Is The Writing On The Wall For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
The unprecedented attack Hamas waged on Israel on Oct. 7 has been deemed a massive intelligence failure for the country’s leadership and mostly the man at the top, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, 73, Israel’s longest-serving leader, who has managed to reemerge at the top in the face of setbacks, now appears to be at the center of a crisis of historic proportions that could likely lead to his downfall.
The fact that Israel was caught off guard by groups of Hamas militants who shot dead revelers at a music festival, attacked towns and communities in southern Israel and kidnapped hundreds of people stunned both the world and the country itself.
Netanyahu’s government has so far received most of the blame for the security failure, polls show, but the prime minister has yet to accept any responsibility.
Analysts point out that Israel’s history suggests that its political leaders rarely remain in power after presiding over crises of such magnitude.
Even if Israel succeeded in its goal to crush Hamas in this war, experts say Netanyahu is likely to be deemed responsible for creating the conditions that allowed the militant group to launch its brutal attack, which has claimed the lives of thousands of Israelis.
Netanyahu’s Favorability Ratings Take A Hit
A Dialog Center poll published by The Jerusalem Post last week showed 94% of respondents said Netanyahu’s government bore at least some responsibility for the absence of security preparedness that led to the Oct. 7 massacre, while 56% of those surveyed said he should resign after the war is over.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s favorability ratings have dropped considerably, with another poll by Israeli research institutes last week showing that only 29% of respondents would now pick him as their preferred prime minister, according to Bloomberg.
Ehud Barak, who served as prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001, told Sky News Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7 was “the most severe blow Israel suffered since the day of its establishment.”
Asked if Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for over 16 years, can survive this in the long run, Barak said “he shouldn’t.”
“I think that in a normal place, he would have resigned,” Barak said, noting Netanyahu’s responsibility given the attack happened on his watch.
In its immediate aftermath, Martin Indyk, a Lowy distinguished fellow in U.S.-Middle East diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as former President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from July 2013 to June 2014, told Foreign Affairs the country is facing a challenge of unknown proportions.
“The prime minister is facing a real problem, not only in defending the citizens but in avoiding blame for what happened,” Indyk said. “And I don’t see how he can. So he’s got to find a way to redeem himself through the conflict.”
What Could Happen If Israel Succeeds In The War
Amotz Asa-El, a research fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute, told HuffPost Netanyahu has “no options” regardless of what he may want to do to weather this crisis.
“There is no way that an Israeli leader will survive this kind of debacle,” Asa-El said.
Asa-El cited the example of former Israeli leaders who had to resign over their handling of crises, including Golda Meir, who stepped down following the end of the Yom Kippur War. Israel was caught off guard by a surprise two-front attack led by Egypt and Syria in 1973 on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar to regain territory. While Israel ultimately won the war, which lasted 19 days, the event traumatized Israelis and killed 2,656 soldiers.
The current conflict has so far killed over 1,400 Israelis, most of whom are civilians. The death toll could likely rise as the war continues, and Israel appears to be preparing to launch a ground offensive in Gaza.
Netanyahu has also had to confront the issue of the over 200 people Hamas has taken hostage. Many Israelis have joined protests, calling out Netanyahu over the kidnappings and urging him to take action to secure the freedom of those captured.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for Israel’s Defense Forces, on Thursday said they have now notified the families of those identified as hostages but said the number may not be final.
The kidnappings of hundreds, reportedly including children and older adults, have also illuminated the extent of Israel’s intelligence failure and led to the spread of a sentiment that Netanyahu is ill-equipped to remain on the job.
Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist for Haaretz, wrote that the outrage previously directed at Netanyahu over a controversial judicial overhaul “has only risen” in the wake of this crisis, “and the hostages’ families are becoming the focal point for that anger.”
Zehava Eshel told The Guardian that soldiers like her missing granddaughter, who was stationed near the fence that encircles the Gaza Strip, were supposed to be “the eyes of the country,” but no one listened when they said they saw “unusual movements at the border.”
Netanyahu sees the writing on the wall, Mazal Mualem, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse who recently wrote a biography of Netanyahu, told The New York Times and is now “focused on damage control.”
Mualem said, “In my opinion, he understands that he won’t be able to continue after such a devastating failure and, therefore, he is focused on achieving military and diplomatic success during this war.”
