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February 14, 2024

The ‘day after’ is today: An evasive Netanyahu is abdicating his responsibility for Israel’s fate

By Shalom Lipner

The “day after” engine has left Gaza station without all passengers on board. Israel, which began transitioning in January to a lower-intensity phase of its military campaign against Hamas, remains reluctant to concretize its plans for the Gaza Strip’s future. Conceding the initiative to other interested parties is a terrible strategy for safeguarding Israel’s national interests. 

Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, is credited with having said, “If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.” Four months into the Gaza incursion, with Israeli troops controlling the vast majority of the Hamas-run territory, the inability of Israel’s elected leadership to articulate a coherent endgame has the country’s defense establishment up in arms. That logjam featured prominently on the itinerary of Kissinger’s current-day successor, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was back in the troubled region from February 5-8—his fifth visit since the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack. 

Trapped between two cabinets with conflicting outlooks—a narrow war cabinet, whose purview is limited to managing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operation in Gaza, and an expanded security cabinet, which asserts authority over matters that do not pertain to actual combat—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resorted to stonewalling. “In order to talk about the day after, it needs to get here first,” he declared on December 31, 2023. An incredulous IDF brass is sounding the alarm that a vacuum will result in the “erosion of gains made thus far.”


That predicament is already evident in Hamas’ return to sections of Gaza—neighborhoods which Israel has cleared but whose prospects it has left deliberately amorphous. As Arab nations converge around a program for Gaza, and the Netanyahu government rejects their conditions without proposing any viable alternative, the probability of unintended consequences from a prolonged battle rises for Israel. 

The potential grows for a wayward shell to strike a civilian target and derail IDF maneuvers abruptly, before Israel has an opportunity to consolidate a new Gaza architecture without the involvement of Hamas. Demoralization could take root among IDF soldiers, whose enthusiasm for defeating Hamas has remained high thus far, but who risk becoming disenchanted by the thought of an open-ended deployment that lacks any hopeful vision. Mounting casualties, or the infliction of torture upon any of the remaining 134 Israeli hostages in Hamas captivity, could tip the scales suddenly toward a shift in Israel’s tactics. 

Netanyahu must appreciate that Israel should seize the reins of its destiny. The tragedy—for the prime minister and Israel—is that he’s wedged tightly between a personal “rock” and a professional “hard place.” Israel’s National Security Council may have convened multiple discussions about the “day after” for Gaza, but those deliberations are no substitute for direct ministerial engagement. Netanyahu will win no relief from his cabinet colleagues. 

Even if the war cabinet—in which two of five participants are members of the centrist National Unity faction—were inclined to consider ideas such as introducing a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA) into Gaza, these shots are called elsewhere. The security cabinet, whose tenor is set by right-wing firebrands Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, is entrusted with formulating policy, and it has no intention of restoring PA rule in Gaza. And Netanyahu, whose political survival is contingent on those ideologues’ support in parliament, has stepped in line dutifully behind their approach. He continues to hedge his bet by making no final decisions on the issue. 

The prime minister is doing Israel a great disservice. Deciding not to decide is, after all, also making a decision. While Netanyahu treads water to preserve all his options—and to keep his coalition intact—other actors are working to construct the “day after” on their own terms. 

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are reportedly weighing recognition of a Palestinian state. Domestically, Netanyahu’s right-wing allies are being exuberantly proactive about promoting their dream of renewed Israeli sovereignty in Gaza. A January 28 rally—headlined by Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and lawmakers from the prime minister’s Likud Party—calling for the restoration of Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip met with only a faint response from Netanyahu, who said his opposition to that scheme “has not changed.” In the absence of any official blueprint, however, the unconstrained settlement agenda—which Netanyahu does not ostensibly endorse—dominates the Israeli narrative. 

Faced with an array of imperfect solutions for Gaza, Israel’s government needs urgently to define and present the contours of what it would deem an acceptable aftermath. “Israel has no interest in controlling the civil affairs of the Gaza Strip,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s national security advisor, opined on the Arabic-language Elaph news site on December 20, 2023. “This will require a moderate Palestinian governing body that enjoys broad popular support and legitimacy, and it’s not for us to determine who will this be.”

Elements of a touted US-backed bid to end the war—in particular, normalization with Saudi Arabia and regional assistance in rehabilitating Gaza—could provide an attractive platform for Israel to get such a process on track. Engaging productively in that conversation will not only allow Israel to influence the “day after,” but will also foster additional patience for the IDF to pursue its offensive against Hamas on the “day before.”

Ambiguity has run its course. If Netanyahu doesn’t put politics aside, Israel could end up missing the train entirely. 

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in JerusalemFollow him on X: @ShalomLipner.

Further reading

Image: People attend a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 10, 2024. REUTERS/Susana Vera