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May Hasn’t Been a Good Month for Netanyahu or Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hemmed in. Hamas is resurging in previously cleared areas of Gaza, and with their tunnel network intact, their leaders remain at large. War cabinet members Benny Gantz and Yoav Gallant are putting pressure on Netanyahu to develop an exit plan, yet no option seems viable. US President Joe Biden has stepped up diplomatic pressure on his ally, too. Yet Netanyahu cannot please Gantz, Galland and Biden without displeasing the radical right on which he relies for his own premiership.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Dec 10, 2023. © Muhammad Aamir Sumsum /

May 25, 2024 02:56 EDT

May has been a difficult month for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and his government. As happens in nations at war, Netanyahu has been forced to contend with all sorts of unexpected internal and external challenges that constrain his room for maneuver and even threaten his position as prime minister.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had been poised to launch a much-anticipated attack on what Israeli intelligence thought to be the final redoubt of Hamas, Rafah, in southern Gaza. However, resurgent Hamas attacks in northern and central Gaza, which had previously been cleared of major Hamas presence, have forced them to partly redeploy. Still, the initial phase of the Rafah campaign has already begun. All the same, while the IDF undertake their search-and-destroy operation on what remains of Hamas’s fighters, the whereabouts of Hamas’s leadership remain unknown, thanks to the IDF’s inability to destroy the entire Gaza tunnel system.

Pressure from Israel’s closest ally and Israel’s war cabinet

Netanyahu’s relationship with the US, Israel’s historically strongest supporter, and with President Joe Biden, arguably the most pro-Israel president in recent memory, is under serious stress. Biden is fed up with Bibi’s resistance to addressing the Gaza humanitarian crisis satisfactorily (though matters have improved since early April), with his insistence on an all-out assault on Rafah, where refugees are still holed up, and with his refusal to articulate an effective plan for governance and security in Gaza after the war.

On May 9, Biden took the historic step of blocking armament shipments to Israel. Though not unprecedented — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush imposed similar bans during their presidencies — it is a measure of the pique in Washington these days with Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Practically speaking, however, the ban is unlikely to have a significant impact on Israel’s near-term conduct of the war.

And then there is mounting dissention within Netanyahu’s war cabinet and even among senior IDF officers. Both groups are frustrated with the uncertain progress of the war. However, the more significant issue may be over the absence of a day-after plan. Benny Gantz, the former IDF commander and ex-defense minister, has threatened to leave the three-man war cabinet by June 8 unless Bibi presents a credible plan for governance and security in a Gaza rid of Hamas.

Gantz and current Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant, the third member of the war cabinet, are on the record as opposing Israeli occupation of Gaza, a long-term IDF presence in the Palestinian enclave and Israeli governance there. They propose something along the lines of an Arab-led, Western-supported coalition to come into Gaza, provide security in coordination with Israel and establish some form of governing structure until a Palestinian one becomes viable. 

But those ideas are not well articulated or vetted among Arab states. Moreover, the US still is arguing for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs in the West Bank, to take control of Gaza after some serious reorganization and reform. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has made it clear, however, that it won’t return to Gaza absent a full Israeli withdrawal. Moreover, there is serious unease about the PA’s governing abilities, given its tenuous authority in the West Bank, high level of unpopularity and heretofore gross ineffectiveness in governing. There is no practical way that the PA could effectively govern Gaza now or in the near future.

Finally, on May 20, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Ahmad Khan requested arrest warrants be issued for Netanyahu and Gallant, along with Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, military wing commander Mohammed Deif and political bureau chief Ismael Haniya. While Israel and the US have objected strenuously to the warrants request for Netanyahu and Gallant, it nevertheless presents further headaches for the already beleaguered prime minister. The most serious problem is the extraordinary political and diplomatic damage arrest warrants would do to Israel’s already severely tarnished global reputation.

What’s the plan, Bibi?

Bibi is an accomplished and deft politician, perhaps the most nimble and clever in modern Israeli history. So, one could normally expect him to deal with any one of these challenges in due course. But contending with them all at once presents a challenge all its own.

