Netanyahu’s policies that boosted Hamas were designed to avoid a political process with the Palestinians. Hamas will soon be gone, but Netanyahu is proceeding as if nothing has changed.

Since the mass murder and abductions of Israelis by Hamas, nearly all parts of Israel’s political and security establishments have come under criticism for a variety of failures. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has borne the brunt of Israelis’ anger, particularly for his decade-long policy of doing what he could to keep Hamas in power in Gaza. Aside from having determined that Hamas was deterred and thus did not present a huge risk—a determination in which Netanyahu was far from alone—his policies toward Hamas were driven by a conviction that having Hamas control Gaza was beneficial in the larger context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu’s theory was that the result that had to be avoided the most was a political process with the Palestinians that might lead to a two-state outcome, and that could not happen with Hamas in Gaza. Aside from the fact that nobody could reasonably expect Israel to negotiate with a terrorist organization openly dedicated to its destruction, Israel could avoid any real negotiations with the Palestinians if the West Bank and Gaza were divided and controlled by separate entities. Netanyahu viewed the Palestinian Authority as a bigger threat than Hamas as a result, since he understood that any future Palestinian statehood would flow through the PA. Thus Netanyahu maintained a policy of keeping Hamas in power in Gaza and the PA in power but in a weakened state in the West Bank, and the tragic results of underestimating Hamas became all too apparent on October 7.

Israel’s military operation in Gaza, Swords of Iron, has proven as successful as anyone might have hoped in eroding Hamas’ rule in Gaza to the point of finality. The IDF has taken over Gaza City, demonstrated that it can successfully capture any Hamas stronghold, killed what are presumably thousands of Hamas fighters, slowed the rocket fire emanating from Gaza to a fraction of what it was weeks ago, and has done all of this with far fewer IDF casualties than most expected. What the IDF does next is uncertain; it may conduct a similar operation in Khan Younis and other parts of southern Gaza, or it may limit its operations in southern Gaza to targeted bombings and raids without launching a full ground invasion. Whatever the decision, Hamas’ governing capabilities have been destroyed, and it seems increasingly likely that at a minimum its military capabilities will be curtailed to the point of setting it back to where it was 15 years ago when it had no real capability to threaten Israel from its territory. While this does not mean that Hamas will have been completely destroyed, its control of Gaza already has.

IDF forces during the ground operations in the Gaza Strip

While Hamas is no longer a viable foil, Netanyahu appears to still be sticking with his policy of doing whatever he can to avoid any sort of political process. Despite it being understandable that neither Netanyahu nor almost anyone else in Israel wants to discuss two states or is in a trusting mindset with regard to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s determination to keep the PA at bay no matter what is causing another impending crisis that will explode as soon as the IDF’s military operations in Gaza have concluded. The Biden administration has made it clear that it sees no viable alternative for a post-Hamas Gaza other than the eventual return of the PA. European countries and Arab states, despite their frustration with the PA and with Mahmoud Abbas, are unlikely to contribute in any way to post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation of Gaza if the PA does not have a role and is not ultimately in charge. Unless Israel wants to reoccupy Gaza and run everything on its own—something that even Netanyahu has rejected—there is no other potential actor that exists right now that has a chance at stabilizing Gaza other than the PA. Yet Netanyahu has seemingly ruled out a PA role, and while a generous reading of his comments last weekend is that he will not accept the PA returning to Gaza without it making serious reforms—a position that not only makes sense, but that should be demanded by the U.S. and others—a less generous reading based on Netanyahu’s own history and previous comments is that he is trying to rule out the PA without directly publicly contradicting American wishes.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

Netanyahu is famous for pushing off decisions and always trying to buy more time to let other options present themselves. In this case, however, the success of the IDF’s military operation combined with the failure of Israel’s larger strategic operation—whether it be dragging its feet unwisely on humanitarian assistance, or not doing the best job possible to limit civilian casualties in an effort to kill even mid-level and low-level Hamas operatives no matter where they are—means that a post-Hamas Gaza may be upon Israel quicker than it expected. The IDF has done its job in northern Gaza extremely quickly, while pressure on the U.S. to lean on Israel to bring its military campaign to a halt is also building up to a point where President Biden may soon ask Netanyahu to pause. If that happens, and Netanyahu’s plan is to have no plan—which is what ruling out any PA role effectively means—then Israel is going to be left with a giant mess of its own making, and with no good way out of it. As much as Netanyahu has premised his entire policy toward the Palestinians on avoiding having to think about a political process that will one day lead toward a Palestinian state, that is untenable with Hamas now gone. PA involvement is the key to unlocking any type of solution for post-Hamas Gaza, and there will be no PA involvement without some sort of movement toward a political horizon. Netanyahu understands this full well, which is why he is still treating the PA the way he did when Hamas was still in power despite everything having now fundamentally changed.

There is another danger lurking if Netanyahu continues along this path. In light of Biden’s extraordinary commitment to Israel over the past 40 days—a commitment that makes Biden the most pro-Israel president in history in the eyes of most Israelis—Netanyahu may be counting on Biden to bail him out. If Netanyahu refuses to allow the PA to have any role in Gaza and does nothing to strengthen its position in the West Bank, and Europe and the Middle East in turn refuse to pay for or participate in putting Gaza back together, Netanyahu may assume that the U.S. will come through and do the heavy lifting. And while that may be something that Biden is willing to do, what is certain is that Donald Trump will not. If Netanyahu is still in office come January 2025, he may have an expensive mess in Gaza with a U.S. president who is willing to say many nice things about Israel while inveighing in the most bellicose terms against Iran, but who is unwilling to spend a dime or devote any meaningful diplomacy to figuring out how Israel can now own Gaza despite having broken it.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump with Bibi Netanyahu at the White House

Like Netanyahu’s early determination that no humanitarian assistance would go into Gaza until the hostages return, ruling out any PA role is untenable and is fated to be a demand that is ultimately dropped. The only question is how big of a hole Netanyahu is going to put Israel in before he is forced to relent.