'He has not been a decisive war leader.' (LEO CORREA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

March 20, 2024   4 mins

Weeks ago, the Israeli army came up with a perfectly serviceable plan to finish the war in Gaza. Their strategy was to simultaneously push their ground forces into the remaining Rafah segment of the strip to destroy the last of Hamas, while opening a secure evacuation route to allow the displaced Palestinians to return home to Gaza City and Khan Yunis. Desperate to see an end to the fighting, the Biden White House had been privately willing to approve a limited offensive, provided that the Israelis continued to fight without the support of aerial bombing except in rare cases, and continue to be sparing with their artillery.

All was seemingly prepared; but then nothing happened. Now the war is in stasis, neither properly continuing nor adequately resolved, while yesterday Biden effectively ruled out any support for a major ground assault.

Why did Israel miss its chance? Part of it was down to the “friction” that pervades every and any war, to the great frustration of all strategists. As first articulated by Carl von Clausewitz, friction is made up of many separate impediments. Some are really trivial — like a flat tyre on the eve of a family outing — while others represent a fundamental threat to any war effort. In Israel’s case, the impediments were substantial, from supply officers claiming they needed more time to provide food and water along the evacuation route, to the open-ended delays caused by the Qataris’ negotiations over Hamas’s hostages, which have swung back and forth without resolution, and with even the Qataris losing patience with their Hamas clients. Meanwhile, there are concerns that not all the tunnels under Gaza City and Khan Yunis had been found and destroyed. Again and again when it seemed that the day had come, the finding of new tunnels caused another delay. Just this week, there was a serious fight at Al Shifa, where the first battles was fought back in October

But these are the usual travails of war, and there is another, far more significant source of friction, located at the heart of the Israeli leadership. When I asked an officer at IDF headquarters why so much time had passed with Rafah untouched, his answer was unexpectedly gnomic: “Netanyahu is not Ben Gurion.” The comparison is charged: Ben Gurion was not only Israel’s first prime minister, but its spiritual founder, midwife to a nation born under siege. When he declared independence on May 15, 1948, he triggered the invasions of four Arab states, each one better equipped than his underground Jewish militias, for whom a rifle was precious and artillery an impossible dream. With this act, Ben Gurion ignored American and British warnings that the war would end in a massacre and went it alone, demonstrating a faith in the fighting spirit of his young country and a conviction in his own powers of leadership.

These are qualities that Netanyahu sorely lacks. Netanyahu was once a very decisive politician who set Israel on the path to techno-prosperity as a revolutionary finance minister two decades ago. And he had been an equally decisive soldier, serving for five years instead of the obligatory two and a half, fighting hard in Israel’s premier commando force in dozens of combat actions. But he has not been a decisive war leader. His political trajectory is a story of declining authority, propped up by ever more marginal and objectionable elements within Israeli politics.

“His political trajectory is a story of declining authority.”

Even though this premiership is relatively new, beginning in December 2022, this is his 17th year as prime minister, a job he held twice in the past. And as a result, he is viewed by a great many Israelis — as well as politicians in the US and Europe — with that particular disgust reserved for leaders who remain in office even as their abilities wither. He has achieved this through political bargaining, forming successive coalition governments, each including more extremists than its predecessor. Proportional representation has long opened Israel’s parliament up to ultra-religious and hard-Right parties — but it takes a particularly unscrupulous prime minister to let them slip into government. And desperate to cling on, Netanyahu’s political pragmatism has devolved into pure expediency.

Netanyahu, in other words, is willing to bring any parliamentarian into government with him if that will allow him to stay in power. And that is how Israel was lumbered with its current coalition, which handed political power to figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist whose jingoistic support for settlers in the West Bank borders on the messianic, and who has called for the full occupation of Gaza. Such fantasies do not have any influence over military planning — Israel’s generals are Left-of-centre if anything. But they upset the moderate majority at home and serve anti-Israel propaganda abroad, leaving Netanyahu an empty figurehead, and splintering Israel’s coalition of international support.

The slow disintegration of his political authority has therefore deprived Netanyahu of any hope of being a strong war leader. He displays no conviction or drive, subcontracting day-to-day decision making to defence minister and retired general Yoav Gallant. (Everything Netanyahu is not, Gallant has no longing for the trappings of office, and previously convalesced after his years as a naval commando by working as a lumberjack in Alaska.) And Gallant has seemingly levelled his own criticisms at Netanyahu in recent days, saying that the “ability to lead” required “three things: a commitment to the mission, personal example, and the internalization that taking responsibility is the source of authority”.

It’s not hard to imagine who he was referring to: a man who has seemed to prioritise avoiding responsibility for October 7 over winning the war as quickly as possible. Had Israel moved when the plan was ready weeks ago, the sweep through Rafah would have been followed by the swift collapse of Hamas. Now, despite Netanyahu’s insistence that it “will happen”, it remains “several weeks” away. Who knows how far the situation will have changed by then, and how much further Biden will be driven by Obama-era White House staffers who have always objected to Israel’s war? Either way, it is likely that Biden will soon get what he most wants politically, and what so many also Israelis crave: Netanyahu’s departure from government and politics.

In Israel every war is followed by an official inquiry, in this case to explain the catastrophic failure to prevent the October 7 surprise assault. Neither the intelligence nor the internal security chief are in the firing line: each has already assumed the blame for their failure to anticipate it. That leaves Netanyahu alone to face his “ministerial responsibility”, which 80% of Israelis believe he must take. It is the same formula that forced the legendary Golda Meir’s departure from politics after the Yom Kippur war of 1973, which also started with a catastrophic surprise attack, before ending in victory. If the war ends in a month, the report should arrive by October, thereby sealing Netanyahu’s fate, and bringing a squalid era of Israeli politics to an end.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.