Netanyahu and Sinwar have common interests in prolonging the war

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The Gaza War recently passed into its seven month. The end is not yet in sight.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now prioritized the “search” for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in Rafah, even though both Israeli and U.S. intelligence indicates that Sinwar remains in the Hamas tunnels of Khan Younis, from which the Israeli Army withdrew by April 8.

Netanyahu’s call for “total victory” is not even on the horizon. There is no “day after” scenario prepared or even thought about by Israel’s war cabinet. Gaza is in ruins, and Hamas is re-emerging in the northern Strip — the initial focal point of the Israeli invasion in response to the brutal Hamas massacres of Oct. 7. Netanyahu continues to refuse to engage with the Palestinian Authority or other non-Hamas leaders.

At the same time, in cease-fire negotiations, Hamas refuses to provide information on the actual number, status or health of the Israeli hostages. The group demands the release of thousands of Palestinian security prisoners, though not on the Gilad Shalit scale of 1,027 Israeli-held security prisoners — 280 serving life sentences, including Sinwar himself — for one Israeli soldier; and total withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

In a calamitous confluence of circumstance, Sinwar and Netanyahu now have intersecting interests. They are each other’s best friend and foil.

Sinwar is the military and operational leader of Hamas in Gaza. He spent 22 years in Israeli jails, where he learned Hebrew and studied Israeli society and culture. As the architect of the brutal Oct. 7 attack, Sinwar knew quite well that the Israeli response would be overwhelming, and that thousands of Palestinians would die — especially with no access to Hamas tunnels, and that no bomb shelters were built with the billions in aid Hamas received from Qatar and elsewhere. Sinwar, however, is the de facto leader of Hamas and no deal can be made without his approval. Unfortunately, he has no vested interest in making a deal.

Sinwar knows that regardless of the outcome in Rafah, he will very likely be killed either as a means to end the fighting — Netanyahu can claim victory — or after/during any unlikely cease-fire, either by orders of Ismail Haniyeh (the ostensible political leader of Hamas in Qatar, whom Sinwar has usurped) or by Israel. Since Sinwar knows that he is a “dead man walking,” he has an interest in prolonging the conflict — if only on the off chance that he can escape. Additional Palestinian deaths or destruction matter little to his calculations.

Conversely, Netanyahu knows that once the Gaza conflict ends, his political life is over. During his 15 years as prime minister, Netanyahu ignored the Palestinian issue and conducted a symbiotic relationship with Hamas in order to weaken the Palestinian Authority. His policy backfired on Oct. 7, and Netanyahu presided over the worst single day of death and destruction in Israel’s history, as well as the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. Nationals from over 30 countries and over 70 Israeli Arabs were killed by Hamas as well.

Critically, Israelis remember that within a week of forming his far-right extremist government in December 2022, Netanyahu brought the country to the brink of civil war with his ill-conceived “Judicial Coup” plan (in part to avoid prosecution of the three corruption cases against him),  which tore the country apart for 10 months — until Oct. 7.

The anti-Judicial Coup protesters were from all walks of Israeli life (there was not a true left/center vs. right divide on this issue) and protest leaders included decorated veterans, pilots and the high-tech “Start-Up Nation” community. Ministers from Likud — not just the extreme right — called the protesters “traitors,” “anti-Zionists” and “garbage.”

On Oct. 7, however, the anti-Judicial Coup protest movement pivoted immediately to providing services the government could not, because Netanyahu’s far-right coalition was paralyzed by incompetence, amateurism and was incapable of actually serving the nation (other than raiding the Treasury). The very people excoriated by the Netanyahu coalition for the protests became the frontline against Hamas on the battlefield and on the home front when the government failed to function.

Israelis will never forget Oct. 7. But they will also always remember Oct. 6.

Netanyahu knows well that once the fighting stops in Gaza, he will be forced to call for new elections and will almost certainly not form the next government.

It is a travesty and a tragedy that the leaders of the two main parties to the Gaza conflict desire to see the fighting continue and both are willing to sacrifice Palestinian lives to do so.

Jonathan D. Strum is an international lawyer and businessman based in Washington D.C. and the Middle East. From 1991 to 2005, he was an adjunct professor of International Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

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