This combination of photos from clockwise from top left shows Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in Beirut, Lebanon, on June 28, 2021; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel on Oct. 28, 2023; Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv on Oct. 16, 2023 and Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, in Gaza City, Wednesday, April 13, 2022. (AP Photo)

JERUSALEM — In laying out Israel’s goals during its offensive against Hamas, the government announced two main objectives, which at the time did not appear to be contradictory: Rescue and return of all of Israel’s hostages and the elimination of Hamas as a political and military entity.

During the course of the last eight months, Israel insisted that military pressure and destruction of Hamas’s capabilities both above and below the ground would lead both to the capitulation of the terrorist organization and to the recovery of all the hostages. At least in the initial stages, this approach seemed viable. Hamas, surprised at the vehemence and vigor of the Israeli response, agreed in November to a prisoner exchange, and nearly half of the hostages were released. At that point Israel had already gained control of some of the Northern Gaza neighborhoods and it was hoped that continuing the military pressure would lead to further concessions from Hamas.

However Israel didn’t realize that Hamas could play an endgame of brinkmanship better than seasoned poker players. Firstly Hamas noted the deep divisions in Israel between the vocal minority who wanted a deal at all costs, those who sympathized with the families of the hostages and those who opposed such a deal at all costs. Hamas likely moved the hostages around from place to place, finally reaching Rafah and northern Sinai (via pre-prepared smuggling tunnels). There they created the hype around the civilians in Rafah, thus delaying Israeli incursions by months and enabling them to safely conceal all of the hostages remaining alive (a dwindling number) in various underground locations, including possibly even Egypt.

The end result is that even if Israel could destroy Hamas in Rafah, enter a tunnel and rescue some hostages, it would almost certainly seal the fate of all the other hostages, as Hamas would realize that Israel is intent on reaching all of them without making a deal.

The only other unsavory option now is to abandon the goal of destroying Hamas totally in order to rescue the remaining hostages. A deal with Hamas – fraught with dangers as it is – is still better than the improbable likelihood of reaching all of the hostages alive by military means. Netanyahu must now decide whether his government is more important – as the far right parties will almost certainly reject such a deal – or whether ending the war (including a Hezbollah agreement) and releasing the hostages for a heavy price in released terrorists and other concessions is worth more to him in the long run.

For Netanyahu, a person who hates decisions and puts them off as long as he can, the moment of truth has now arrived – will he sacrifice the ultimate victory to save the lives of the hostages? If he does, he may go down in posterity as the savior of hostages but also as the first Israeli premier to capitulate twice (as in the Shalit deal) to terrorist demands, thus endangering Israel’s long-term security indefinitely.

As reported by VINnews