Is Netanyahu putting his own political future ahead of the good of Israel?

December 16, 2023
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the past several weeks maneuvering to maintain power and shore up public support amid attacks from political rivals, pressure from the Biden administration, and growing international criticism of his handling of the war with Hamas.

In an apparent effort to play to his right-wing base, Netanyahu publicly broke this week with President Joe Biden and rejected any talk of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He called the Oslo peace agreement, which established the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and gave it the power to govern the West Bank and Gaza, a “mistake” that should not be repeated. The statement was a blunt rebuke of Biden, who has called for a “revamped” Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza after Hamas is defeated.

Netanyahu’s move follows a long-running pattern of the Israeli leader making hard-line statements for his own political gain, according to current and former Israeli officials, who asked not to be named. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has repeatedly fended off removal attempts in recent years by striking alliances with right-wing political parties.

U.S. and Israeli officials told NBC News that they fear Netanyahu has adopted some positions in the war against Hamas to prolong his own political survival.

Given his weak political position and the widespread expectation that he could be sidelined once the fighting ends in Gaza, they said, Netanyahu has a strong motive to prolong the military offensive.

“He has every incentive to keep the war going, to ensure his political survival,” one U.S. lawmaker who asked not to be named told NBC News.

At the same time, Israel is increasingly isolated internationally as the Palestinian death toll in the conflict has reached 18,700, with 70% of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. The vast majority of the territory’s 2.2 million people are displaced, and half of them are estimated to face starvation, according to the U.N.

A current Israeli official said that Netanyahu is pivoting to the right as the domestic political cost of his government’s failure to prevent the Oct. 7 attack looms. The attack, which resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people and the kidnapping of about 240, was the worst terrorist strike in Israeli history.

“Everything he’s doing is with this context in mind,” said the Israeli official, who asked not to be named.

After the surprise assault, Netanyahu formed a unity wartime government made up of five senior Israeli officials. It included Netanyahu; Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s party who is serving as defense minister; Benny Gantz, one of Netanyahu’s chief political rivals; Gadi Eisenkot, a centrist politician; and Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers.

Six weeks later, centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid became the first major Israeli political figure to call for Netanyahu to resign, criticizing him for his handling of the war.

“Netanyahu needs to go now during the fighting,” Lapid said on Israel’s Channel 12 news. “The country is going to a bad place.”

Yair Lapid.
Israeli opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid at an anti-reform demonstration in Netanya, Israel, in April. Eyal Warshavsky / SOPA Images / Getty Images

Netanyahu’s political position was precarious before the attack. Following a corruption inquiry, he formed a government with far- right factions in Parliament. He then mounted an effort to overhaul the judicial system that was criticized as an effort to increase his own power and undermine Israeli democracy. Street protests ensued that tore the country apart.

Retired general and center-left politician Amos Yadlin has put much of the blame for Israel’s intelligence failure leading up to Oct. 7 on the chaos that resulted from the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reform.

“Netanyahu got all the warnings — from his defense minister, from the chief of staff, from the head of intelligence, from the head of Shin Bet and from independent writers like me, like others — that this is weakening Israel deterrence and endangering Israeli national security,” Yadlin told Politico three weeks after the attack.

Eisenkot, a member of the unity government whose son and nephew were recently killed in fighting in Gaza, has also been cited as a potential political rival to Netanyahu. Eisenkot, a former senior military leader, opposed Netanyahu’s judicial reforms.

Some analysts contend that Netanyahu’s pivot to the right makes sense for a politician seeking to strengthen domestic support before worrying about global public opinion. They also noted that some of Netanyahu’s positions are not outside the political norm in Israel post-Oct. 7.

While Biden has expressed support for a two-state solution, Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have said they are not ready to talk about establishing a Palestinian state after the massacre.

“Maybe it seems logical to the world right now, but it doesn’t make sense,” said Israeli columnist and commentator Nadav Eyal.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, a member of the left-wing Labor Party, told The Associated Press this week that he is urging allies not to jump immediately to talk of a two-state solution. “There is an emotional chapter here that must be dealt with,” Herzog said. “My nation is bereaving. My nation is in trauma.”

Michael Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs on the Obama administration’s National Security Council, predicted that it will take time for a post-Oct. 7 realignment to occur in Israeli politics. Whether that involves opposition leaders and public opinion unifying against Netanyahu, or a repeat of the fractured politics that he has used to remain in office in the past, is unknown.

“Once the dust settles in Gaza, you are going to have a really difficult process of accountability for Oct. 7 and potentially a resurfacing of the preexisting divisions,” he said. “It’ll really be all-consuming for Israeli society. We have to be patient and let this play out.”

Lapid, the opposition leader, said he was ready to create a “national reconstruction government” led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, right-wing parties and Gantz’s National Unity party, but he said that “Netanyahu cannot lead it.”

Singh, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, cautioned that the removal of a figure who has dominated Israeli politics for decades is not preordained. “Bibi has a very tough road to hoe here if you look at his approval ratings,” Singh said. “But you can never count him out.”



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