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‘Mr Security’: Hamas war tarnishes Netanyahu’s image as Israel’s defender

On the campaign trail in 2009 Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Israeli city of Ashkelon, which had been hit by recent rocket fire from Palestinian militants in nearby Gaza, and vowed to “return security . . . to the citizens of Israel” and topple Hamas.

Such tough-talking helped Netanyahu win the election, and he has positioned himself ever since as “Mr Security” — the one leader who could ensure Israel’s safety in a hostile neighbourhood, without making painful concessions to the Palestinians.

But although Netanyahu oversaw numerous conflicts in the years since, he never sought to crush Hamas or the other militant groups in Gaza. Last weekend, those forces launched the worst-ever attack on his country’s territory — a devastating multipronged assault that has left Israelis reeling, tarnished Netanyahu’s security credentials and cast a deep shadow over his political future.

“Netanyahu always said [he wanted to be remembered] as the defender of Israel . . . Everything that’s happening now crushes this legacy,” said Mazal Mualem, author of a biography of Netanyahu and a senior political analyst at Al-Monitor.

“The most disturbing event for the Jewish people since the Holocaust took place in the south of Israel under his rightwing government.”

The assault killed at least 1,300 people in Israel, and wounded more than 3,000, while 120 were taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. Palestinian officials said 2,215 people had been killed by the Israeli strikes in Gaza and more than 8,700 people had been wounded. 

Hamas’s assault killed at least 1,300 people in Israel, according to Israeli officials © Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

So great is the shock in Israel at the failings of the military and intelligence services in the run-up to the attack that analysts have compared it to the biggest security debacle in the country’s history: the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Egypt and Syria shocked the Jewish state with a co-ordinated attack.

By Thursday, recriminations were beginning, with Netanyahu’s office insisting he had not received advance warnings about the attack, after reports in the Israeli press claimed intelligence had been received the night before of unusual movements by Hamas within Gaza.

But critics say the Hamas attack was not just caused by short-term failings, but also by Netanyahu’s strategy of trying to contain the militants with a mixture of military deterrence and economic inducements. This approach assumed that limited economic help to Gaza’s citizens — subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized the territory in 2007 — could help tame a group sworn to Israel’s destruction.

“Every few months or years there’s a round of fighting, you apply massive force, and after every round Hamas comes out of it damaged and deterred. At least that’s what [Netanyahu] and the generals sold us,” said Amos Harel, author of a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They completely ignored Hamas’s force and military build-up, and its fundamentalist ideology didn’t change either.”

Military failures have often contributed to the downfall of Israeli leaders during the country’s 75-year history, from Golda Meir after Yom Kippur to Ehud Olmert.

Some observers think the magnitude of last weekend’s security failing will ultimately also force Israel’s longest-serving prime minister from office. One poll this week found that 94 per cent of Jewish Israelis see the government as responsible for the intelligence failures before the attacks, and that 56 per cent believe Netanyahu should resign once the war is over.

“This is the end . . . if Netanyahu doesn’t recognise it, the people of Israel will show him the door,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a Netanyahu adviser turned political analyst, although he cautioned that this would not happen before the war was over.

“Let’s say he achieves all the goals of the war: that Israel dismantles Hamas and [beats] Hizbollah. People will still remember this horrific day. This is something Netanyahu cannot run away from. It was on his watch, and the negligence was on his watch.”

Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election by forming an alliance with far-right and ultrareligious parties last year © Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Others are less sure, especially given how Netanyahu has repeatedly outwitted his rivals as he has towered over Israeli politics for the past 25 years, garnering a reputation as a ruthless operator and master tactician and confounding critics attempting to write his political obituary.

During his six terms, he has also become one of Israel’s most divisive politicians. Yet despite feuding with numerous former allies, and being on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, he won re-election by forming an alliance with far-right and ultrareligious parties last year.

Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster, said it was possible that, just as Netanyahu’s trial entrenched the views of supporters and opponents rather than shifting them, so could Israel’s military catastrophe fail to persuade a deeply polarised electorate to change its mind about him.

“I still think that one possible scenario is that . . . the pro-Netanyahu rightwing says: ‘this proves what we’ve been saying all along. Israel must be tough and give no concessions, no quarter.’ And his opponents say: ‘this proves how hollowed out his leadership was’,” she said.

Israel-Hamas war

Netanyahu earned himself some breathing space on Wednesday, when Benny Gantz’s National Unity party agreed to join his coalition for the duration of the war. The deal will help to contain the bitter fight over a judicial overhaul pushed by Netanyahu and his far-right allies which had divided the nation for the past nine months.

Some analysts said that, as well as projecting a sense of unity, the alliance — sealed shortly before Israel is expected to embark on a complicated and bloody ground operation in Gaza — would allow Netanyahu to share around the political cost of some of the painful military decisions that the campaign is likely to bring.

But others doubt the unity government will amount to more than a reprieve.

“It does not yet promise any broader unity beyond [the war],” said Natan Sachs at the Brookings Institution. “Logic would suggest he’s a new Golda Meir from 1973, an ex-prime minister walking. Of course, Netanyahu . . . may try to cling on to power for a while, but it can’t last.”

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