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MIDDLE EAST

Netanyahu, disavowed but not done

It’s unlikely Netanyahu will lose his position as long as the Gaza war continues.

Netanyahu, disavowed but not done

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Gaza Strip on Nov. 26. (Credit: Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was likely relying on the temporary truce with Hamas to appease the popular discontent mounting against him. Between November 24th to 30th, over 110 Israeli and foreign hostages were released by Hamas. But the anger against Netanyahu did not subside. Israel blamed Hamas for the deal's failure and accused the organization of not fulfilling their promise to release all women held in Gaza, but it made no difference.

As recently as Saturday, hundreds of protesters gathered in the streets of Tel Aviv demanding Netanyahu's resignation. For nearly two months, the Israeli Prime Minister has been facing the worst crisis of his political career, with constant pressure to step down.

"Netanyahu has already lost a lot of support over the year in his attempt to implement judicial reform aimed at depriving the judiciary of its ability to control the actions of the government and parliament," recalled Peter Lintl, a specialist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Netanyahu’s detractors believe he supported the judicial reforms merely to cover up the accusations leveled against him.

On Monday, Netanyahu’s corruption trial, just one of three cases he is implicated in, resumed in Jerusalem.

"His support has weakened further after the Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7th," Lintl said. An opinion poll published on Oct. 20 by the right-wing Israeli newspaper Maariv revealed that 80 percent of Israelis surveyed believe Netanyahu should publicly take responsibility for the failures that led to the Hamas attacks. Almost 70 percent of those surveyed had voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party in last year's elections.

'Determined military leader'

Despite the criticism, Netanyahu has been careful to avoid assuming any responsibility for the Oct. 7 attack. This is in contrast to the Israeli army’s Chief of Staff, the head of internal intelligence, or even the Defense Minister.

When questioned at the end of October on the matter, Netanyahu simply stated that "everyone will have to answer" for these failures, including himself, after the war.

However, several media outlets have revealed in recent weeks that Netanyahu repeatedly underestimated the intelligence services’ warnings, several months before the attack. Military intelligence warned, in March and then in July, that groups supported by Tehran, including Hamas and Hezbollah, could launch an assault on Israel, which was "weakened" by the political and social crisis, reported the center-left newspaper Haaretz on Nov. 20. "Netanyahu is perceived as someone who sought to strengthen Hamas against the Palestinian Authority (PA), and his attempt to 'manage' the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered a failure," added Lintl, in reference to Netanyahu’s divisive policy towards the Palestinians..

Countering such accusations, Netanyahu has assumed the role of a “determined military leader.”

On Nov. 26, the third day of the humanitarian pause, the Israeli government released a series of photos documenting Netanyahus visit to troops in Gaza. Playing the strongman card, he seems to be banking on a military victory that could weaken the opposition and satisfy his coalition’s most radical far-right and ultra-orthodox parties.

Cited by the New York Times, a former and a current Israeli official revealed that Netanyahu recently privately told his collaborators that he was pressuring the Israeli army to assassinate Yahya Sinouar, the Hamas chief in Gaza and presumed mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack.

"If he manages to achieve a great victory in the coming weeks, that could change the trajectory," said Mairav Zonszein, a researcher at the International Crisis Group. A significant part of Israel’s population supports the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. As reported by Time Magazine, a survey conducted by an Israeli institute in early November, weeks before the pause, revealed that 57.5 percent of Israelis surveyed believe the army is using too little firepower in Gaza.

If public opinion disapproves, the hypothesis of Netanyahu’s removal before the end of the war seems unlikely. "The majority of Israelis clearly want him to leave the post of Prime Minister, but it is very difficult to see how that will happen during the war," continued Zonszein. “It will mainly depend on how long the war lasts and how it evolves.” Israel’s political class seems to unanimously agree that Netanyahu’s resignation should only come after the war. A return to the polls at this time risks destabilizing the country, with Israelis having voted five times in the last five years.

‘Dilemma’

Netanyahu is aware of the lack of an alternative capable of taking his seat. Certainly, the popularity of the government and the Likud party has dropped in recent days. According to a survey conducted on Nov. 22 and 23, after the agreement to release hostages was announced, the ruling coalition would lose 23 of its 64 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. The Likud would lose nearly half of its 32 seats in case of elections. But in the case where more than half of the Knesset’s members support a vote of no confidence, few sitting MPs would have an interest in going down that road.

"Any ousting of Netanyahu requires defections within his own ranks or within the coalition," observed Lintl. "The dilemma lies in the unpopularity of the current coalition [composed of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties]: in the case of new elections, politicians are unlikely to be re-elected and may hesitate to defect."

Therefore, Netanyahu has little choice but to retain his coalition partners.

An Israeli man mistaken for a Palestinian was shot dead on Thursday, after killing two Palestinians who attacked a bus stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In response to the murder, Netanyahu stated that the event should not dissuade his government from pursuing its policy of encouraging Israelis to carry weapons.

This was a nod to his highly controversial Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, whose proposed amendments to ease laws on weapons possessions passed a few days after the war. At the same time, Netanyahu did nothing to calm the escalation of attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. The Israeli government has instead unlocked over 100 million additional dollars in favor of settlements in the region a week ago. Even US President Joe Biden, a fervent supporter of Israel, has disapproved of this and publicly emphasized that the United States is ready to impose sanctions on settlers involved in attacks against Palestinians.

"I am the only one who can prevent the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank after the war," Netanyahu stated in a meeting with Likud party members a few days ago.

"Israeli public opinion is on an ambiguous trajectory. While some polls suggest greater openness to a two-state solution or at least the withdrawal from occupied territories, there is a notable increase in distrust and animosity towards Palestinians," said Lintl. "This trend reinforces both center-left policies and right-wing positions. It is essential to remember that Israel had a right-wing majority before the war and it is unlikely that this fundamental political landscape will undergo significant changes."

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was likely relying on the temporary truce with Hamas to appease the popular discontent mounting against him. Between November 24th to 30th, over 110 Israeli and foreign hostages were released by Hamas. But the anger against Netanyahu did not subside. Israel blamed Hamas for the deal's failure and accused the organization of not fulfilling their promise to...