Growing divisions between Israel’s military commanders and the civilian government over the war in Gaza spilled into the open this week, raising questions about how Israel will conduct the next phase of the war.

The rift has grown quietly for months, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have at times appeared to blame the Israeli security services for the failure to prevent the Hamas-led surprise attack on Oct. 7. More recently, the military has been frustrated by the Netanyahu government’s fight to maintain the exemption from service enjoyed by ultra-Orthodox Jews, at a time when Israeli forces are stretched thin.

But the sharpest and most public break came on Wednesday, with unusually blunt comments from the armed forces’ chief spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, reflecting fears among military leaders that the government’s failure to articulate a vision for a postwar Gaza could squander the gains made against Hamas. “If we do not bring something else to Gaza, at the end of the day, we will get Hamas,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 13.

“Who is that someone else, what is that thing?” he asked. “The political leadership will decide. But in order to reach a situation in which we really weaken Hamas, that is the path.”

Admiral Hagari also appeared to criticize Mr. Netanyahu’s oft-repeated call for “absolute victory” over the Palestinian armed group. “The idea that it is possible to destroy Hamas, to make Hamas vanish — that is throwing sand in the eyes of the public,” he said.

That prompted a swift rejoinder from Mr. Netanyahu’s office, which said that the Israeli cabinet had set “the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities” as one of the war’s aims, and that the Israeli military was “of course committed to this.”

Read Adm. Daniel Hagari, the spokesman for the Israeli military, center, stands on a roof in Gaza while escorting a group of journalists in January.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv para The New York Times

Mr. Netanyahu, no stranger to political conflict, is embattled on multiple fronts, feuding publicly with members of his own party, with leaders of other parties in his governing coalition, and with the Biden administration. But the public rift with military leaders is particularly striking amid wartime pressure for unity.

“There’s an enormous lack of trust. The military no longer believes in the political leadership, parts of which no longer believe in the army,” said Gadi Shamni, a retired Israeli general. “The Israeli military sees a lack of overall strategy, a growing rift with the United States, and incitement against its commanders.”

The far-right members of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet have insisted that all-out war against Hamas continue, and the prime minister has given no public indication that he is ready to let up. When the military this week instituted a daytime combat pause along a key road corridor to allow more aid distribution in southern Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu indicated at first that the change had been made without his knowledge — though he has not made any move to rescind it, either.

The Israeli military said on Wednesday that it was relaxing some wartime restrictions on Israeli communities near Gaza, and that it was very close to defeating Hamas’s forces in Rafah, both suggestions that Israeli commanders see some easing in the fighting.

Since the Oct. 7 attack that Israel says killed about 1,200 people and took about 250 hostages, ample evidence has emerged that Israeli officials knew of Hamas’s plans for the operation but did not take them seriously. Mr. Netanyahu also encouraged arrangements with Hamas that sought to “buy quiet” in Gaza through cash, Israeli work permits and infrastructure projects, a strategy that failed to prevent Hamas’s attack.

Herzi Halevi, the Israeli military chief of staff, has said he accepts some responsibility for the failure; Mr. Netanyahu has yet to do so unequivocally. The prime minister and his allies have said assigning blame must wait until after the war, while also occasionally blaming the Israeli security establishment.

And the Israeli military has backed drafting more ultra-Orthodox soldiers, citing a need for more conscripts to fuel the war effort. But under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Mr. Netanyahu has moved to ensure the community’s longstanding exemption from military service remains unchanged.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clashing with police officers during a protest against drafting into the Israeli army in Bnei Brak, Israel, this month.Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

But the most important concern for the Israeli military, analysts said, is ensuring that hard-won tactical gains against Hamas, which had governed Gaza since 2007, did not go to waste. For that, Admiral Hagari said, there had be an alternative to Hamas in Gaza.

For now, Mr. Netanyahu has sought to avoid making a decision on how to govern the enclave after the fighting stops. The United States and other allies have said the Palestinian Authority, which oversees parts of the occupied West Bank, should ultimately take charge in Gaza, while the far-right coalition partners on whom Mr. Netanyahu’s political survival depends support permanent Israeli rule in Gaza.

As a result, buffeted between competing pressures, Mr. Netanyahu has mostly said no. He has ruled out both a Palestinian Authority administration and new Israeli settlements in Gaza, and has vowed to keep up the assault until Hamas is destroyed. He has said little about who will ultimately take responsibility for the enclave’s 2.2 million residents.

General Shamni said Admiral Hagari’s remarks seemed aimed at pressuring Mr. Netanyahu to take a position. “You have to decide, tell us what you want,” General Shamni said. “You don’t want the Palestinian Authority, OK. Tell us what you want instead. A military administration? They’re not even saying that much.”

“The government as a whole has no stance,” he added.

Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said last month that Mr. Netanyahu’s inability to make a clear-cut choice was moving Israel inexorably toward two unappealing outcomes: either an Israeli military regime in Gaza or Hamas eventually returning to power.

“We will pay in blood and many victims, for no purpose, as well as a heavy economic price,” Mr. Gallant said in a televised speech.

In the meantime, Palestinians in Gaza face rising anarchy. There are no police to enforce law and order, and public services like trash collection barely exist. In southern Gaza, thousands of tons of humanitarian aid have been stranded on the Gaza side of the main Israeli border crossing because aid groups say it is too dangerous to distribute the goods.

Israeli military leaders are increasingly worried that they might be asked to shoulder that burden, said Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli brigadier general who chairs a hawkish forum of former security officials. “That is the last thing they want,” General Avivi said, although he personally supports long-term Israeli control there.

Some believe that the war’s aims have been achieved as much as possible and are eager to wind down the campaign in Gaza and turn their focus to rising tensions with Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group, said General Avivi.

Smoke billowing during an Israeli bombardment on the southern Lebanese border village of Khiam on Wednesday.Credit…Rabih Daher/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Even before the war, Mr. Netanyahu’s government of ultra-Orthodox parties and religious nationalists did not always see eye-to-eye with the country’s defense establishment. Thousands of Israeli military reservists announced last year that they would not volunteer for duty to protest Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the country’s judiciary.

Those gaps appear to have widened still further in recent months.

Facing a deadline from Israel’s Supreme Court, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition has advanced a bill to enshrine a longstanding exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service. The practice has long prompted resentment among much of the rest of the country’s Jewish population, who shoulder the burden of conscription.

Now, after hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been summoned for emergency reserve duty and hundreds have died in Gaza battles, the measure has prompted renewed fury. Earlier this month, General Halevi, the Israeli military chief of staff, waded into the fray, saying that there was “a clear need” to recruit more ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

“Every such battalion that we establish, an ultra-Orthodox battalion, decreases the need for the deployment of many thousands of reservists thanks to the conscripts,” General Halevi said in a statement. “And this is now a clear need, and so we strongly encourage it, and we want to do it right.”

Johnatan Reiss, Myra Noveck and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting.

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