The recent Hamas attack on Israel has raised criticism of the domestic political leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The damage from the security breach and the recent judicial overhaul has been considered a failure of Netanyahu’s leadership. The attack also exposed internal dissension within Netanyahu’s Likud party. With the internal opposition in the Likud party, a dramatic fall in popular support, the rise in popularity of the leader of the National Unity Party, Benny Gantz, and foreign condemnation, Benjamin Netanyahu’s future in Israel’s political landscape has become increasingly questionable.
Much before the emergence of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, internal political developments in Israel have been critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. With the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu’s public support started to diminish. The public considers that this judicial reform could dismantle the system of checks and balances, posing a direct threat to democratic ideals. The bill, which included five significant modifications intended to restrict the Supreme Court’s power, was heavily criticised. As the reforms would permit the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to override court decisions with a simple majority vote, the Israelis consider it a strategic move to shield Netanyahu from corruption charges, as he is currently on trial for alleged corruption. Opposition leaders and activists accuse the government of attempting to seize absolute power by undermining established norms of checks and balances. As protests rose due to the reformation, critics inside Likud claimed that the prime minister’s judicial reformation had cost the party’s public support.
The internal party dissatisfaction was another challenge for Netanyahu. It has been highlighted by his alliance with the ultra-right-wing Jewish Power Party. This alliance has caused potential setbacks for his party leadership due to the dissatisfaction of other Likud members with the alliance. Therefore, Likud members and officials commented that under Netanyahu’s leadership, the party has transformed from one that is proud of its internal democracy into a more monolithic body with little opportunity for internal discussion.
In addition to the existing challenges he was already grappling with, the recent conflict further compounded his troubles. His response to the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, was characterised by a declaration of war and a vow to “change the Middle East.” Netanyahu’s actions during the war have had complex implications for national security and the loss of lives. The decision to agree to a truce and hostage release deal was seen as a shift attributed to effective lobbying by hostage families and a recognition of broader responsibilities. His initial hardline stance of ruling out a cease-fire in Gaza, declaring it a time of war, and the vengeful response to the Hamas onslaught have also led to the subsequent escalation of violence.
Upon the mediation efforts of Qatar, Israel initially consented to a four-day truce, and subsequently, it has been extended for a seventh day to facilitate the release of additional hostages. The situation remains fluid, and the truce has faced challenges, ending after negotiations reached an impasse, with Israel accusing Hamas of violating the agreement by firing at Israel. The international response to the truce has been varied, with the United Nations General Assembly passing a resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in Gaza. While many countries, including the United States and several European nations, expressed solidarity with Israel and recognised its right to defend itself, the Arab nations stood with the Palestinian cause, attributing the violence to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
Several other nations, including Bolivia, Bahrain, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Jordan, South Africa, and Turkey, have recalled their ambassadors from Israel, citing concerns over Israeli conduct during the war, primarily due to the proposals of extreme measures such as the deployment of atomic bombs. This avalanche of foreign condemnation is clearly affecting Netanyahu’s leadership and Israel’s worldwide position, complicating an already complex political situation. The impact on public attitude, potential policy shifts, and the pressure for change in leadership could also influence Netanyahu’s political fate.
Benny Gantz, the leader of the National Unity Party, is experiencing a surge in popularity at the moment. This increase is attributed to his acknowledged leadership skills during wartime and his extensive operational experience as a former Defence Minister. As a result, this development poses another challenge to Netanyahu’s political future. The criticism of Netanyahu from diverse fronts, including Gantz and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, for sidestepping accountability for failing to prevent the Hamas attack has strained the image of Netanyahu among Israeli citizens. A recent survey on November 14, after he publicly criticised Netanyahu, also stated rising support for opposition figures like Benny Gantz, with 49% of respondents believing he is better qualified for the premier role than Netanyahu (27%). This solidifies Gantz’s criticism of the prime minister. These factors showcase that the domestic political currents are in favour of Gantz. If Gantz can create a coalition with other parties in Israel’s Knesset with the most members, he might become Prime Minister even without another election.
The resumption of trials against him on December 4th, coupled with the unprecedented nature of the current situation, casts doubt on Netanyahu’s ability to remain in power. The complex balance that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must maintain between the hardline supporters within his coalition and the expectations of Israel’s traditional ally, the USA, becomes a pivotal factor in determining his political future. While facing pressure from some right-wing coalition members advocating for extreme policies, such as blocking humanitarian aid to Gaza and even contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, Netanyahu walks a tightrope by aligning with the more moderate stance favoured by the USA for building regional peace. As the war transitions into peace talks, the potential withdrawal of Benny Gantz from the war cabinet poses a significant challenge. Gantz’s departure could raise questions about Netanyahu’s public support, adding another layer of complexity to the political landscape. The evolving dynamics suggest that Netanyahu’s ability to navigate these contrasting interests will be crucial in shaping his political survival after the ongoing crisis. With all these factors contributing, Netanyahu’s political future seems to be coming to a standstill with increasing domestic pressures on his leadership, international condemnation of his actions, and his intelligence failure.
The dynamics suggest that navigating these contrasting interests will be crucial for Netanyahu’s political survival post-crisis. The prospect of Netanyahu losing power gains prominence, driven by a confluence of factors, including rising dissatisfaction, the ascent of Benny Gantz, and global scrutiny of Israel’s actions. The evolving landscape hints at a possible political upheaval and the emergence of new leadership, setting the stage for transformative changes in Israel’s political arena.
The author is a research intern at CPPR
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.