Oct. 7 Shattered Netanyahu’s Legacy. The War Saved Him — for Now.

The moment Israel’s devastating war in the Gaza Strip ends, the unfinished conflict within Israel over its future will begin again. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners know this. That may be, in part, why they have set the improbable aim of “total victory” as the war’s ultimate objective, and why they have so far refused any deal that would end the fighting in exchange for returning the roughly 100 hostages still in Hamas captivity. After almost six months, this war is already Israel’s longest since Israel’s war of independence.

The assault on Gaza has nearly frozen Israel’s fractious political system. Once-ferocious debates have largely been put on hold. Even Mr. Netanyahu’s most vociferous critics seek to avoid being painted as treasonous during a time when massive banners declaring “Together We Will Win” hang from skyscrapers. For months all of the country seem to have rallied behind the war. In service of keeping the war going, and unencumbered by any real opposition, Mr. Netanyahu also steered his country into a head-on collision with its most significant backer, the United States, putting his short-term political considerations ahead of the country’s long-term interests.

Oct. 7 Shattered Netanyahu’s Legacy. The War Saved Him — for Now.In the weeks following Hamas’s gruesome Oct. 7 incursion, Mr. Netanyahu’s political future looked bleak. The prime minister had long boasted that his more than 15 years in power had been Israel’s most secure; Hamas’s attack shattered that legacy. The man who described himself as “Mr. Security”, who said he hoped to be remembered as “the protector of Israel”, appeared responsible for the deadliest single day in Israel’s history. Even as military and intelligence leaders have since stepped up to take the blame, Mr. Netanyahu has pointedly refused to acknowledge his own culpability.

A poll published in January found that only 15 percent of Israelis wanted him to remain in office after the war. And, in another recent poll, by Israel’s Channel 13, most Israelis said they did not trust Mr. Netanyahu’s handling of the war. Support for his right-wing Likud party has likewise cratered.

And yet, Mr. Netanyahu remains in power, largely unchallenged.

For roughly 39 weeks before the start of the war, hundreds of thousands of Israelis in cities across the country demonstrated every Saturday night against the Netanyahu government’s hard-right agenda, and in particular against its plan to all but completely undercut the country’s judiciary. After Oct. 7, at the very moment Mr. Netanyahu became more unpopular than ever before, the grass-roots movement that had emerged to challenge his government fell nearly silent.

At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu skillfully outmaneuvered his most serious rival, Benny Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, who brought his National Unity party into Mr. Netanyahu’s emergency coalition following the Hamas attacks as a show of patriotic responsibility. The war’s transition from immense aerial bombardment and full-scale ground invasion to a grinding counterinsurgency has kept Mr. Gantz and his party from leaving — and enabled Mr. Netanyahu to head off a new round of elections.

But the unsettled and fundamental debates about Israel’s character cannot be put on hold forever. As Israelis begin to adjust to a state of permanent war — the horrific violence and incipient famine in Gaza receive little coverage in mainstream Israeli media — the return to a modicum of normalcy has started to morph into a return to politics-as-usual.

Slowly, over the last few weeks, tens of thousands of Israelis have begun to demonstrate again, mainly calling for a return of the roughly 100 hostages who remain Hamas captives. Some have begun to call for Mr. Netanyahu’s resignation, but their numbers are nowhere near the crowds that took to Israel’s streets last year. With the largest antigovernment demonstrations since Oct. 7 over this past weekend, the opposition movement may finally have a chance to press on the fundamental weaknesses in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition. If there is to be any hope of setting a new course for the country, it will require bringing the current government down.

The prewar protests were given their heft and leverage by the more than 10,000 reservists who pledged not to serve if the so-called judicial overhaul plan went through. With the Hamas incursion, many were called back to their brigades. As the war has shifted, and many have come home, reservists have largely not returned to the protest barricades. Instead, they have headed back to work, to businesses and family lives put on pause. Other former protesters simply support the war more than Mr. Netanyahu’s ouster. In a series of interviews with the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz, leaders of several protest groups expressed disappointment with the reality that the public had become too demoralized to continue its fight against Mr. Netanyahu’s agenda.

