columnIsrael at War

America shouldn’t let Hamas bargain its way to victory

Israel had no choice but to accept a deal to release some hostages. But Washington shouldn’t pressure Jerusalem to let the terrorists run out the clock on a just war.

People in Jerusalem walk next to pictures of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 22, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
People in Jerusalem walk next to pictures of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 22, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israel’s government knew that it had no choice but to accept the deal it was offered in which some of the hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7 would be freed in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and a temporary ceasefire in the war to eliminate the terrorist group from the Gaza Strip. Pressure from the families of the hostages and a Jewish tradition that prioritizes the redemption of captives swamped all of the objections to giving Hamas what it wanted in exchange for the lives of Jewish women and children.

But the question before the Jewish state and its allies isn’t so much whether the deal was one that enhances Israel’s security or if, instead, it strengthens the barbaric group that committed unspeakable atrocities last month and makes it easier for them to survive. Rather, the key dilemma facing it and those who claim to be its friends is whether this is the start of a prolonged bargaining process that will bring victory to Hamas. And the party that will have the most to say about that is President Joe Biden, not Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

If the United States continues to back Israel’s campaign to eliminate Hamas control of the Gaza Strip and to wipe out all of its military capabilities, then the hostage negotiations and the ceasefire will be no more than a brief pause that won’t impact the outcome of the war. The Biden administration has sought to micromanage and second-guess Israel’s counter-offensive from the start of this war. It also has political reasons to want the conflict to end regardless of what that will mean for the future of Israel and the Palestinians.

If Washington pressures Israel not to resume the fighting and to make subsequent deals for more halts to the Israel Defense Forces’ operations, then it will be a turning point for its alliance with the Jewish state with implications that go far beyond the current war or the political fates of Biden or Netanyahu. That would mean that Hamas will not just be allowed to get away with mass murder. It would also emerge, however battered and bloody, as the victor of the war this genocidal movement began on Oct. 7.

A terrible deal

There can be no real debate about the hostage deal being good for Israel. It’s a terrible agreement from the viewpoint of its national security. Whether or not the deal is lopsided, treating the Oct. 7 victims as the moral equivalents of Palestinians convicted of involvement in terrorism buttresses the arguments of Israel’s enemies that these criminals are no different than innocent civilians taken violently from their homes. As with every past hostage deal, including what all must now acknowledge as Netanyahu’s disastrous decision to trade more than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to free Gilad Shalit—a solitary Israeli soldier who had been kidnapped and taken to Gaza—Hamas gains politically from its ability to humiliate and force the more powerful Jewish state to bend to its will.

It also sets up a dynamic by which the terrorist group can seek to prolong the ceasefire by bartering more hostages—assuming, that is, as we must pray is true, that enough of them are still alive in order to continue such a process over the next few weeks. In this manner, Hamas can stall Israel’s offensive in Gaza for not just a few days but perhaps indefinitely.

The recriminations about the hostage deal are a reminder of the failure of Israel’s political, military and security establishments on Oct. 7. Having failed to protect its citizens from mass slaughter, gang rape, torture and kidnapping, the government Netanyahu leads is now forced to pay almost any price to free as many civilians as he can.

There are sound reasons for refusing to play the terrorists’ game. And perhaps a less politically vulnerable leader than Netanyahu could have held out against the emotional appeals of those who believe that the fate of the hostages must take precedence over the long-term best interests of all of Israel’s citizens. But the hostages, especially the children who were traumatized by witnessing the murder of parents and neighbors before being kidnapped, have become the focus of an international campaign on the part of Israel and Jewish communities to remind a world that seems primarily focused on the suffering of Palestinians that this war was launched with atrocities committed against Jews.

For Netanyahu to have done anything that could be interpreted as prolonging the suffering of the hostages, even if freeing them helps the murderers and makes it more likely that others will be subjected to their cruelty in the future, was a non-starter.

Once this deal is set in motion, the debate about it will further undermine the prime minister. He may still harbor illusory hopes that a decisive victory over Hamas in Gaza will enable him to survive in office. Nevertheless, he must shoulder responsibility both for a bad deal and for a catastrophe that happened on his watch because of the failure of his policies toward Gaza, even if his political opponents didn’t oppose them at the time.

