "the evil axis of Iran and its affiliates will continue unhindered in its campaign of killing and aggression."

Netanyahu's uncompromising position, moreover, reflects his desire to prevent Israel's hard-line coalition government from collapsing — a move that would most likely spell the end of the 74-year-old Israeli premier's decades-long domination of Israel's political landscape.

To remain in power, Netanyahu needs to keep the support of right-wing ministers who are bitterly opposed to agreeing on any deal with Hamas, with Itamar Ben-Gvir — the country's far-right national security minister — threatening to dissolve the coalition if Netanyahu makes any concessions to Hamas.

Netanyahu's uncompromising position reflects his desire to prevent Israel's hard-line coalition government from collapsing — a move that would most likely end his political career.

An emboldened Hamas

Prospects of ending hostilities are also being undermined by the more assertive position being adopted by Hamas, which — despite suffering heavy casualties in Gaza — remains optimistic that it will ultimately emerge victorious from its confrontation with Israel.

An assessment of the current state of the conflict by the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London concluded that, while the IDF had "operationally dominated" its offensive against Hamas, it had failed to achieve its declared war aims. 

Read more: Gaza war reminds of history's tactical military victories-turned-strategic defeats

"The survival of key Hamas leaders, the continued rocket attacks on Israel, even at reduced levels, and the return of Hamas fighting squads and police forces in northern Gaza illustrate the difficulty for Israel of meeting its maximalist objective of destroying Hamas, announced at the beginning of the campaign," commented Bastian Giegerich, chief executive of the IISS.

In such circumstances, Hamas will conclude that the tide of the conflict is turning in its favour, with the Netanyahu government finding itself increasingly on the defensive, especially in terms of its dealings with the US.

This means that, unless there is a change of administration in Israel, Netanyahu will feel compelled to continue fighting until his goal of destroying Hamas is accomplished, making it extremely unlikely that a lasting ceasefire will be implemented any time soon.

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