We have passed the one-month anniversary of October 7, the darkest day is Jewish history since the Holocaust — a day the world witnessed barbaric acts on a scale we didn’t think even possible.
On that peaceful Saturday, Hamas terrorists stormed Israel as young people were celebrating a holiday with music and dance and as families were preparing breakfast. They grabbed anyone they encountered, slitting the belly of a pregnant woman, gouging out people’s eyes, dismembering limbs and burning people alive. They proudly filmed themselves. Children, young mothers, elderly people and tourists were taken to Gaza as hostages. The government of Israel, probably fearing the reaction at home, has yet to make public the very worst of that day’s footage.
Israel’s response was swift and brutal. With 1,200 of its citizens dead and countless wounded and maimed for life, no government could have stood and done nothing. As Israel Defense Forces entered Gaza to hunt the Hamas leadership and destroy the organization once and for all, ordinary Palestinians have borne the brunt of the reprisal.
This war is unlike any other; you have an organization embedded in a civilian population—a population that itself is held hostage — with the Hamas leadership and fighters operating under civilian institutions, schools, hospitals and ordinary urban dwellings. As a result, this is the ugliest of wars, and even with the best of intentions, civilians, in large numbers, were going to perish. Let us not forget that casualty numbers include thousands of Hamas members who are also being killed.
But watching the suffering in Gaza, the world has turned against Israel for the death of innocents, and Israel deserves criticism for the use of excessive force. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “far too many Palestinians are dying.”
Israel’s problem is, however, much larger. The war is being conducted by a leader, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who has lost all legitimacy. Few Israelis trust him. A poll conducted by Israeli Research Institutes, backed up by other polling, shows that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s popularity continues to drop.
In one poll by the Lazar Institute, 80 percent of Israelis say that Netanyahu must take public responsibility for Oct. 7.
But in a recent CNN interview, Netanyahu again refused to take full public responsibility for the events following Oct. 7, insisting that the hard questions will come later.
When asked about what would come after the war, Netanyahu said, “A civilian authority must cooperate in two goals; one is to demilitarize Gaza and the second is to deradicalize Gaza,” adding, “All I have to say is that the Palestinian Authority has unfortunately failed on both counts.”
At a critical moment in war, leaders need to inspire. Netanyahu and the extremists on his team are the worst ambassadors any nation can wish for at a time of such real peril. They have not articulated a strategy — remember what Clausewitz said: “war is politics by other means” — nor shown empathy for the innocent Palestinians being killed.
With an active war inside Gaza and a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, Israel needs a pause — a pause in its current leadership.
It is time for Netanyahu to leave so Israel can have a truly national unity government led by a respected and competent non-political figure. Israelis have rallied around each other, and they need a government that can do the same.
Changing horses in the middle of a war may appear difficult, but Israel’s institutions and civil society, even when fractured, remain strong. A new leadership will buy Israel time; time to formulate an end game, open dialogue channels with leaders in the region and beyond, and undermine Hamas and its supporters, such as Iran and Russia.
President Biden would not be sad to see Netanyahu go. America has stood by Israel every step of the way. Biden’s decision to deploy two aircraft carrier groups to the region probably prevented the war from expanding to Lebanon and beyond. Biden and his team have made several visits to Israel, bringing aid, comfort, expertise and moral support while counseling the Israeli government to limit humanitarian damage.
Israel will emerge from this crisis. It is a diverse country with divergent opinions, ideologies and faiths but a collective soul. It took itself from nothing in 1948 to become a highly successful, industrialized, democratic country that many people visit and call home. It is a miracle nation. But it cannot wait for miracles, nor lose the world’s confidence.
In the days and weeks ahead, Israelis must reckon with how to live in a dangerous neighborhood. The nation has built bridges to Jordan, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and others in this region, coming very close to an agreement with Saudi Arabia. It cannot afford to lose those relationships, peace treaties, trade agreements and recognition of its national values and global contribution.
It needs to draw upon a wealth of experienced diplomats, generals, former leaders and members of the Knesset to band together now and figure out how to get all hostages home, resolve the humanitarian issues, envision a post Gaza scenario, reconcile with the West Bank and help create an international plan that allows decent Palestinians to live with dignity and without fear — something every human being deserves.
Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Henri J. Barkey is the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor in International Relations and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.
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