Yet regardless of its impact on postwar Israeli politics, the outcome of this conflict now depends on whether it marks the beginning of the end of the campaign to destroy Hamas. If the terrorists have more innocent hostages to barter in exchange for more humiliating releases of captured terrorists, such as those with Israeli blood on their hands, then that would give them the ability to put off, perhaps indefinitely, the next stages in Israel’s efforts to wipe out the terrorists’ hold on both northern Gaza and the as-yet uninvaded southern part of the Strip.

Pulling the plug on the war

It remains to be seen whether having gained the release of some hostages, the dynamic this establishes means that Netanyahu will have no choice but to pay whatever Hamas asks for the freedom of those remaining in the hands of the terrorists. Equally important is whether the negotiations will be the excuse Biden has been waiting for to pull the plug on his support for the war.

From the moment this conflict began, observers have spoken of Israel having only a limited amount of time to achieve its objectives. The assumption on the part of the country’s critics was that the tsunami of international condemnation of Israel’s push into Gaza to rid the Strip of its Islamist terrorist overlords would eventually force it to stop.

Such expectations were based on the belief that the international media would almost immediately forget about the atrocities of Oct. 7 and quickly adopt the Palestinian narrative in which they were the innocent victims of Israeli “disproportionate” force. That assumption was correct, as it was soon apparent that the Hamas propaganda machine had corporate media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and much of the broadcast and cable-news channels eating out of their hands. Their willingness to quote Hamas’s almost certainly inaccurate casualty figures and to treat the war as one in which Israel was engaged in “collective punishment” of an “occupied” and “oppressed” people helped incite not just pressure for a ceasefire that would be a gift to Hamas but also a surge in international antisemitism.

Biden’s choice

This also created a political problem for the Biden administration, which has been bleeding support from its left-wing base and its own staffers who are deeply hostile to Israel. But to date, Biden has been willing to endure a storm of criticism from his own party and has stuck with his support for the war against Hamas, even if he also seems determined at times to prevent Israel from winning it.

Now that the hostage negotiations have resulted in one deal that will grant a reprieve for Hamas, Biden has a choice to make.

If he listens to his left-wing critics, Biden will use the effort to free the hostages as an excuse to turn off the spigot of arms resupply and thereby prevent Israel from resuming the war. That would effectively end a conflagration that is causing him grief and, if the polls are correct, may well be dooming his hopes for re-election next year. Biden can then use the freedom of the hostages to declare victory for his policies and resume his pre-Oct. 7 policies of appeasing Hamas’s sponsor: Iran. He can also begin pressuring Israel to accept a resumption of talks to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict even if this failed policy proposal after Oct. 7 showed Israelis what a Palestinian state would really mean. Both appeasement of Iran and pressure on Israel will be very popular among the left-wing Democrats Biden needs to keep in his fold.

While that might make the president’s life a little easier, it would also prevent Israel from achieving the destruction of Hamas, which is a prerequisite for the security of Israel’s citizens. Netanyahu can say “no” to American demands to wind up the fighting in Gaza. But given that the task he has assigned his military is one that will take months to complete, ignoring Washington in this instance is not as easy or cost-free as past spats he has had with Biden or former President Barack Obama.

This is the moment when the world will see just how serious Biden’s commitment is—both to Israel’s security and to eliminating Hamas. To its credit, the administration has acknowledged that it is a terrorist movement and death cult comparable to ISIS, whose genocidal goals are akin to those of the Nazis. But with so much of his base pushing for an end to the fighting, Biden may prefer to let it survive rather than to have to spend another few months defending a war to ensure that they never repeat their crimes.

That is why American Jews who have rallied around the cause of freeing hostages must be equally vocal about pushing back against the pressure for a permanent ceasefire with Hamas. Sympathy for those being held by the terrorists is important, as is the effort to free them. But if the hostage negotiations provide Hamas with a path to survival, then it will be more than a blow to the already shaky morale of Israelis. It will only mean more Oct. 7-style mass slaughters and more kidnappings of innocent victims. More than that, Hamas and its Iranian funders won’t be satisfied with targeting Israel; their ultimate goal is to do the same in Europe and the United States. If decent Americans—both Jewish and non-Jewish—don’t push for Biden to continue supporting a just war on Hamas, then we are dooming Israel as well as Americans to a future of endless Islamist terrorism.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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