Updated Apr 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

6 months in, the Gaza war is in limbo — which may help Bibi stay in power

A large crowd of anti-war protesters in Tel Aviv.

Protesters in Tel Aviv last month call for the release of hostages held in Gaza and against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Six months after Hamas' Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, the war in Gaza is in limbo. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's fighting for his political survival.

Driving the news: Netanyahu has vowed to attack the city of Rafah to root out Hamas militants — but he's under increasing pressure not to do so, and so far has held off.

  • Israel is conducting sporadic raids and airstrikes like the botched one that killed seven World Central Kitchen workers, but there are no major military operations going on in Gaza and Israel is reducing its number of troops there.
  • There's also no ceasefire in sight, despite increasing calls for one from U.S. officials and many others worldwide.
  • And negotiations for the 134 hostages still held by Hamas continue on and off, but no deal is imminent.
  • "We are in the middle of the war," Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday. "We are on the cusp of total victory."

Zoom in: Many U.S. and Israeli officials weighing all of this are convinced that although the deeply unpopular Netanyahu seems boxed in, he might think a dragged-out war increases his chances of staying in power.

  • The officials interpret Netanyahu's actions this way: As long as a war is going on, elections that could oust him are less likely. And the more time that passes, the more chances he'll have to recuperate politically.

Netanyahu remains the only senior government official who has refused to take responsibility for the failures that led to the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

  • Most Israelis want him to resign, according to recent polls that suggest his Likud party, which leads Israel's government, would lose almost half its seats in the Knesset if elections were held today.
  • On the other hand, there's no immediate path for new elections in Israel.

State of play: Israeli defense officials say their military has significantly decreased its footprint in Gaza in the last two months.

  • The Israeli Defense Forces now has only one brigade in Gaza (roughly 4,000 troops), compared to the three divisions (roughly 30,000 troops) it had there in January.
  • The IDF now has limited ground operations in Gaza and is focused on raiding specific compounds such as the Shifa hospital, where officials say many Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants have been hiding.
  • At the same time, fighting between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanese border has been intensifying and widening. There's much more fighting there than in Gaza, but Netanyahu doesn't call it a war, officials say.

The big picture: Shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, Netanyahu laid out three objectives to Israel's response: Eliminate the terror threat against Israel from Gaza, destroy Hamas' military and governance capabilities there, and free the hostages.

  • After six months of fighting, the first goal appears to have been achieved. Hamas' ability to conduct a significant attack against Israel in the foreseeable future is extremely low.

In December, Netanyahu announced a new goal that has never been approved by his cabinet. He called it "Total Victory."

  • It was an attempt to rebrand the goal of destroying Hamas' military and governance abilities.
  • It involved a provocative scenario: a ground invasion of Rafah — the only city in Gaza where Hamas' military is still functioning, and where more than a million Palestinians are taking shelter.

Netanyahu has talked a lot about a Rafah operation — but hasn't taken a lot of action.

  • Four times in the past two months, he's publicly said that he has approved plans for an attack. But he hasn't given a go-ahead to the IDF.
  • The IDF's current forces in Gaza aren't capable of such a big operation, or the mass evacuation of civilians that would be required beforehand.
  • U.S. officials have made clear they don't support an attack on Rafah.
  • Meanwhile, most Israelis — 61% in a recent Channel 13 poll — don't think the war is going to end with Hamas' defeat.

Between the lines: Some Israeli officials say Netanyahu uses the threat of a Rafah attack as leverage in the hostage negotiations with Hamas.

  • But others believe he's using it to avoid acknowledging that the Gaza war — in which more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed — has largely ended, at least when it comes to widespread fighting.
  • If the war is over, they say, it means that not all of Netanyahu's goals have been achieved — and that discussions of how Israel got to where it is now will heat up. 

With the Rafah operation on the back burner, the hostage negotiations are front and center.

  • CIA director Bill Burns will meet in Cairo on Sunday with the prime minister of Qatar and the Israeli and Egyptian spy chiefs to try to break the deadlock in the negotiations. A Hamas delegation also will be in town.
  •  Many officials are questioning Netanyahu's commitment to getting a hostage deal.
  • Netanyahu says only military pressure will make Hamas agree to a reasonable deal — but he isn't giving any orders to increase that pressure.
  • He sends negotiators for repeated rounds of talks, but doesn't give them much rope to make a deal, as President Biden noted during their call on Thursday.

Family members of hostages have called out Netanyahu in recent days, claiming that he's concerned that a deal would push his right-wing partners to leave his governing coalition and lead to elections.

  • "We are ready for a deal but not for capitulation to Hamas' extreme demands," Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday.

What we're watching: The Channel 13 poll indicated 51% of Israelis want to see elections before the end of the year. Netanyahu — whose term as prime minister doesn't expire for three years — does not.

  • A main theme in his recent press conferences has been that elections would serve only Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.
  • Benny Gantz, a member of Israel's war cabinet but also Netanyahu's main political opponent, has called for elections in September.
  • Netanyahu quickly rejected that. Even if Gantz were to leave Israel's governing coalition, Netanyahu and his ultra-orthodox and ultranationalist partners would still have a majority in the Knesset.

A potential threat to Netanyahu's coalition: the growing protests that have gained momentum in recent weeks, most of them demanding a hostage deal. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv, calling for elections.

  • But the scope of these demonstrations is still relatively limited. If they gain steam and look more like the massive pro-democracy protests of Netanyahu's government that occurred before Oct. 7, he'll have a much harder time clinging to power.

The most serious threat to Netanyahu's rule isn't directly related to Oct. 7 — it's the demand by his ultra-orthodox partners that he pass a law exempting ultra-orthodox men from military service.

  • Religious leaders of those parties have given him until after Passover (in May) to find a solution. The vast majority of Israelis are required to serve in the military, and oppose the idea.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new figures on the IDF's troop presence in Gaza and comments from Netanyahu.

Go deeper