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Opinion As hostages suffer, Israel needs to make tough strategic choices

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It was probably inevitable: As the war in Gaza passed the 100-day mark, fissures have appeared in the united front between the Biden administration and Israel. Washington appears to have gotten the Israeli war cabinet to allow in humanitarian aid and, more recently, to reduce the intensity of its operations in Gaza. But on the essential issue — defining a strategic endgame for the war — the two are openly at odds. President Biden urges an eventual Palestinian state, and yet on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphatically ruled it out.

Mr. Biden is articulating a position that is both right on the long-term merits and favorable to his domestic political interests. Mr. Netanyahu is wrong about the issue — but has judged his political self-interest as accurately as Mr. Biden. In the wake of Oct. 7, Israelis have lost faith in peace processes, the country’s president, Isaac Herzog reminded the World Economic Forum at Davos last week. Sixty-five percent oppose a Palestinian state, according to a December Gallup poll.

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The U.S.-Israel impasse makes little practical difference, since a Palestinian state was not imminent anyway, though it does illustrate the already evident need for new leadership in Israel. But developing disagreements within a different formerly united body — Israel’s war cabinet itself — could be consequential in the short run. Also on Thursday, cabinet member Gadi Eisenkot told an Israeli television interviewer that, so far, Israel has failed in its principal war aim — “We didn’t topple Hamas” — and that its other key goal, freeing Hamas’s hostages, is also unattainable without a negotiated deal that might include a humanitarian pause in fighting of as long as four weeks, quadruple the length of the pause that enabled 105 hostage releases in November. Those who contend otherwise, he said, are “trying to sell fantasies to the public.”

Mr. Eisenkot belongs to an erstwhile opposition party, National Unity, that agreed to join the war cabinet after Oct. 7. His words carry authority both because of his past role as the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff — and because his own son and nephew have been killed fighting in Gaza. He tapped a rising sentiment in Israel that time is running out to free the hostages and that a war that ends without doing so will be a defeat.

This shows, to be sure, the malign tactical acumen of Hamas, which correctly anticipated that abducting men, women and children on Oct. 7 would complicate Israel’s response with a huge moral and military dilemma. After accounting for hostages freed separately from the November pause, and one rescued by Israel, it appears that, out of the 240 originally taken, there are 132 captives still left, a number which includes the remains of 27 believed to have died in captivity. Of those killed, half a dozen were executed by Hamas, according to Israel, and three others died when Israel’s own troops mistakenly shot them. (Six of the hostages are dual U.S.-Israeli citizens.) Hostages range in age from their late 80s to one year — which is how old baby Kfir Bibas is as of Jan. 18. Many are ill and at least one, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, was badly injured when Hamas militants seized him from a music festival on Oct. 7. They are probably being held at sites scattered across Gaza and deep within Hamas’s tunnel network. Mr. Eisenkot acknowledged that, despite the IDF’s best efforts, this makes the idea of large-scale rescues “an illusion.”

These people cannot be forgotten, just as suffering Palestinian civilians cannot be. To speak with the hostages’ family members, as we have done recently, is to understand the limits of human anguish. Nothing justified the kidnapping of their loved ones — or Hamas’s refusal to release them unconditionally. And yet to hold those conversations is also to understand that these families’ desperation has instilled in them a kind of pragmatic clarity. If the Israeli military cannot destroy Hamas soon, and the only way to get the hostages out is a deal with Hamas, brokered by its patron Qatar, then do it, the family members we met with said. But Mr. Netanyahu still doesn’t see it that way, having urged tougher conditions for a possible release in recent cabinet meetings, according to Israeli media.

As the clock ticks for the hostages, and Israeli protests against Mr. Netanyahu’s approach to the issue grow, the country needs a fresh political consensus to enable tough strategic choices. Which brings us to Mr. Eisenkot’s boldest suggestion: new elections, even in wartime. They might bring out the country’s divisions even more starkly, he acknowledged, but are nevertheless needed “to renew trust because right now there is no trust.”

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