Is this the crisis that will finally sink Netanyahu as Israel’s leader?
Support for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is shaky, with criticism coming from all directions
ALLAN WOODS STAFF REPORTER
Outrage flows through Israel these days, from without and within.
There are those outraged by the scale of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip since Israel was attacked on Oct. 7, frustrated that calls for a ceasefire have been ignored.
There are those livid that 240 hostages taken by Hamas have yet to be returned, their fate still in limbo six weeks after their abduction.
Where the anger at times converges is around one controversial figure — that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He is a war criminal to some, ineffective and untrustworthy to others.
In a war sparked by the deadliest attack on Israel in the Jewish state’s 75 years in existence, Netanyahu is nobody’s hero. He is not a balm for a traumatized nation. Not even the country’s preferred choice for prime minister, a job he has held for more than 16 years in total, longer than any other Israeli leader.
Under his leadership, Israel may be
decimating the Palestinian territory and progressing toward the goal of eliminating the designated terrorist group that has controlled Gaza since 2006. But despite explosive displays of Israeli force, the horizon has decidedly darkened for its top politician.
His approval ratings were already at a worrying low before Oct. 7, due to divisive legislation that proposed to weaken the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court to hold lawmakers in check. But those numbers have nose-dived in the weeks since the attacks.
Public opinion polls suggest Israelis believe he was caught figuratively sleeping on that Saturday morning and, worse, that he is ill-suited to lead the country’s fight.
Netanyahu has refused to publicly accept responsibility, seemingly refused to heed demands that the liberation of hostages take priority over the military campaign in Gaza, and is starting to face criticism from world leaders for the everrising Palestinian civilian death toll and destruction in Gaza.
A hint of the world’s shortening fuse came from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who urged Israel to “exercise maximum restraint” and warned that “the world is watching.” This was followed by a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses.”
Israel rejected the UN resolution, saying there would be no easing of the fight against Hamas until the hostages are freed. And Trudeau’s intervention received a sharp social-media rebuke, essentially telling him to aim his darts at Hamas, not Israel.
Netanyahu’s handling of the war has been in keeping with a damn-the-torpedoes strategy that the 73-year-old has employed many times throughout a political career that has seen him in the prime minister’s office from 1996 to 1999, from 2009 to 2021 and returned him there last year, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and polling expert in Tel Aviv.
“His whole career has been built on various forms of crises that he then finds a way to wriggle out of,” she said in an interview.
This approach has been applied to wars, to relations with Israel’s hostile neighbours, to domestic politics, public relations as well as his relationships with wealthy entrepreneurs that have allegedly put him on the wrong side of the law for giving political help in return for expensive gifts — charges that have not yet been settled in court.
Netanyahu may have a tougher time wriggling out of his current dilemma.
While he leads his country through a brutal war, one in which some 1,200 Israelis and more than 11,000 Palestinians — thousands of them women and children — have been killed, there are frustrated and traumatized Israelis beating a path to his doorstep.
This week, the families of those believed to have been taken captive by Hamas in Gaza set off on a march that was to take them from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by Saturday night. Their demand? That their prime minister strike a deal that will see the hostages liberated — something that is reportedly being negotiated with the help of intermediaries in the U.S. and Qatar.
Some say explicitly that their government has been missing in action, more focused on prosecuting a war than on liberating the hostages.
“Israel has declared that it has two goals in the war in Gaza — defeating Hamas and bringing back the hostages,” the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote in an editorial this week. “So far, it has subordinated the second goal to the first.”
Ilan Zecharya, the uncle of 28-year-old Eden Zecharya, who went missing after fleeing a music festival, is more diplomatic.
Eden was last heard from in a telephone call with her father, which ended abruptly when the car she was travelling in with her boyfriend and friend was fired upon the morning of Oct. 7. She was last seen by the friend after suffering a shoulder wound.
“Ever since then, we are looking for good news, waiting, hoping,” Zecharya told the Star this week from Lod, 25 kilometres southeast of Tel Aviv.
He would like to see world leaders putting pressure on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to secure the release of Israeli hostages before any talk of a ceasefire in Gaza, increasing the flow of humanitarian aid or agreeing to a long-term plan for the future of the Gaza Strip.
But he has heightened expectations of Netanyahu himself.
“I want to see my prime minister marching toward us from the opposite direction … meeting us halfway and sitting with us, sharing with us what he thinks,” Zecharya said. “I want to hear from him in person that this is his top priority, that there’s nothing else apart from that on the table for him as a prime minister.”
Many who have lost family members, are mourning their fellow Israeli citizens or have been shaken by Hamas’s breach of the Israel-Gaza border wall are more vocally expressing their loss of faith in Netanyahu and his governing coalition.
