Netanyahu’s premiership will not outlast the war with Hamas

The Israeli political system is on semi-hold, but a prime minister responsible for unprecedented division cannot lead Israel beyond the war.

Expert comment Published 8 November 2023 Updated 10 January 2024 3 minute READ

Before the war in Gaza, profound differences split Israel’s political system, demonstrated throughout the year by regular widespread protests against the government and a toxic social-political scene. However, following the shock and trauma of Hamas’s 7 October attacks, all division has been put on hold.

Some sort of unity has become a necessity, but it has also been an appropriate response while the country has buried more than 1,400 of its civilians and soldiers, killed on that ‘black sabbath’ and in the ensuing war.

If any nationwide political consensus now exists, it is that by the time the war is over, the premiership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should end.

There is a very powerful argument that he should have been ousted immediately after his government’s colossal failure to prevent the Hamas attack. Besides an immeasurable cost in terms of lives lost, the attacks damaged the country’s deterrence and its complex relations with other countries in the region. It has also caused a profound trauma to Israeli society, delivered a huge hit to the economy, and undermined faith in the security services.

Netanyahu was the godfather of the misperception that the risk from Hamas in Gaza had subsided

Netanyahu was the godfather of the misperception that the risk from Hamas in Gaza had subsided. It was his wishful thinking that some limited improvement in Gaza’s economic conditions would pacify Hamas, or satisfy the territory’s 2.3 million residents, most of them refugees living in the world’s biggest open-air prison.

While the offensive against Hamas is being pressed, Netanyahu’s position is unlikely to be challenged. But once Israel believes the threat has been neutralized, he stands little chance of surviving calls for his removal.

Division and weakness

The weeks that have elapsed since 7 October now feel like an eternity, making it easy to forget: since the sixth Netanyahu government was formed, Israel has been deeply divided by the prime minister’s assault on the judiciary’s independence – an assault motivated by his personal legal interests.

Last year’s general election gave the current coalition a relatively comfortable majority in the Knesset, but in terms of the distribution of the votes the numbers were more evenly split between the coalition and the opposition parties.

As such, this is hardly a mandate for a far-reaching judicial coup, the plans for which Netanyahu’s Likud party was hiding from voters as they went to the polling-stations.

On the face of it, the link between Netanyahu’s constitutional reforms and Israel’s lack of military preparedness is not obvious. But the depth of distraction and uncertainty it created was clearly detrimental to Israel’s ability to prevent the infiltration of 3,000 Hamas militants.

Thousands of Israeli reservists had been telling the government that they would refuse any call to duty as long as the Netanyahu government continued down the path to authoritarianism

For months, thousands of Israeli reservists in key military positions had been telling the government in no uncertain terms that they would refuse any call to duty as long as the Netanyahu government continued to take the country down the path to authoritarianism.

Defence Minister Yoav Galant and Israel’s security chiefs warned that this was harming the country’s military preparedness. But instead of entering into a nation-wide dialogue on judicial reform and heeding these warnings, Netanyahu and his allies activated what became known as the ‘Poison Machine’, accusing these reservists, not to mention their political rivals, of treason.

These are the very same reservists who immediately joined their units after 7 October and are now risking their lives in the war against Hamas, sent by a government many of whose ministers have never served in the military.

Legitimacy deficit

Netanyahu was already suffering from a severe legitimacy deficit due to his trial for corruption, which had limited his choice of coalition partners to ultra-orthodox and ultra-right parties.

To ensure his political survival, he had appointed the most extreme representatives of the settlements movement to key government positions, including Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich as a minister in the defences ministry in addition to his main post as finance minister.

Neither have any military or other security experience and both promote an ideology that embraces confrontation with the Palestinians and the annexation of the West Bank.

It was no surprise then, that when the magnitude of the blow landed by Hamas became apparent, Netanyahu added two political rivals to his war cabinet, Benny Gantz and Gaddi Eizenkot, both former chiefs of staff. 

Netanyahu’s coalition is therefore sidelined and his personal power diminished. Change is unlikely while the war is in its most pressing stages, but beyond that his position looks fatally undermined.

However, this won’t stop Netanyahu from doing everything he can to try and convince the public that he was not to blame for the 7 October failure – and that whatever military achievements are gained in the war must be attributed to his leadership.

Responsibility

Evidently, most Israelis are hurting from what has happened and worrying about the future. They also see the current government, and Netanyahu personally, as responsible for this debacle – and incapable of leading Israel beyond the immediate conflict.

Opinion polls clearly indicate that should a general election be held today, the parties comprising the current coalition, and especially Likud, would be crushed

All opinion polls clearly indicate that should a general election be held today, the parties comprising the current coalition, and especially Likud, would be crushed, handing a decisive victory to the current opposition parties and resulting in a government led by Benny Gantz.

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The fallout will not end for Netanyahu there. These are still early days, but the total failure of the intelligence community and the army – but mainly of the political leadership – that allowed for the terrible 7 October tragedy will be thoroughly investigated.

It is clear that change is needed. Netanyahu’s strategy was to strengthen Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority with the sole aim of preventing a Palestinian state from ever becoming established.

It has ended with deadly consequences, and ‘destroying Hamas’ (as is the current stated objective) is simply unachievable and no substitute for a political solution.

For Israel to recover, and recover it will, it needs to see the back of Netanyahu and his coalition of self-preservation. Fresh elections will need to be called, and Netanyahu’s corruption trial must proceed.

But these are only necessary conditions and are not sufficient in themselves.

The entire political system requires a realignment of forces and purposes, one that ensures the country is led by those who represent a vision of a modern liberal democracy – one that prioritizes those who contribute most to Israel’s security and prosperity, and advances a fair and just peace with the Palestinians.