The core of his troubles lies in the extreme right-wing coalition he fashioned to allow himself to govern. It has boxed him in and allowed him virtually no leeway to adapt in the style he has in the past and which has made him such an accomplished politician. Bow to the demands of Gallant and Gantz — and Biden — and he loses the most extreme factions in his coalition, and his government collapses. Resist Gantz and Gallant, and his cabinet collapses, and he’ll find himself in a Gaza quagmire from which there is no escape and, most importantly, with no assistance from the West and the moderate Arab governments that he’d really like to court.

Further complicating Netanyahu’s tale of woe, Gantz is now considered the most likely candidate to challenge him in an election, which the majority of Israelis want as soon as possible. Gantz is feeding Bibi the rope to politically hang himself. Truthfully, however, the prime minister has only himself to blame. He made a deal with the right-wing extremist devil, and they won’t let him back out without losing his job.

Netanyahu has no plan for post-conflict Gaza, even if there is a genuine end to the conflict. Hamas’s recent resurgence in Jabalia and Gaza City suggest that controlling the whole of Gaza will be a long-term exercise, exacting enormous human, financial and emotional costs on the Israeli people and economy. Hamas’s extensive tunnel network has given the terrorist group new life, despite significant losses inflicted by the IDF. Their ability to move throughout this system, apparently undetected and unimpeded by the IDF, represents a serious and long-term obstacle to Israel’s subduing the organization and controlling Gaza. Yet, Netanyahu maintains that there is no alternative but the total defeat of Hamas.

Underestimating Israel’s dependence on the US

Netanyahu has tried to turn his defiance of the US in general and Joe Biden specifically into a political asset. It certainly sells among his fellow extremists in the coalition, who would like to see Israeli re-occupation of Gaza and annexation of the West Bank. But for the greater Israeli body politic, Iran’s 320-missile and drone barrage showed their country’s reliance on the United States in stark relief last month. Israel successfully intercepted the vast majority of the weapons and suffered no casualties. Had it not been for America’s critical intelligence and military assistance, as well as that of Jordan, other Arab states, Britain and France, the damage would likely have been much greater. The Arrow 3 missile defense system, jointly funded by, developed with and tested in the US, proved to be especially critical.

In any future conflict with Iran, Israel must have the US as its side. Moreover, the help of other Western governments and the moderate Arab states will also be vital. So, berating the US for sporadic domestic political benefit does nothing to protect Israel’s strategic interests and security. The majority of Israelis know this and want to see their leadership work more cooperatively with Washington and Israel’s moderate neighbors to confront the true existential threat to the Jewish state, Iran. Netanyahu, too, knows this but continues to play the increasingly dangerous game of attacking Biden and the US, believing he can have it all. It’s Bibi at his classic most arrogant.

Netanyahu has always believed that he understands the Americans better than any Israeli and at least as well as, if not better than, any American politician. But he conflates US support for the State of Israel with its attitudes about him and his leadership. Polling in the US continues to show strong support for Israel, though somewhat less since this war. Recent polling has shown, however, that 53% of Americans have no or very little confidence in the prime minister, up from 42% one year ago. The numbers are especially bad for Netanyahu among Democrats and 18–29 year-olds.

There is little prospect of America turning its back on Israel. But the loss of American confidence in the leader of one of its closest allies in the world will further weaken any re-election prospects the prime minister might have.

Loss of Mojo

All of these setbacks — the resurgence of Hamas fighting in northern and central Gaza, Biden’s suspension of heavy armament exports to Israel, absence of and resistance to a day-after plan for Gaza’s security and governance and consequent ultimatum from Benny Gantz and the ICC prosecutor’s arrest warrant recommendations — suggest a prime minister out of touch and incapable of managing the many challenges before him.

The ever-controlling, maneuvering, manipulating Netanyahu has lost his governing mojo. A war that, by all accounts, Israel should be controlling is, in fact, controlling Israel’s prime minister. He cannot escape it; nor can he navigate himself out of the impossible political maze he created for himself. Worst of all, there is no one to help guide him out.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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