"Israel is heading towards street battles between the far right and families of hostages"
Press Diary #1 | A lie is about to be exposed
Although "Israel does not have to hold elections until 2026," write the Financial Times’s James Shotter and Neri Zilber, "the country's political class is positioning itself for a vote much sooner — as the veneer of unity that has covered Israeli politics since the outbreak of the war begins to fade."
With polls seeming to show them benefiting from Netanyahu’s state of disgrace, centrist figures like Gadi Eisenkot and Yair Lapid are calling on Netanyahu to set a date for elections now. No one believes he will.
But in the current situation, horserace polling is almost worthless as a guide to the future. The outcome of the next election will be decided by whatever momentous developments end up triggering a vote; but no one today knows what those developments will be.
For a taste of how volatile the atmosphere is, consider the following quote, attributed by the Financial Times to "a person familiar with Netanyahu's thinking":
Either Netanyahu secures an achievement on the battlefield and himself initiates snap elections, or elections will be forced in the coming months, including because of mass demonstrations and the fact that many of the security chiefs will have resigned by then.
In a similar vein, a recent edition of Haaretz carried an article by one of its senior political columnists headlined: “Israel is heading towards street battles between the far right and families of hostages.”
A countdown has begun. It was triggered last week by murmurings from the multinational consortium of spooks that has been negotiating with Hamas over the release of the Israeli hostages. The spy leaders put Netanyahu on notice that he would soon find himself facing an offer — his last, best offer — to free the captives.
The price will be steep. There will need to be a ceasefire agreement substantial enough to at least grind the war’s momentum to a halt. Israel will need to release hundreds or even thousands of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom will be Hamas militants, some of whom will be suspected of armed attacks against Israelis, and a few of whom might even have participated in the October 7 attacks.
The leaders of the centrist parties will support the deal as the only way to bring the hostages home. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners will condemn it in the wildest terms. Netanyahu himself will have to give an answer, yes or no. Everything will depend on what he does then.
The reason the situation is so flammable is that, to put it bluntly, the whole Israeli leadership class took the country to war on the basis of a lie. And that lie is now being exposed.
They assured their public that "destroying Hamas" by military means was a feasible war objective. Not just feasible, but indispensable — the condition for all further progress. They saw to it that the lie was parroted by the leaders of all the other nations of the Rules-Based International Order — the Axis of Rules, for lack of a better term — starting with the Head Ruler in Charge, Joe Biden.
And when Israel’s leaders said it, their public believed them. Worse, many Israelis — enclosed as they are in a suffocating bubble of wartime jingoism — likely still believe it. But they’re about to be rudely disabused, and no one can predict how they’ll react once they find out they’ve been misled.
Under different circumstances, the Israeli political class might have been able to let the public down gently. There could have been a slow, controlled leak of the early inflated expectations, a gradual shifting of the "victory" goalposts; a decent interval could have elapsed before, eventually, "peace with honor" could be declared and the reservists could go back to their jobs.
What made that path impassable were the hostages. Since October, their plight has been the focal point around which all public life in Israel has revolved. Their family dramas have become entangled in the country’s poisonous ideological polarization between left and right, or, more accurately, nationalist/religious versus cosmopolitan/secular.
The hostages’ families, with their daily protests and vigils, have become the nucleus of a reborn anti-Netanyahu protest movement — generally "left"-coded but thoroughly patriotic and Zionist — whose main demand, besides Netanyahu’s resignation and the calling of elections, is for the government to prioritize the freeing of the hostages over the war’s other great objective, the "destruction" of Hamas.
This dilemma of war policy — "free the hostages" or "destroy Hamas" — has marked the cleavage line between Israel’s clashing sociopolitical blocs.
When the war began, Netanyahu and the Right had a stock reply to the families’ pleas: "Military pressure is what will free the hostages." In other words, there was no conflict between the two war objectives. And at first, most Israelis seemed satisfied with that answer.
But then reality set in. Like a drug suddenly wearing off, a remarkably swift tonal change in the public mood has taken place over the past several weeks.
Two disquieting episodes seem to have played a role in the sea-change. The first was the shocking mid-December incident in which, as if in some too-neatly-plotted play, three Israeli hostages managed to escape their captors in Gaza only to be shot by IDF snipers — despite waving a white flag on a stick, shouting for help in Hebrew, and going shirtless to show they weren’t carrying explosives.
