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Netanyahu’s postwar plan for Gaza reflects difficult balancing act

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed his plan for the enclave once Israel’s war with Hamas comes to an end in a scant document released Thursday.
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TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unveiled his first official postwar plan for Gaza — but some experts say the proposal has more to do with political posturing than an offer of a tangible strategy for the months and years ahead.

In a relatively scant document released late Thursday, Netanyahu revealed his plan for the enclave once Israel’s war with Hamas comes to an end. It was written in Hebrew and ran just over a page long.

“The good news is that there is a plan for the future,” said Gideon Rahat, senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute. “The bad news is that there isn’t much in it.”

Translated by NBC News, the document calls for Israel’s ongoing military presence, as well as for the continued maintenance of a “buffer zone” in northern Gaza — the latter of which the Biden administration has opposed since its conception.

The plan, which is broken down into immediate, intermediate and long-term goals, reiterates Netanyahu’s more pressing ambitions: to see the “complete demilitarization” of Gaza, an end to Hamas’ rule, and the release of hostages who have remained held captive since Oct. 7.

In the medium term, the plan calls for an overhaul of Gaza’s civil administration that will depend on “local elements with administrative experience.” The plan makes no mention of the Palestinian Authority, which President Joe Biden has previously said should ultimately govern Gaza, as well as the occupied West Bank, as a “revitalized” body.

It further mandates the introduction of a “southern lock” at the border with Egypt to prevent any “rearmament buildup of terrorist factors,” while also calling for the introduction of a “comprehensive de-radicalization program” and the eventual closure of UNRWA, the United Nations agency supporting Palestinian refugees.

The only two long-term goals outlined in the plan revolve around Netanyahu’s rejection of “international diktats” regarding a permanent settlement with Palestinians — as well as his opposition to any “unilateral recognition” of a Palestinian state, which the document said would be a “reward to terrorism.”

The U.S. has pushed for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades but has not formally recognized an independent Palestinian state itself. The Biden administration has been exploring options for instituting the two-state plan after the war, a senior administration official told NBC News earlier this month.

Dov Waxman, director of UCLA’s Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, said the release of Netanyahu’s plan could also be in part to preempt any proposal “which would outline the Biden administration’s views on what should happen once the war ends.”

The Biden administration did not immediately respond to a request from NBC News for comment on Netanyahu’s plan.

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said in a virtual briefing on Friday that Biden remains “fully committed” to pursuing a two-state solution.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates struck out at Netanyahu’s plan, saying it “means reoccupying the Gaza Strip and obstructing American and international efforts to establish a Palestinian state.”

A balancing act

Ultimately, Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute said, Netanyahu’s plan “doesn’t achieve much.”

“In terms of diplomacy, it’s not a document that takes things forward,” he said. “And it’s not really relevant for the long term, because eventually the policies in the long term will be decided probably by a different leadership than we have now.”

Goren said the document reflects the tricky balancing act Netanyahu has faced since the war began of trying to maintain support from the Biden administration while also appeasing the right-wing politicians upon which his fragile coalition relies — and winning back support from the Israeli public.

Noting that the document was only released in Hebrew, Goren said it appeared largely aimed at an Israeli audience, with the goal of giving Netanyahu “some domestic legitimacy that he is currently lacking” as support for the prime minister continues to plummet in the polls — and as he faces growing scrutiny from right-wing members of his government.

Rahat, who is also a professor in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agreed, saying the plan was likely conceived with Netanyahu’s “never-ending campaign” in mind.

The document follows mounting pressure from the U.S. for a postwar plan — and Rahat said it could be an attempt to signal to the Biden administration that Netanyahu’s concerns about the future of Gaza are largely related to “security.”

“He’s kind of trying to give something to Biden in this sense, like saying, ‘It’s for security — it’s not about taking more land or something like this and building settlements.’ So, I think there is an attempt to give Biden what he wants.”

Rahat and Goren said Biden’s immediate focus is likely on efforts to reach a deal for a cease-fire and to see hostages held in Gaza released. Israel has warned that if the hostages who remain in Hamas’ captivity are not released by the start of Ramadan, which begins on the evening of March 10, it will launch a ground invasion of Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where more than a million people have taken refuge after Israel declared it a “safe zone.”

The Biden administration has said Israel should not launch any assault on Rafah without a credible plan to ensure the safety of the people sheltering there, including thousands of children.

An Israeli delegation was scheduled to travel to Paris on Friday for negotiations for a hostage release and cease-fire deal, an official said, offering a glimmer of hope after Netanyahu dismissed recent proposals from Hamas as “delusional.”

Hamas leaders on Friday left Egypt’s capital, where days of talks on a deal were also taking place.

It was not clear whether any progress was made in the discussions.

On Thursday, White House Middle East adviser Brett McGurk met with members of Israel’s war Cabinet. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said they met in Tel Aviv to discuss Israel’s military operations in Gaza and the hostages who remain there.

McGurk was also expected to meet with Netanyahu the same day, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office, but details on the meeting have yet to be released.

CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 2024, 3:40 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the Israel Democracy Institute's location. It is in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv.