Home and away, the Israeli prime minister is facing a ‘pile-on’ that gets worse by the day. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines whether the man dubbed a political ‘Houdini’ can escape and use the war in Gaza and threat from Iran to survive or is now finished 

Long before Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 last year, Benjamin Netanyahu had a lot on his plate. Politically his back was to the wall, with Israel riven by mass protests sparked by his far-right coalition’s attempt to push through judicial reforms that many Israelis believed would undermine the country’s democracy. 

Fast-forward six months or so and the Israeli prime minister must look back on those days of protests as a comparatively easy ride compared to where he now finds himself. 

This weekend, it’s hard to know where to start in listing the threats, challenges and obstacles Israel’s longest-serving leader faces both home and away. 

As I write, Netanyahu has been mustering his war cabinet to discuss preparations for responding to any attack by Iran or its proxies in the region.

This Iranian retaliation comes following what was most likely an Israeli air strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria that killed seven Revolutionary Guards and two of Tehran’s generals. 

Then yesterday, violence erupted in the occupied West Bank after dozens of Israeli settlers stormed al-Mughayyir, a village near Ramallah, armed with guns and stones, forcing the Israeli army to intervene and providing Netanyahu with another political headache.

And there are the splits in his war cabinet. Three of its members, including defence minister Yoav Gallant, as well as Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkott, are all signalling their intention to challenge him for the prime minister position.

Add to this a rebellious right wing, growing strains with Israel’s key ally the US, an ongoing trial for bribery and fraud, and all of this set against the backdrop of a war in Gaza resulting in international condemnation, and you get some idea of the extent of Netanyahu’s woes.
The Herald: Above, People attend the funeral procession for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members killed in a strike in Syria, which Iran blamed on Israel

‘F*** you Bibi’
From the very ground up where posters plastered on lampposts and street walls of Israeli cities read “F*** you Bibi,” – a reference to his childhood nickname – to searing remarks made in an interview on Israel’s Channel 12 by Nadav Argaman, former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, the condemnation of Netanyahu is unrelenting. 

“Netanyahu is not fit to be prime minister of Israel,” Argaman told the network’s Uvda investigative programme this weekend. 

As the Times of Israel reported, Argaman went on to openly blame the prime minister for October 7, saying it was “the worst disaster since the state’s establishment” and was leading Israel to its “doom”.

Calling for swift elections, Argaman, who led Shin Bet between 2016 and 2021, mostly under Netanyahu, argued: “Morally he cannot [run for office again]. He is responsible for a monumental failure. He is responsible. 

“There’s no-one else … Someone who does not take responsibility for a failure of this magnitude is not fit to be a leader of the Jewish people.”

More than two-thirds of Israelis now believe Netanyahu should resign, according to polls, with some believing he should leave now and others after the war in Gaza is over. Support for his Likud party, too, is at its lowest level in years.

Such is the alarm within Likud that for some time manoeuvrings have been taking place for Netanyahu’s succession, with challenges also emerging from the far-right ultra-orthodox within his coalition. These past days, for example, Netanyahu has been forced to deal with divisions over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should retain their longstanding exemption from military service.

It’s a tricky question about whether the state should continue to allow young ultra-Orthodox men to study at religious seminaries instead of serving in the military, as most other Jewish Israelis do. It’s a no-win situation for Netanyahu whereby should the government abolish the exemption, it risks a walkout from the ultra-Orthodox members. On the other hand, if it lets the exemption stand, the secular members could withdraw. 

Under such pressures, say political analysts, it can only be a matter of time before the coalition falls apart and a new government takes over.
But even with threats piling in from many sides, it’s that collapse of his coalition that likely concerns Netanyahu most.
The Herald: Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a press conference

Greatest fear
WRITING in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz a few months ago as the crisis over Gaza deepened, Anshel Pfeffer, one of the sharpest of Netanyahu’s observers, drove home that very point.

“What he fears most is losing the majority in the Knesset that took him four years and five election campaigns, including 18 frustrating months out of office, to secure in November 2022,” Pfeffer noted.

“Sixty-four, that magic number of seats won by the parties who supported him in the last election, is everything to Netanyahu. It got him back to where he is now, and he will do anything to avoid squandering them,” Pfeffer concluded.

But just what does “anything” mean, however, and how far would Netanyahu go to ensure his continuing political survival that even his staunchest critics agree he is so adept at. 

According to a source who worked with Netanyahu and spoke with the Financial Times last week, what he is banking on has been described as a political “trifecta” bet. 

The first element of this is becoming the Israeli leader who “defeated” Hamas and removing its top leaders – difficult as that is proving to be right now.

The second element, is proving that Israel has complete control over its northern border, neutralising the threat from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based militant group which at Iran’s behest has been clashing with Israeli forces with increased intensity since the start of the war in Gaza. 

And finally, the third component of Netanyahu’s “trifecta” bet, says the Financial Times source, is being able to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia, long the grand prize for Israel. 

Brokered by the Biden administration, Israel and Riyadh were moving closer to such an agreement until the Hamas attack on October 7 which some analysts believe might have been carried out with the express aim of scuttling that dialogue and agreement. 