Netanyahu Could Be Blamed For One Big Failure
Asa-El said Netanyahu’s inevitable downfall would come not just as a result of the Oct. 7 attack itself but also because he displayed poor judgment over the Hamas threat and his relentless pursuit of the politics of division.
He explains that Netanyahu had effectively adopted a policy of containment towards Hamas, which turns out “was all along a very implacable enemy.”
As The Economist writes, Netanyahu championed the idea that the threat of Hamas in Gaza “could be managed by erecting a high-tech border barrier, instead of by seeking a long-term solution and improving conditions in Gaza.”
They added, “That concept failed miserably on October 7th.”
Asa-El told HuffPost that Netanyahu’s attitude of “put to sleep the military establishment,” which did not recognize the scale of danger the Palestinian militant group posed to Israel, led to the attack earlier this month.
Netanyahu has “repeatedly divided Israeli society for his own political needs,” Asa-El added, and Israelis will hold him accountable for that once the fighting ends.
Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges in 2019, which he has vehemently denied. The trial started in May 2020 but has since been delayed several times. If convicted, Netanyahu could face several years in prison, but a verdict isn’t expected anytime soon.
His victory in the November 2022 election after allying with ultraconservative parties led to the creation of one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.
Since his return to power, Netanyahu has pushed through a controversial judicial reform that critics say will harm Israeli democracy by limiting the judicial system’s power, effectively the only system of checks and balances on the government, with thousands of people taking to the streets to protest it.
Some have also pointed out that Netanyahu’s main motivation for going ahead with the reform is it could help him avoid potentially facing accountability in his corruption trial.
Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, predicted protests will likely return to Israel’s streets eventually, only this time they won’t just be about Netanyahu’s threat to democracy but also about “how Mr. Security fell asleep on guard” duty.
Mekelberg called Netanyahu’s decision to stack his Cabinet with people of either limited or no military experience at all following his election win “criminal neglect.” He explains that Netanyahu’s picks for crucial ministerial positions were below par for a country like Israel, where security is a priority and should be treated as such.
Shirel Hogeg, a corporate executive at Nestlé from the southern Israeli city of Ofakim, who went viral for confronting a minister over the government’s response to the crisis, echoed Mekelberg, calling out Netanyahu for giving important jobs to political allies in far-right and Orthodox Jewish political parties.
“Netanyahu, the corrupt, the very corrupt, who has been in the seat too long ― he’s given out all these titles [to cronies] to survive,” Hogeg told HuffPost. “He’s given out funds to everybody to survive. He has even given Hamas money for the past 20 years to avoid confrontation, and he never confronted them until the end.”
Since Hamas’ offensive, Netanyahu created an emergency unity government to lead the war effort, which includes several centrist opposition figures, including former Defence Minister Benny Gantz.
While the newly created war cabinet does not include any members of the far-right parties Netanyahu formed a coalition with; they remain a part of his government.
Mekelberg told HuffPost that this is a political calculation by Netanyahu, given that he will need their support to remain in power if any opposition figures drop out of the unity government.
Netanyahu Evading Responsibility For The Hamas Attack
Mekelberg said he found it “shocking” that Netanyahu was still in power despite this colossal failure, also noting that the Israeli prime minister hasn’t accepted any degree of responsibility for the Hamas attack, even as others around him, including ministers and defense officials, have.
“We have to admit honestly, painfully and with a bowed head — we, the state leadership and the security establishment, have failed in maintaining the security of our citizens,” said Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a partner in Netanyahu’s government.
Ronen Bar, who leads the country’s domestic intelligence organization, also accepted blame, given his organization did not put out a warning that could have prevented the attack.
A new poll released Friday by the Maariv newspaper showed that 80% of respondents want Netanyahu to publicly accept responsibility for the Oct. 7 massacre.
Mekelberg said Netanyahu likes to take credit when things go right but blames others when events take a bad turn.
But the scale of this failure will not allow Netanyahu to remain in the post for long, he estimates.
“Do I expect him to resign in the manner of taking responsibility and give a big speech and say, you know, ‘I had my time; I failed you, thank you,’ and disappear into the sunset? No, I don’t think so,” Mekelberg said.
“Will he be pushed out in one way or another?” he asked. “I believe so.”