Netanyahu walks a tightrope with Gaza war and hostage crisis

Many commentators say Israel's ultimate political survivor cannot salvage his career after the Gaza war

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might never have come to power were it not for a hostage crisis.

The date was July 3, 1976, and a Israel's most elite special forces unit was battling on the tarmac of Uganda's Entebbe International Airport to rescue 103 hostages whose plane had been overrun by Palestinian and West German hijackers.

In just an hour, all but three of the hostages were alive and safe and all seven militants were dead.

It was a massive success, but one for which the Netanyahu family paid dearly. Commander of the Sayeret Matkal Special Forces unit Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, Mr Netanyahu’s brother, was killed.

He became an instant hero and his family became famous.

In a dramatic irony, today it is an even worse hostage crisis that could begin Mr Netanyahu’s downfall.

On October 7, Hamas stormed southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians. More than 240 were taken hostage and are now dispersed throughout Gaza.

The terrain is too complicated for any one Israeli operation to save the hostages as cleanly as Sayeret Matkal managed almost 50 years ago.

Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg thinks this terrible situation will force Mr Netanyahu to leave office within six months.

“The big political change since October 7 is that we now have an emergency government, in which Netanyahu’s role is limited and co-ordinated with three former high-level generals,” Mr Steinberg says.

"It’s clear that no decisions are made of any consequence without agreement from them. This is not a Netanyahu government, and it probably won’t ever be one again.”

Triggers for Mr Netanyahu’s departure could be the need to resign after a public inquiry into the catastrophic failures on October 7, massively reduced voter support for Likud, the prime minister's party, if elections are called and pressure from the US, Mr Steinberg says.

It would be a huge moment in Israeli politics. Mr Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving prime minister by far. He is in his sixth term as prime minister.

He built his career on a wave of modern right-wing Israeli politics – which began in the 1970s with Likud's first prime minister, Menachem Begin – that broke from more left-wing traditions. This form of the Israeli right-wing is very much alive and well today.

Its support base is made up of secular right-wingers and a large contingent of Jews whose families migrated to Israel from the Middle East. There is still a strong sense within this group that they are disadvantaged citizens, lorded over by an Ashkenazi (of central and east European origin) elite.

New migrant waves bolstered the Likud base, too. Typically secular and conservative arrivals from the crumbling USSR in the 1990s gave the party a huge boost.

Mr Netanyahu was the perfect leader for them. He was conservative, but not ultra-religious. He was seen as a war hero, having served in the same elite unit as his brother. He was a master communicator about rightwing Israeli perspectives, particularly to US audiences. He never made real attempts to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict, preferring to “manage” it instead.

No ceasefire until hostages are returned, Benjamin Netanyahu says

No ceasefire until hostages are returned, Benjamin Netanyahu says

His departure from politics would leave a massive vacuum at a time that is already pivotal for Israel. With so much up in the air because of the war, it is very hard to predict what will fill it.

The massive intelligence and military failure of October 7 also reflects terribly on coalition partners in Mr Netanyahu’s government, who grouped around the prime minister to give Israel it's most rightwing government in history.

Partners include the furthest fringes of the settler far-right, which has never had such power in a government.

Mr Steinberg thinks its two most notable politicians – Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – will struggle to last, particularly the latter.

"Ben-Gvir is totally sidelined," he says. "He now only occasionally makes a statement that has no impact.”

“Smotrich has very low visibility. He’s focusing almost entirely on financial issues, bar a conflict over whether funds should be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, which he lost.”

The strong ultra-Orthodox bloc in the coalition – despised by many on the left for its unwillingness to engage in mainstream Israeli society, particularly when it comes to not serving in the military – could also be shaken up.

“A lot of their voters are volunteering in the war effort and becoming more mainstream. Some of them see that their separation from Israeli society contributed to dysfunction of the government,” Mr Steinberg says.

"They also see their financial demands for [religious schools and financial support for full-time Torah study for men] won’t be met because all the money will be going towards reconstruction.”

Israel’s left, which has been struggling for so long, could also morph into something new.

“There won’t be any appetite for talk about a two-state solution,” Mr Steinberg adds.

“A lot of the people killed by Hamas in those southern communities were on the left, after all. People will probably start to identify with a more traditional, nationalist left – the David Ben Gurion type of left.

Mr Netanyahu’s departure would not, therefore, only be the closure of a remarkable chapter in Israeli history. It could also be the start of perhaps one of the most important and unpredictable political reckonings the country has ever gone through.

Updated: November 06, 2023, 3:31 PM