Besides making it clear how the IDF treats Gaza civilians — which is, of course, what the snipers mistakenly assumed the escaped hostages to be — the episode drove home to Israelis that "military pressure" was more likely to kill the hostages than to save them.
The second incident was possibly even more disturbing. Two weeks after Maayan Sherman, the mother of a nineteen-year-old captive, was notified by the government that her son, Ron, had been murdered by Hamas in captivity, she received a visit from a pathologist. He informed her that an extensive battery of CAT scans had been performed on her son’s body — which the government hadn’t told her about — and that no injuries, broken bones, or evidence of strangulation had been found. As a result, the official report listed the cause of death as unknown. But Sherman says an "IDF source" admitted to her that it was likely her son had died from poison gas used by the army itself, in an attempt to kill Ron’s captors.
Sherman at first "was surprised that the IDF had approached her at its initiative," Haaretz reports:
As to whether that was in fact the army's idea or that of the pathologist, Dr. Alon Krispin, director of the National Center of Forensic Medicine, who signed off on the report the family received, replies, "It was an agreement between me and the IDF."
He explains to Haaretz that, "I approached the Sherman family because I thought that, as citizens, they deserved to know in a direct way what happened to their son, and not by means of documents and bureaucracy.
He declined to say any more.
Realizing she’d been lied to by her government, Sherman decided not to mince words: "Ron was indeed murdered," she wrote on social media. "Not by Hamas … not by stray bullets and not in an exchange of fire. This was deliberate murder. Bombing with poison gas."
An accumulation of testimonies from former captives released during the late-November truce added to the picture. "We were in tunnels, terrified that it would not be Hamas, but Israel, that would kill us, and then they would say Hamas killed you." The situation they described was unfathomable: amid two months of relentless and terrifying IDF bombing, the only thing that prevented their deaths at the hands of the State of Israel was the determination of Hamas terrorists to keep them alive.
Finally, on January 20, the New York Times reported that IDF generals had reached the inevitable conclusion: Hamas could not be defeated militarily in a timeframe compatible with the rescue of the hostages:
Israel has established control over a smaller part of Gaza at this point in the war than it originally envisaged in battle plans from the start of the invasion, which were reviewed by The New York Times. That slower than expected pace has led some commanders to privately express their frustrations over the civilian government’s strategy for Gaza, and led them to conclude that the freedom of more than 100 Israeli hostages still in Gaza can be secured only through diplomatic rather than military means.
The dual objectives of freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas are now mutually incompatible, according to interviews with four senior military leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly about their personal opinions.
These generals spoke to the Times behind a cloak of anonymity. But Netanyahu will have no such luxury. Soon he’ll be presented with a choice: accept a hostage release deal that amounts to a public confession that "destroying Hamas" was never achievable — or sacrifice the lives of the hostages.
A preview of this moment of truth was recently sketched by Haaretz political columnist Yossi Verter:
Such a deal would spark a political debate inside the coalition and in the public. Those opposed to it will be led by [far-right ministers] Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. Israel's sensible public and leaders will be its supporters. We might wind up with extreme right-wingers confronting family members of hostages on the streets. Of course, Netanyahu will watch from the gallery, rubbing his hands with delight.
In 2011, Israel agreed to trade more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners — including high-level Hamas militants — to get back a single captured Israeli soldier, a shy, frail nineteen-year-old named Gilad Shalit, whose plight had become a national cause célèbre. (One of the released prisoners was Yahya Sinwar, who went on to become one of the main plotters of the October 7 attack.)
Just after Shalit’s release, in the first interview ever granted by a Hamas leader to an Israeli media outlet, Salah al-Arouri — known as a veteran planner of cloak-and-dagger operations — spoke with unconcealed admiration for what the Zionist enemy had done.
"To do what Israel did shows the value Israeli society places on human life," he told Israel Army Radio via phone from Damascus, on October 2, 2011, in what reporters described as "perfect Hebrew."
"This is a pillar of Israel's strength — to wage a war to free one man, to free a thousand prisoners for him. This is the strength of a society and an army. As someone from the outside, as an enemy, I would prefer that Israel abandon that value, even at the cost of not freeing our prisoners."
Four weeks ago, al-Arouri was assassinated in Beirut on Netanyahu’s orders. But there’s a good chance that in the coming weeks, Netanyahu will make it up to al-Arouri by posthumously granting his wish.