President Joe Biden’s public reveal on Friday that Israel had passed along a staged ceasefire proposal to Hamas via Qatar the previous day, and his characterization of the three stages that the proposal lays out, garnered a confusing Israeli response. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s initial reaction was to neither confirm nor deny that Biden’s version of events was accurate, saying that the proposal on the table allows Israel to achieve its goals of destroying Hamas’ military and governance capabilities, freeing the hostages, and ensuring that Gaza poses no threat to Israel going forward. One of Netanyahu’s advisors later confirmed that the proposal that Biden publicized was Israel’s offer though not ideal from its perspective, but then Netanyahu told MKs that there were gaps between the actual proposal and what Biden laid out—without revealing what those gaps are—while an unnamed Israeli official claimed that Biden’s description of the proposal was inaccurate.

President Joe Biden

There was one group for whom there was no confusion, however: opponents of a ceasefire deal no matter the terms. The highest-profile members of this group are Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, who both threatened to bring down the government if the ceasefire goes through before Hamas has been completely eradicated, but they are not alone. While Smotrich and Ben Gvir have their own motives for not wanting to end the war in Gaza under the current circumstances, which chiefly involve seeing this as an opportunity that may never crop up again to rebuild settlements in Gaza, the issue for many of those opposed to or wary of a ceasefire is deterrence. If Israel halts the war with Hamas still in place—even if it is the only way to recover whatever living hostages remain—it not only risks future attacks by Hamas, but invites attacks from other hostile actors who will view Israel as having capitulated under fire. If the first temporary stage of the agreement turns into a permanent ceasefire, the risk is even greater. The argument is that paying this price in order to recover abducted Israelis without eradicating Hamas completely only guarantees more attempts to abduct Israelis, and that the overriding imperative must be finding and killing Yahya Sinwar, destroying all Hamas battalions and Hamas infrastructure, denying it any capabilities to recover and regroup, and only then ending the fighting. The thinking is that this is the only way to communicate a message of Israeli strength and resolve, and deter Iran and its proxies throughout the region.

There is merit to this argument. It is undeniable that there is a line—even if not a perfectly straight one—from the Gilad Shalit deal, when Israel traded over 1,000 prisoners including Sinwar to recover its abducted soldier, to the October 7 abductions. Israeli leaders have pledged countless times since the attacks that Hamas will be completely destroyed and that Israel will not stop its campaign before that goal is accomplished, and there is a genuine cost to halting before it happens. If Hamas is able to withstand such a complete IDF assault and emerge tattered but intact and still in control of parts of Gaza, other hostile states and actors that enjoy the advantages of greater distance from Israel and larger home territories will conclude that Israel is not as fearsome or capable as its rhetoric would indicate.

But there is another angle to this, which is that this scenario that posits a loss of Israeli deterrence in the event of a ceasefire deal is being pitted against an erroneous assumed counterexample. In this telling, it is Israel’s decision from this point forward of pausing the fighting or continuing it that will determine whether Israel’s deterrence will be maintained or reestablished. But that does not take into account what has happened up until this point. The slate is not blank when weighing the future of Israeli deterrence; it contains eight months of previous actions that factor into the equation. And when the full equation is absorbed, the ceasefire agreement that is on the table makes more sense on the deterrence question.

Hostages Square in Tel Aviv

Israeli military operations have freed only three hostages, while the rest languish unrescued. The news this week that four more hostages were killed months ago in Khan Younis and the IDF announcement pledging to investigate the circumstances of their deaths raises suspicions that they were killed by Israeli bombs, which would tragically not be the only confirmed instance of Israeli hostages dying in IDF strikes. It is hard to imagine anything that erodes Israeli deterrence more than its inability so far to free its captured citizens and soldiers, and there is no reason to believe that continuing to fight for more months will bring any more success than the previous months have. The longer that Israel takes over neighborhoods of Gaza and recovers only bodies of dead Israelis, the more that its deterrence is diminished.

The campaign to dismantle Hamas has thankfully been more successful than the campaign to free and recover Israeli hostages, but that too has a mixed record. Until the Rafah operation, which came after months of wrangling with the U.S. and was scaled back in order to take the Biden administration’s concerns into account, the IDF had free rein in Gaza. There have been real and impressive accomplishments in destroying rocket stores and munitions factories, and in locating and collapsing tunnel shafts. Yet the IDF is now going back into spots in northern Gaza for the second and third time, Hamas is still running things in many places in the strip, and there are now reports that more than 50% of Hamas’ fighting force remains alive and uncaptured. With the exception of Marwan Issa, Hamas’ top leadership has eluded Israeli efforts to find them, and IDF soldiers are still routinely being killed. Israel has marshaled a huge amount of firepower in Gaza, but eight months in it does not seem on the brink of a decisive military victory. Such a victory may come if the fighting continues, but the notion that Israel has reestablished a level of deterrence based on this campaign that will be lost if there is a six week pause seems fanciful.

Looking beyond Gaza, Israeli deterrence has been demonstrably eroded. The situation in the north with Hizballah is intolerable, with daily rocket, anti-tank missile, and drone fire. The fact that Hizballah has suffered over 20 times more casualties than Israel has not stopped the barrage on Israeli communities and IDF positions, and while Israel is fighting in Gaza, it is questionable whether it has the manpower to conduct the type of military operation against Hizballah that will actually have an impact, which will involve more than airstrikes. The Houthis continue to shoot missiles at Eilat, which have not caused damage but have also not stopped. Israeli communities bordering the northern West Bank are facing gunfire for the first time since the Second Intifada. The borders of Israel seem to be shrinking further the longer the war in Gaza continues, with Israelis displaced from the south and the north, and now facing a potential move away from the Green Line opposite Tulkarem. All of this has happened while Israel has been fighting in Gaza, and as with the hostage situation, there is no evidence that continuing to press on will bring the result that Israel wants.

A Hizballah military officer

The fact is that Israeli deterrence was badly broken on October 7, and has only eroded further in the months since. That erosion is not because Israel did not launch a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, but has rather happened as that campaign has raged on. Arguing that a temporary ceasefire that gets the hostages back—hostages whose clock has run out, as opposed to a military campaign that can be resumed and has no absolute clock—will shatter Israel’s deterrence patently ignores that Israel’s deterrence has already been shattered without any ceasefire in effect. If the past is any indicator, continuing until Netanyahu’s imaginary “total victory” may, in fact, be more damaging to Israel’s future deterrence than absorbing the sunk costs, getting Israelis out of their Gazan hell, and regrouping before deciding whether the temporary ceasefire becomes permanent or not.

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