The truce announced on Tuesday night is certainly the first step forward in the war that began on Oct. 7, following Hamas's bloody attacks on Israel. But it is far from being a ceasefire, with only the suspension of Israeli overflights of southern Gaza mentioned by Hamas, in addition to a six-hour respite granted in the skies over the northern part of the Strip. Israel also asserted that the war would continue afterwards, probably with a new degree of intensity, with some fearing that this pause would allow the Islamist group to reorganize. Faced with what appears to be a headlong rush, Mairav Zonszein, researcher at the International Crisis Group, answered questions from L'Orient-Le Jour.
It seems that Israel has no good way out of this crisis: Under pressure from its allies and from the families of hostages, but at the same time willing to eradicate Hamas completely from Gaza (as well as its political leaders around the world). Under which conditions could Israel put an end to the war? What victories does it need to claim?
I think that it has set out its objectives to destroy Hamas and return the hostages. I think that it's still determined to try to do that, and that as far as it's concerned, that's something that might take a long time but that would be the victory — nothing less than eradicating Hamas.
So return of the hostages, even completed with the soldiers included, would not be a victory enough?
As far as the way that the government, the leadership, [and] the War Cabinet are talking about it: No, they still have the objective of eradicating Hamas. Obviously. What that means exactly is not clear. But I assume for them it means that there will be no military capabilities whatsoever and that the leadership will either no longer be alive or no longer be in Gaza. They haven't specified exactly what that means. But for them, that would be the victory. It's not enough to just return the hostages. And then some people believe that those two [can’t come] together. They don't have to be some sacrifices of one or the other.
What two elements cannot come together?
The hostages and the eradication.You could argue that it's like as we go forward, assuming this hostage deal goes through and we have a pause and then it does it again, it's possible that at some point, the choice for Israel will have to be getting the rest of the hostages or getting rid of Hamas. They won't be able to achieve both of those things at the same time.
With the stated intention to continue the war after a potential truce, Israel is going to be put under more pressure from the international community, risking to jeopardize its relationships with Arab states. Jordan [for example] has announced the mobilization of troops at its border and threatens to reassess some bilateral agreements. Is it a risk worth taking for Benjamin Netanyahu while the big winner of this crisis appears to be Iran so far?
I would argue with the assumption that there “is” a risk and that there is so much pressure, because I think that so far we've already been 45 days into this, almost 50 days into this, and there isn't enough or real pressure on Israel to stop. There hasn't been a call for a ceasefire. There's only been a call for a pause. And even that is difficult. That pause is mostly on Israel's terms in terms of the hostages. I mean, Hamas also has its demands, and Israel is making sacrifices. But the point is, there isn't that risk yet for Israel. It could be that further down the line we'll see that. But I don't think Jordan or the US or any of the Arab states… I mean, the UAE totally hasn't done anything. There's no real threat that Israel has something to lose. So I don't see it. Nobody has put enough pressure on Israel.
The Israeli prime minister seems to have become the brake against military pushes for bigger actions and strikes. Is this more linked to US pressure or to his own political survival?
You mean that he's risk averse? That's his reputation. Even though, in the end, he has overseen many harsh wars, with Gaza. But I think it's probably a combination of those things. And I think he is primarily concerned with his legacy. If he can come out of this, and stay in power… I think it's pretty clear that after this war is over, whenever that is, and however that looks, people will try to move their efforts to getting him out of there. So he seems to be interested in doing whatever will allow him to remain in power. But that doesn't mean that he isn't interested in a victory narrative of this war. The factors that go into the question of, let's say, a bigger escalation with Hezbollah, there's just too many other issues. It could launch like a regional war. So it's it's not just about Netanyahu. And I think the generals in his war cabinet are probably the ones kind of setting the tone for how that should happen. I don't really know exactly what his thinking is there.
The generals are setting the tone, you mean, that they are not also willing to escalate the situation more than in the Gaza Strip, so to speak?
They definitely focused more on Gaza. And that's been a general approach to deescalate in the South. But there were rumors that the defense minister tried to do some kind of preemptive strike on Lebanon in the very beginning. So I don't know if Netanyahu was the one to stop it or if it was other people in the cabinet. But I think what's mainly motivating Netanyahu is to try to get a very quick win, if he can, get to Sinwar quickly and try. I think part of the reason that they waited with the hostage deal was to see if they could get some kind of big victory in Gaza quickly. In some ways, that for him would be the best way to regain some of his popularity, I guess… but other people think it's just about him making everything go a lot slower and a lot longer.
The day-after discussions have seen a discrepancy between the Israeli government and its Western allies, which are advocating for a “revitalized PA” to take over Gaza, with the two state solution in mind. Are there any acceptable options for Israel that could satisfy its partners globally?
Israel isn't playing that game. It's not interested in a two state solution. It's not interested in working with the Palestinian Authority in any way beyond what it's doing now in the West Bank. It's not only that Israel hasn't really thought about the day-after. It's that Israel is currently re-occupying, or further occupying. It was occupying from the outside, sort of, and now it's occupying from the inside. The reality on the ground is that Israel is already controlling much of Gaza and has moved the population down. And unless the international community, and the US specifically, really puts a lot of pressure and political weight into how this war continues, then what we're probably going to see is the continued pushing of the Gaza population into a smaller and smaller area. So, talking about the PA or talking about a two state solution is irrelevant because you basically have, just the destruction of Gaza and a disaster for people with nowhere to go, possibly a refugee crisis on Egypt's border. And so, all this talk of the day-after is a bit out of touch with the reality of today.
Okay. And there is no way that the US can force Israel to come at a table and negotiate this kind of peace process? Re-activation, so to speak?
I mean, it has the power, and it has the ability. But the question is how would it do that? And, it would really have to force certain processes on Israel that the Netanyahu government is simply not going to do. It would maybe require a change in the government in Israel, but it would also require that the US use as much of its leverage together, maybe with the Arab states and maybe with using the normalization with Saudi Arabia. It would really have to create a much bigger framework. I just think that right now the focus has to be on stopping Israel's actions in Gaza because there won't even be a Gaza left at this [rate] to negotiate for.