This defiance has been captured in a widely shared video featuring three musicians denouncing their government and calling for ministers to be sacked or to resign in a song set to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”
The choice of the tune is a not-so-subtle shot aimed directly at Netanyahu.
But Scheindlin presumes that Netanyahu is more focused on keeping his governing coalition onside.
“There’s no election right now. There will only be an election if his coalition partners defect,” she said. “That’s how his mind works.”
Israelis have so far been willing to wait until after the war to assign blame, though the heads of the military and intelligence services have publicly accepted responsibility for failing to anticipate and prevent the massacres.
Netanyahu himself heaped blame on security officials in a now-deleted social media post for which he was pilloried. But he still has not publicly apologized or accepted any personal responsibility.
“Did people ask (U.S. president) Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor that question? Did people ask George Bush after the surprise attack” of 9/11? he told CNN’s State of the Union in an interview broadcast last Sunday.
“I’m going to be asked tough questions. Right now, I think what we have to do is unite the country for one purpose — one purpose alone — and that is to achieve victory.”
But what does victory look like? When the hostages are returned? When the leaders of Hamas are hunted down and captured or killed? When responsibility for administering the Gaza Strip is handed over to the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations or some other international coalition?
Or when Netanyahu has been able to rebuild his political credibility?
Despite a slow start to the Israeli military effort — the time it took to create a plan of attack and assemble a force that is more than 300,000 strong — it has been prosecuted intensively and with little regard for those who would prefer it be conducted with more precision or greater care for Palestinian civilians.
Netanyahu told CBS in an interview broadcast Friday that Israel was trying to minimize civilian casualties. “But unfortunately, we’re not successful.”
But there are those who question whether Netanyahu is the kind of leader who can separate the best interests of his country from his own, personal greater good.
“The way his mind works, he thinks that what he wants politically is the best possible thing for the country.”
His more than 16 years in power indicate that some segments of the Israeli voting public agree with him. But a recent opinion poll by the Israel Democracy Institute reported that respondents now trust the Israel Defence Forces more than their elected leader to lead the country through the war.
There are no elections planned until 2026, and Netanyahu retains the backing of his right-wing coalition partners, including controversial figures who have staked out positions that seem certain to see the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict grow more entrenched.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has called openly for the creation of Palestinian-free buffer zones around Jewish settlements in the West Bank and has endorsed a suggestion that other countries open their borders to Gaza residents as refugees.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, meanwhile, has been urging Israeli civilians to arm themselves to ensure their personal safety.
Such policies may find support in segments of the Israeli population, but none are likely to provide a lasting end to the conflict or silence Palestinian claims that their rights are being curtailed and their lives threatened by Israel.
Since Oct. 7, Netanyahu has appeared less like the linchpin holding this coalition together and more like the anchor that is dragging the government down.
Hebrew-language publication Maariv published poll results last week showing Netanyahu with 27 per cent support compared to 52 per cent for Benny Gantz, an opposition leader and former army general who currently sits in an emergency war cabinet.
Political strategists have taken notice and are reportedly starting to shape the political battlefield for the reckoning that is coming.
Israeli TV station Channel 13 has reported on backroom talks in the ruling Likud Party about who should eventually replace Netanyahu and how to orchestrate a vote of no confidence that would bring about the political coup.
It’s not clear who in the Likud Party could or would replace him. Scheindlin said that Netanyahu has spent years blocking potential rivals and promoting loyalists, turning Likud into a fortress from which he has charted his political path.
Anyone who succeeded Netanyahu in the prime minister’s office would face many of the same pressures he has. Apart from the political left, there is precious little sympathy for those calling for a ceasefire or deploring the fate of Palestinians on the other side of the Israel-Gaza border wall.
But as the Hamas attacks reminded Israelis, and should remind Israel’s prime minister, even the tallest, strongest, thickest walls can be breached, given the time and determination.
And the sooner that Netanyahu proclaims “mission accomplished” in the Palestinian enclave, the sooner he faces the political reckoning that could end his political career — unless he is somehow able to wriggle out of the bind and live to fight again.
Scheindlin noted that the Hamas attack was unprecedented in its severity and Netanyahu was already politically weakened before Oct. 7. And she said there are precedents for the Israeli public dispatching their political leaders with great haste when things go wrong on their watch.
Golda Meir after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Menachem Begin after the 1982 Lebanon War. Ehud Barak in 2001 after the start of the second Palestinian intifada.
“It’s tough to survive a big war as prime minister,” Scheindlin said. “Particularly when you’re going into it very weak when the war breaks out on your watch.”
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited