Benjamin Netanyahu’s Looming Political Predicament

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a Cabinet meeting at the Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defense, in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2023. (Photo by ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

JERUSALEM, Israel—On a busy commercial street in southern Jerusalem, Asaf Eliyahu readjusts to civilian life after returning from Gaza just over a week ago. The soft-spoken florist, whose family kept his shop afloat during his long absence, served as a reservist in the 13th Battalion of the Golani Brigade—an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) infantry unit that sustained painful losses during its ultimately successful push into Gaza City. 

But despite feeling the war’s dual economic and security tolls more acutely than many Israelis on the homefront, Eliyahu’s support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—the man at Israel’s helm the day Hamas’ attack changed Eliyahu’s life dramatically—hasn’t wavered.

“The only person who is adequate, and the right person to lead Israel, is Netanyahu. There’s no alternative for me. If there was, I would consider it,” Eliyahu said from his shop last week. “From what I know, most of the soldiers of the ground forces that I was a part of will vote Netanyahu,” he added. “They love him, they say they trust him.”

But such support for Netanyahu is far from universal. As fighting in Gaza passes the 100-day mark, making it the country’s longest conflict since the 1948 War of Independence, many Israelis are expressing growing concerns about government accountability in light of the security and intelligence failures leading up to October 7, the increasingly dire hostage situation, and the economic toll of the war. 

It all spells particular trouble for Netanyahu, who’s long branded himself as “Mr. Economy” and “Mr. Security.” While some, such as Eliyahu, are resolute in their continued support for Netanyahu and his Likud party, many are rethinking their vote or doubling down on their opposition to Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. His day of reckoning may come sooner than Bibi had hoped—even as he urges the country to first wait out the war.  

“Going to elections would be irresponsible and would badly halt the war effort,” Netanyahu said on Thursday night, during a press conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv. “The ones who are hoping for this, and for all the other things we hear in the TV studios night after night, are Hamas and also its backer Iran. We won’t give this to them. We will bring complete victory.”

Yet many Israelis—on the left and right—want government accountability. Crowds of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Israel’s major cities in recent days to demand that the government set a date for new elections now. Others want to head to the ballot box as soon as the conflict comes to an end. In a December survey by the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI), an independent research center, 69 percent of respondents—including a majority of right-wing voters—called for new elections immediately after the war. 

“I always chose Netanyahu and I am from the right side of the political spectrum, but it will be hard for me to choose him again. I want a change,” Mordechai Sasson, the owner of a produce shop in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, said in an interview. “Everybody should go home, not only Netanyahu.”

The relative quiet of Mahane Yehuda, the holy city’s largest shuk, underscores the financial pain the tense security situation is inflicting on many Israelis. Where hundreds of shoppers typically brave crowds to buy meat, spices, fresh bread, and local produce, vendors outnumbered customers on the weekday morning of my visit. 

“There’s a difference here after October 7—it’s felt,” Aviel Pinhasi, a butcher in the market, told The Dispatch. “The army and the government are responsible for what happened.”

Shlomo Nissan, a produce vendor and longtime Likud supporter, also said the government is at fault, adding that he has no plans to back Bibi’s party again in the next Israeli elections. “The army and the security forces do everything they can to prevent attacks, but it’s not always 100 percent and the situation is very delicate. It’s very complicated for me as a business owner. You can see it’s Wednesday morning and usually packed with people, but it’s not the case right now,” he said. “It’s a mess. The government needs to take responsibility. They are supposed to take care of their people and the security of their people and they failed.”

The economic strain is felt across Jerusalem, including at the First Station, a retired railway hub now lined with bars and restaurants. “Day or night, there’s still way fewer people here,” Salman Mohammad, an Arab-Israeli coffee stand worker, said in an interview. “People are scared to go out of their house.” Mohammad’s employers have had to dismiss several staff members, while other businesses in the station have closed permanently. 

The longer the war goes on, the worse the economic repercussions are likely to be, and Netanyahu recently predicted the fighting could stretch into 2025. But along with souring public opinion about the government’s failures pre-October 7, cracks in the War Cabinet are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. 

Days after the initial Hamas attack, centrist lawmakers joined with the prime minister to form an emergency government in a show of solidarity. The move elevated National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff and onetime defense minister, to Netanyahu’s Cabinet. Together with former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot—an observer in the Cabinet without a vote—Gantz has sought to exert the opposition’s influence on the war’s management. 

Behind-the-scenes divisions are now regularly coming to the fore. While Netanyahu used to host press conferences alongside Gantz, the premier now tends to appear before reporters solo. Reports of War Cabinet meetings devolving into screaming matches headline Israeli media. 

In a television interview Friday, Eisenkot hinted at the increasingly untenable situation. “It is necessary, within a period of months, to return the Israeli voter to the polls and hold elections in order to renew trust because right now there is no trust,” said the minister, whose 25-year-old son, Gal, died fighting in Gaza last month. “As a democracy, the state of Israel needs to ask itself after such a serious event, ‘How do we continue from here with a leadership that has failed us miserably?’”  

For many Israelis, it’s Netanyahu’s continued reluctance to take responsibility for October 7 that’s perhaps most damning. Since the war’s start, the prime minister has repeatedly obfuscated when asked whether he’s at fault for the catastrophic intelligence lapse that enabled the Hamas invasion, subtly shifting blame to the Israeli military for the oversight. In a since-deleted post on X in late October, Netanyahu seemed to criticize the heads of Israel’s military and security services for failing to detect and inform him of the impending attack. Netanyahu later apologized for the remarks, but the episode was just one in a series of political clashes his government has had with the IDF as the country has uncomfortable conversations about who’s at fault. 

Earlier this month, a high-level meeting of ministers reportedly erupted after IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi informed lawmakers of plans to launch an internal probe into the military’s failures in the lead-up to October 7. The IDF’s decision to initiate an inquiry puts pressure on the government to do the same, which could have electoral consequences for Netanyahu.

“If there is an investigating commission, I expect whoever is blamed to take responsibility and resign,” said Tomer Bloom, clerk of a bakery in Mahane Yehuda, adding that he doesn’t plan to vote for Netanyahu regardless of the probe’s outcome.

Other Israelis are suspending their judgment of Bibi until investigations are complete. “If the commission blames Netanyahu for the failure, then I believe he will go on his own volition,” said Hai Noah, a Likud supporter at the market. “But, in my opinion, the people of the army are to be blamed because they didn’t pass the information to Netanyahu and to the government. They didn’t pass the information to the top.”

But Netanyahu’s continued efforts to distance himself from the military may backfire with other voters. An Israeli Democracy Institute survey conducted in late-October found that Jewish Israelis’ trust in the IDF had actually grown in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack—from 84.5 percent to 87 percent—making it far and away one of the most trusted institutions in the country. By contrast, just 20.5 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents said they had trust in Netanyahu’s Cabinet.

The military’s popularity reflects the overwhelming support among Israelis for continuing the war until Hamas’ governing and military capabilities in Gaza are destroyed. Netanyahu said Thursday that 16 or 17 of Hamas’ 24 battalions have been eliminated in the war so far, but the “longer” phase of the war—clearing the territory of remaining terrorist gunmen—had not yet begun in many areas.

At the same time, the question of the estimated 132 remaining hostages—105 alive, 27 dead—continues to hang over the government’s head. Family members of the captive Israelis have been among the loudest voices calling for Netanyahu’s resignation, holding weekly demonstrations in cities across the country. On Thursday night, family members of hostages blocked Tel Aviv’s main highway to protest the government’s lack of progress toward a deal to secure their release. 

The stunted efforts to reach an agreement have also reportedly exacerbated tensions in the War Cabinet. One unnamed government source told the Times of Israel that the ministers had accused Netanyahu of “frittering away progress on a hostage deal.” In a response to the report, the prime minister’s office said that Hamas had demanded a permanent ceasefire in exchange for another agreement—a non-starter for many but not all Israelis. 

“We should stop the combat, negotiate, and get the hostages back,” Brenda Donvi, the owner of a boutique in Jerusalem’s elite Moshava neighborhood, said in an interview. “The greatest evil that Israel has is a self-enemy who is taking the country hostage for his own interests and his own benefits to stay in power. [Netanyahu] will do whatever he has to do to stay in power in my opinion.” 

The growing frustration with Netanyahu is reflected in the polling. A recent survey by Hebrew daily newspaper Maariv found that if the election were held today, Netanyahu’s pre-war coalition would win just 44 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Opposition parties belonging to the previous ruling coalition, meanwhile, were projected coast to victory with 71 seats. The same study also found significant public support for Gantz, with 51 percent of respondents deeming the National Unity leader suitable for the premiership compared to 28 percent who said Netanyahu was up to the job. 

“He’s putting himself before the country,” Boaz Dargan, a shopper at the First Station, said of Netanyahu. Who would be a good alternative? “Anybody who is clean, not corrupt, and will serve the people.”

But even Netanyahu’s most outspoken critics are clear on who’s ultimately to blame for October 7: Hamas and its international backers.

“They fooled us for quite a long time. We always knew that they didn’t love us, but we never imagined that kind of hate that they had for us,” Dargan said. “We always felt strong here and were shocked by the level of hate that they have for us. They’re not interested in coexisting in any way. They just want to destroy us.”

In that renewed sense of vulnerability, Israelis from across the political spectrum say they’ve found unity. 

“The war is not just physical and emotional, it’s also psychological,” said Tracey Shipley, a shopper at the Jerusalem shuk, stressing the importance of Israeli solidarity. Last year’s widespread protests and counterprotests over the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform plan made Israel “very vulnerable because we were not united, and Jews must be united,” she added. “We needed a big slap in the face for everyone to say, ‘You know what, we’re one nation, we have to be united and together.’”  

Yariv Guri, a restaurant owner in Mahane Yehuda, also pointed to a shared sense of purpose among Israelis during wartime. “It’s only the government that tries to split us all the time,” he said. “Every time there is a war, it’s hard then we continue. That’s what [the army is] fighting for, that we can continue our lives, so we continue. We are survivors.”

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