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What the war in Gaza means politically for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu


Nearly 20,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza since Israel began its offensive against Hamas. That's according to Gaza health officials. Israeli authorities say at least 129 Israeli hostages are still being held. And after more than two months, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces growing domestic pressure to free those hostages and to defeat Hamas. Internationally, he faces pressure over high civilian casualties, with more countries supporting a cease-fire. To help us understand this political moment for Netanyahu, we are joined by Mairav Zonszein from Tel Aviv. She is the senior Israel analyst for the International Crisis Group. Thanks for joining us.


SHAPIRO: What is the mood like there after more than 10 weeks of war? It seems like people are angry at Netanyahu's leadership but still overwhelmingly support the war. Is that right?

ZONSZEIN: That's about right. I mean, obviously there's certain levels of fatigue. And we had a tragedy last Friday where three hostages who had managed to kind of break free and were waving some kind of white flag, shirtless, were shot and killed by IDF soldiers. You know, that has really kind of taken the mood here from grief and trauma to grief, trauma and a lot of anger and impatience.

SHAPIRO: When you say anger and impatience is the new ingredient, what are people angry about? What are they impatient for? Like, if you could sum it up, what's on the signs that people are marching with?

ZONSZEIN: They're angry that this government seems to have prioritized the kind of endless ground operation that doesn't seem to really be achieving successes that Israelis can feel, while at the same time having no real political horizon for the hostages. Also, the fact that this government, which they hold responsible for October 7 and is still in power, I think many Israelis feel like Netanyahu just doesn't really, you know, have a handle on what's happening and that he doesn't really have their interests in mind.

SHAPIRO: And are Israelis also very concerned about the civilian death toll in Gaza, or is that a secondary concern as people are, you know, posting on social media, talking among their friends, campaigning for something to change?

ZONSZEIN: I mean, I have to be honest with you, it's not even a third or fourth kind of level for Israelis. The media doesn't really show what's happening in Gaza. Israelis are distrustful of reports, whether it's the number of casualties or how bad it is. I don't think Israelis really register it. And they're just completely caught up in their own trauma. And, you know, even before October 7, Israelis didn't really register Palestinians and their rights as an issue. So now, even though they're confronted with this war, they're still not - it's not there. They're just not.

SHAPIRO: Israel's number one ally - the U.S. - has been increasingly vocal about the need for Netanyahu's government to become more surgical in its tactics in Gaza, to reduce the number of civilian casualties. Do you see Israel changing its tactics in response to that pressure?

ZONSZEIN: I don't really see that. And I also find that the U.S. role here is to make this war a more humane war, which I think is an impossibility because of various factors, including that Gaza is, you know, a very overcrowded population, but also that the type of warfare that Israel is engaged in will be very hard to not exact that price, and also to actually achieve the goals that they have set, which is a very tall order.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying the statements by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others who seem to be saying, all right, Netanyahu, let's scale this back, are just kind of lip service?

ZONSZEIN: I think they're trying to put some kind of timeline on this. They're trying to say, Israel, you need to wrap this up. But also, that doesn't really explain how Israel is supposed to kind of move on and achieve its goals, which wouldn't - it wouldn't necessarily, you know, provide Israelis with the security that they're looking for. And I don't see on the ground that the U.S. pressure is really working. And we keep hearing from the Israeli leadership that they're going to continue for months, right? This - what we see de facto on the ground is some kind of occupation of Gaza, you know, a military presence of some sort. It could be very similar to what we have in the West Bank, where there is a Palestinian Authority, but overall, Israel has all control. And I don't think that's something that the U.S. - even though it says that it's not willing to have Israel do that, I don't see the U.S. stopping Israel from doing that.

SHAPIRO: Big picture - Israel's goal is to eradicate Hamas. You and other experts have warned that is unlikely to happen. And U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has warned that Israel might be headed towards strategic defeat. What would that mean for Israelis and Palestinians?

ZONSZEIN: It would unfortunately mean a lot more death and destruction and generations of trauma, which we already have. I mean, Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation will continue, whether it's through Hamas or through other channels. I think the only way to what Israelis call eradicate Hamas is to think differently about how Palestinians and Israelis can live here and to understand that a military solution is just not going to work. It hasn't worked for so long. So it's very understandable that Israelis are angry. They're fearful. It was the worst attack Israelis have ever had to deal with. But there's also the context of what's been happening in this land for a long time. And Israelis are going to need to make some sacrifices in order for there to be a more desirable outcome. So they're going to have to think about ways to enter political engagements and frameworks with Palestinians through international mediation, and not just a unilateral military situation that just doesn't solve anything.

SHAPIRO: That's Mairav Zonszein, senior Israel analyst for the International Crisis Group, speaking with us from Tel Aviv. Thank you so much.

ZONSZEIN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.