Netanyahu fights his last political battle in Gaza

The war against Hamas, the deadliest for Israelis in half a century, threatens to become the swansong of a politician who for three decades in power has wielded security as his greatest asset

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits soldiers stationed on the outskirts of the Gaza Strip this Saturday.
Juan Carlos Sanz

Now 73 years old and facing an indictment for corruption, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the residence of the Prime Minister of Israel on Balfour Street in Jerusalem late last year, the only place where he can seek refuge from serving a prison sentence if convicted. “Everything but the cell” could well have been his motto when he spent a year and a half in the opposition. After being ousted from power in June 2021 with the votes of two of his conservative political protegees in 2023, at the head of the most conservative government in the history of the State of Israel, he has faced a protest movement with few precedents against the judicial reform he has imposed, again in an attempt to avoid prison.

After the fiasco of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israelis forced Labor Prime Minister Golda Meir out of power. And four years later, an electoral upset ended the hegemony of the left, as Netanyahu’s Likud party came to power for the first time since the birth of the Jewish state three decades earlier. “Netanyahu’s political exit is inevitable,” predicts Ami Yaalon, former head of the Shabak, the state’s internal security service.

Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s biographer, noted this week in his column in the daily Haaretz that if the prime minister does not set clear goals for the war against Hamas, he will have to face the consequences. In one of the first polls published after the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza, Netanyahu is seen as responsible for the offensive carried out by Hamas, according to a Dialogue Center survey.

Some 86% of Israelis — and 79% of supporters of the conservative coalition government — consider the Hamas attack to be a “failure” for the government, in view of the “lack of preparation” in security matters, according to the details of the study published by the Jerusalem Post newspaper. More than half of those polled (56%) believe that Netanyahu should resign once the war is over.

However, the conservative leader has always been a survivor. “It is always premature to say farewell to Netanyahu. His departure is not irreversible and he will remain very active in the opposition,” noted analyst and historian Meir Margalit two years ago. “He will be back soon and more strengthened,” he rightly predicted at the time. His characteristic Caesarism and his obsession with occupying power indefinitely led him to politically assassinate those who challenged him from his own center-right camp.

His political heirs finally turned against him to defenestrate him after allying with the center-left, and even with an Arab party with an Islamist profile. He now faces a war against Hamas in Gaza, already the deadliest for Israelis in half a century. The conflict threatens to become the swansong of a politician who for three decades in power has wielded security as his greatest asset in the eyes of voters.

The only active head of government tried for corruption

In 2019, Natanyahu swept away the record of tenure in power of the founder of the Jewish State, David Ben Gurion. Known as Bibi (after his family nickname), he was also the youngest head of government (1996-1999) and the first to be born in the country after independence. He is also the only one to be tried for corruption while in office.

The grandson of a rabbi and son of a right-wing Zionist historian, Netanyahu’s life journey coincides with Israel’s own history. The ascetic and collectivist nation in which he was born has become a regional hegemonic military power and a global technological leader, with a society that has become politically conservative. He was at the helm of government for the first time (1996-1999) after the assassination of Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, against whom he campaigned hard because of his agreement with Yasser Arafat, the historic Palestinian leader, over the creation of the Palestinian National Authority. It took him 10 years to regain power, but from 2009 his official residence was on Balfour Street for a period of 12 years.

The economic transformation of the country has been one of the main assets to Netanyahu’s credit. But the wealth has not been evenly distributed among the different strata of society, with large sections of the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities living below the poverty line.

Branded as an opportunist, whose only ideology has always consisted in remaining in power in the face of adversity, Netanyahu has nevertheless maintained very precise geopolitical ideas: “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong,” he said in 2018.

As Pfeffer recalled, in his book A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu was already betting on a strong and developed Jewish state to circumvent international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. “The world must accept Israel’s position and remove the Palestinian question from the agenda,” says Pfeffer, condensing the prime minister’s vision. His ideas seem to have been prophetic, at least in normalizing diplomatic relations with four Arab countries without the need to pay the toll of handing over territories.

Abraham Accords

Promoted and endorsed in 2020 by then U.S. President Donald Trump, the so-called Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Gulf monarchies with which Israel already had covert relations, were followed by the recognition of Sudan and Morocco, countries with which it had established shadow military cooperation. Netanyahu had hoped to close a deal with Saudi Arabia for mutual recognition as well, but the Hamas surprise attack has sabotaged the normalization of relations.

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Labor minister, maintains that the conservative leader discarded the idea of a two-state solution for the region a long time ago, and now limits himself to managing the occupation, considering that there were no conditions to sit down and negotiate. “But it has failed, since it has intensified the occupation, making it irreversible through the expansion of settlements while tolerating the violence of the settlers.” Ben Ami holds Netanyahu responsible for the failure of the Oslo Accords agreed in 1993 between Israelis and Palestinians.

Netanyahu had already ordered three military campaigns against the Gaza Strip: in 2012, 2014 (the most devastating so far, lasting more than two months), and in 2021. He has not had to deal with a full-fledged Palestinian Intifada, but he has had to deal with episodes of extreme violence such as the wave of knife attacks between 2015 and 2016 in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Or the demonstrations on the Gaza Strip border, which claimed more than 200 Palestinian deaths between 2018 and 2019 from Israeli army gunfire.

Although he is a native of Israel who knows how to interpret the social diversity of a country of castes, Netanyahu can also pass for a resolute American from Philadelphia or Boston, where he spent part of his childhood and where he was educated at university. This dual facet has accompanied him throughout his life. He has rubbed shoulders with statesmen in international forums, but he strolls through the markets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv with the unabashed brazenness of an ordinary Israeli.

A member of Parliament since 1988, he stood out as a skillful strategist in public diplomacy and his image emerged before the world as spokesman for the Israeli delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Minister in several key portfolios, as head of government he completed constitutional reforms that have marked a historic turning point, such as the so-called Jewish nation-state law, a norm that entails a detriment to the rights of minorities, such as not considering the Arabic language as co-official, even though it is spoken by 20% of its inhabitants, those of Palestinian origin.

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