Now, however, rapidly escalating tensions with Iran have also given Netanyahu another potential string to his “trifecta” bet. 

But this has led some Iranian officials and others to believe that Netanyahu would like nothing better than a face-off with Tehran to help keep him in power, dangerous and high stakes as such a geopolitical gamble would be.

For the past three decades, Netanyahu has been sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear programme and threatening to attack the country on countless occasions. 

Any direct strike on Israeli from Iran would play to that rhetoric, something that certain senior Iranian officials have flagged up, even if the pressure on Teheran to respond to the recent killing of its Revolutionary Guards officials in Damascus is immense.

Political “Houdini” that he is, Netanyahu knows that any drawn-out regional conflict would block, or at least postpone, any official accountability for his utter failure to prevent Hamas’s attack from happening in the first place and could also put his multiple indictments on corruption charges on an indefinite hold. 

In one fell swoop, he could be transformed from a failed and embattled prime minister to a wartime leader, restoking his credentials as “Mr Security” and “protector” of Israel. 

At least that’s how Netanyahu would like to see it play out, even if as many of his critics say it’s too late for that now and it’s not just a matter of when he goes but how. 

But the more he digs in, the more there are calls for elections to which Netanyahu fires back by arguing that they would paralyse the country for at least six months and prevent it from achieving its aims in the war, including his much-promised “complete victory” over Hamas.

But as calls for elections grow it’s hard to see how they can be delayed much longer. That said, just what would it take to oust Netanyahu?
The Herald: Thousands of Israeli citizens last week demonstrate demanding Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation

Political routes
Writing in the US-based Foreign Policy magazine recently, Aaron David Miller and Adam Israelevitz, both fellows at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, outlined several of the political routes available to the Israeli opposition – all of them, they say, problematic. 

The first is a vote of constructive no confidence. Modified in 2014 to ensure an alternative government must be proposed, any constructive vote of no confidence requires at least 61 Knesset member votes (out of 120) to enact. 

Alternatively, the Knesset can pass a bill supported by a simple majority to dissolve itself and move to elections.

The second mechanism to remove Netanyahu, say the analysts, stems from the belief that resignations by Gantz and Eisenkot from the war cabinet, along with public protests, will serve as catalysts for a handful of Likud MKs to abandon Netanyahu.

The third often overlooked route would be through a state commission of inquiry led by the president of Israel’s Supreme Court, although this would likely take many months while Netanyahu’s critics insist that time is of the essence. 

But even if Netanyahu were to be removed by these or other political mechanisms, just how much of a difference it would make to Israel’s political landscape remains open to question.

“It’s doubtful if a new government, likely running the ideological gamut from right to left along the lines of the previous Bennett-Lapid coalition, would be able to make core decisions leading to a transformative, conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians,” say Miller and Israelevitz.

That said, both analysts still believe that the most likely “course correction” would be “a government led by Gantz, more focused on the protection of democracy, civil society, and the rule of law”. 

For now, though, Netanyahu hangs on, even if the political pile-on remains relentless.

In last Thursday’s edition of Haaretz, the headline in an article asked one simple question: Will Netanyahu be remembered as Israel’s worst prime minister?

In the column, Anshel Pfeffer told of how 50 years ago this weekend, Golda Meir announced her resignation as Israel’s prime minister six months after the end of the Yom Kippur War and a week after the Agranat Commission had cleared her of responsibility for Israel’s failure to anticipate and prepare for the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, putting the blame instead on the military and intelligence chiefs. 

Despite her exoneration by the commission, growing up in Israel in the 1980s and onward, says Pfeffer, you constantly heard of Meir being spoken of as “Israel’s worst prime minister”.

While one should be careful about comparisons between the Yom Kippur War and the current one in Gaza, says Pfeffer, when comparing Israel’s prime ministers Meir and Netanyahu that’s something else again.

“In six months, Meir had ended the war with major victories for the IDF on the battlefield, a national commission of inquiry had been impanelled and delivered its interim report, she had won an election and, despite that, done the honourable thing and resigned. Netanyahu, on the other hand ...”
The Herald: Golda Meir, described as Israel’s ‘worst prime minister’

Personal survival
IN other words, Netanyahu is not one for indulging in such niceties if they remotely get in the way of his own personal political survival. 

As anyone with even a passing knowledge of Israeli history knows it is littered with leaders who lost or fell from power in the wake of major conflicts. 

For the moment, despite the impatience of many Israelis and the country’s major allies, Netanyahu refuses to budge. 

Some argue, however, that even if he did go it would matter little if who replaced him was from the political right or left, as Israel would still continue to prosecute the war in Gaza as it’s doing now. 

That might well prove true but remains open to question. 

For the time being, it’s a fair bet, however, that the Netanyahu-led government will not run its full term to October 2026. 

Whatever happens, as Anshel Pfeffer has intimated, Netanyahu might just be lined up to replace Golda Meir in the eyes of many as the “worst prime minister” in Israel’s history.