Israel, Hamas and the Elusive Cease-Fire

5 May 2024

Israel, Hamas and the Elusive Cease-Fire

By Gwynne Dyer

Hamas did not need a cease-fire. It had already demonstrated that Israel could not eradicate it. It had achieved its primary goal of wrecking the anti-Iran alliance that was brewing between Israel and the major Arab Gulf states. And it doesn’t care about how many Palestinians get killed; they are all ‘martyrs’ for the cause.

So why would it have agreed to a cease-fire that isn’t permanent?

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was and is absolutely committed to continuing the war. He declared on Saturday that with or without a cease-fire “We will enter Rafah and eliminate the remaining Hamas battalions.” His job and perhaps even his freedom depend on the war continuing, even if there were a temporary cease-fire.

But Israel cannot force Hamas to settle for less than a permanent cease-fire either. Hamas doesn’t depend on outside support and it can go on fighting from its tunnels for as long as necessary, doing relatively little damage but making any kind of stable peace impossible.

There is only one outside power that could impose a cease-fire: the United States. However, so long as Joe Biden clings to his unquestioning loyalty to Israel regardless of its behaviour – even regardless of his own re-election prospects next November – Netanyahu will remain free to sabotage any and every cease-fire proposal.

So there we are: perma-war. Except for the old adage which states that if you can plausibly say “This can’t go on forever”, then logically it must one day come to an end. Which day depends on one of these three men changing their minds:‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar or Joe Biden.

Sinwar is presumably still alive in the tunnels under Rafah. He is now Hamas’s unchallenged leader: the resounding success of his strategy of slaughtering Israeli civilians in their beds, which suckered Israel into a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip, means that he no longer has to defer to the views of the senior Hamas leadership in self-exile in Qatar.

His attack has already thwarted the Israeli-Arab alliance foreshadowed in Donald Trump’s ‘Abraham accords’. What remains is to restore Hamas’s position of absolute political dominance in the Gaza Strip, and for that he needs a permanent cease-fire accompanied by a full Israeli withdrawal from that territory.

This has been his unwavering demand in every negotiation for a cease-fire, and it’s hard to see why he would ever change it.

Then there’s ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, whose political career should have ended in disgrace seven months ago when he failed to foresee and prevent the devastating October 7 attack on Israel. He is a genuine political wizard who has manipulated popular outrage at the attacks into support for a war of vengeance – again led by him – against the authors of that atrocity.

Netanyahu also faces a probable conviction on corruption charges and even possible jail time if he loses office, not to mention an official inquiry into his prewar actions that would destroy what remains of his reputation. This is not a man who will act in the higher interests of the nation; he will cling to power at all costs.

To stay in office Bibi must continue the war at least until some sort of ‘victory’, so he cannot possibly compromise with Hamas’s demands. That’s why he is currently determined to attack Rafah, the last relatively intact city in Gaza. It’s no Stalingrad, but symbolically it serves his purposes well enough.

This leaves only Joe Biden to end this war, and he could certainly do it if he chose. Israel is so dependent on American arms, money and even direct military support (as in the recent downing of almost all the Iranian missiles launched at the country) that it really could not say no.

An American intervention imposing a permanent cease-fire would not just bring down Netanyahu. (His coalition would instantly break up.) It would have to include the sidelining of Hamas, the creation of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, and American security guarantees for everybody in the region.

Biden’s nostalgia for an older Israel is doubtless a factor in his reluctance to intervene, but any sane American president would be reluctant to make such a huge and risky commitment. It could easily blow up in his face, and there is no gratitude in politics.

On the other hand, non-intervention just prolongs the war and accelerates the erosion of Biden’s political support at home. When faced with a choice between damned if you do it and damned if you don’t, doing it is sometimes the better course.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 5. (“There is…proposal”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers’. Last year’s book, ‘The Shortest History of War’, is also still available.