Mr. Gantz, one of the few Israeli leaders who could unseat Mr. Netanyahu, has remained in the emergency war coalition not only because of his continuing support for the war but also to act as a counterweight to Mr. Netanyahu’s extremist coalition partners. Yet, as a result, Mr. Gantz’s party has lent both stability and a veneer of cross-partisan legitimacy to Mr. Netanyahu’s unruly, hard-right coalition. If Mr. Gantz began his political career to challenge Mr. Netanyahu, he and his party have now become the prime minister’s political lifeline.

Still, with or without the fig leaf of unity that Mr. Gantz provides, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition is unstable. The greatest threat to its continuity is the looming crisis over military draft exemptions for Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox religious men, which could divide the ruling coalition between its hawks, who would like to see them drafted, and the most religious rabbis, who view compulsory service for men in the community as a disruption to their way of life.

Mr. Netanyahu also faces emergent threats from the far right — in particular, from Itamar Ben-Gvir who has been preparing to challenge Mr. Netanyahu for having been too soft on Hamas and, he claims, too deferential to U.S. calls for restraint. Mr. Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party was the sole faction in the coalition to vote against a cease-fire deal in November, which led to the release of 105 hostages held by Hamas. Mr. Ben-Gvir has also threatened to pull his party out of the governing coalition in the event of a more comprehensive agreement, which would most likely require releasing hundreds of Palestinian militants from Israeli prisons. “A reckless deal = collapse of the government”, Mr. Ben-Gvir tweeted in January.

Mr. Netanyahu’s fear of being outflanked from the right may help explain why he has engineered an acrimonious public spat with the Biden administration, despite Israel’s near-total dependence on U.S. military aid. Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and Amos Harel, a military affairs analyst for Ha’aretz, have both observed that Mr. Netanyahu’s bluster over an impending incursion into Rafah — the city in southern Gaza where more than one million displaced Palestinians have taken shelter — derives more from Mr. Netanyahu’s personal and political considerations than urgent strategic imperatives. Not only does he want to keep the war going, he wants to rally his hard-line base by appearing to stand up to U.S. pressure.

Even within Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, there are whispers of “the day after Bibi”. Enterprising politicians have begun to jockey for the place of his successor. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who Mr. Netanyahu fired and then unfired at the height of the protests last year, has attempted to stake out an even more hawkish stance on the war to appeal to right-wing voters; it was Mr. Gallant who reportedly pushed for a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon after Oct. 7. Nir Barkat, the former mayor of Jerusalem and Israel’s richest politician, has tried to take Mr. Netanyahu to task publicly for mishandling the economic crisis that has accompanied the war. And, while much of Likud has embraced Mr. Netanyahu’s style of right-wing populism, a handful of nominally moderate Likudniks have grown tired of him, even if they have little disagreement with his execution of the war.

The departure of any fragment of Mr. Netanyahu’s prewar coalition — be it the far right or disgruntled Likud members — could collapse the current government and prompt new elections. But even if they wanted to oust Mr. Netanyahu, current polling shows that if elections were held tomorrow, his coalition would lose its majority. That’s a situation the far right and religious nationalists want to avoid.

The movement in the streets must make the persistence of this coalition impossible. Unlike during the weeks that preceded Oct. 7, there is now a popular consensus that the current government has lost its mandate. Its ministers are despised. The protest movement, therefore, will need to channel this rage and return, at least, to the strength it showed before the war. The movement’s leaders will have to do what they have so far refused — to articulate and present an actionable alternative vision for the country that breaks with Mr. Netanyahu’s view that Israel must “live forever by the sword”— if they are to seize the opportunity that the fall of his government might present.

The movement, in other words, must do something that has become only more difficult in the atmosphere of fear and conformity that has followed Oct. 7. It must be brave.

Joshua Leifer is the author of the forthcoming book Tablets Shattered: The End of an American Jewish Century and the Future of Jewish Life.

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