Is time starting to run out for Benjamin Netanyahu?

When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Israeli military recruits this week, he delivered a typically gung-ho speech about the “historic significance” of its war against Hamas in Gaza. “We are, in effect, defending the existence of our state,” he told the young soldiers.

Netanyahu reiterated that Israel would move ahead with its offensive on Rafah, the southern Gazan city where more than 1mn people have sought sanctuary, despite western leaders’ warnings that an assault on such a densely populated area would be disastrous. “No force in the world will stop us,” he said.

He sounded an equally defiant note about Iran — eight days after a suspected Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate building in Damascus. The attack killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards, including two senior commanders, raising the stakes in Israel’s shadow war with the Islamic republic and the risk that it could morph into a full-blown regional conflict.

“Everyone in the Middle East and beyond is sitting in the stands and watching who will win on this field, Israel or Iran and its proxies,” Netanyahu said. “You already know who will win.”

It was classic Netanyahu: the combative wartime leader, dismissive of criticism, whether from within or outside, while projecting himself as the protector of Israel, resolutely standing up to external forces.

Yet in recent weeks pressure on Israel has only intensified, particularly over its planned assault on Rafah and accusations of restricting aid to besieged Gaza as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians face imminent famine.

Last week, world leaders lined up to condemn Israeli air strikes that killed seven aid workers. This week, Joe Biden said Netanyahu was making a “mistake” in Gaza, as the US president’s criticism of his Israeli counterpart becomes ever more blunt.

Through it all Netanyahu has remained unwavering. He is insistent on the need to launch an assault on Rafah and said on Monday “there is a date” for the operation. He made the statement even as the US and other governments ramped up pressure on Israel to be more flexible in negotiations to reach a ceasefire with Hamas and secure the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

But for all his defiance and belligerence, is time beginning to run out for the man who has towered over his nation for two decades?

Rarely has the six-term prime minister appeared so vulnerable or unpopular among voters than in the wake of Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack that triggered the war. More than two-thirds of Israelis believe Netanyahu should resign, according to polls, with some believing he should leave now, some after the war. Support for his Likud party is at its lowest level in years.

Posters plastered on lampposts and walls scream “Fuck you Bibi,” a reference to his childhood nickname. Protests against his far-right government and calls for early elections appear to be gaining momentum. Israel looks ever more isolated internationally, while Netanyahu’s political opponents at home scent an opening.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to soldiers at a facility in the northern Gaza Strip in December last year © Avi Ohayon/GPO/Handout/AP

“I don’t think, after this event, anybody can survive. I think the old system will need to have a new system, and I think the Israeli public doesn’t want to go again to the same left and right, Bibi or not Bibi,” says a senior opposition figure. “We’re tired. We’re exhausted.”

Benny Gantz, an opposition leader considered Netanyahu’s main rival who is also in the war cabinet, last week joined calls for an early poll, saying a vote should be held in September.

But even Netanyahu’s critics are wary of writing him off just yet. Few doubt that the prime minister is already plotting his survival strategy with his fate inextricably linked to the outcome of the war. Rising tensions with Iran could also help him deflect some of the political pressure he is under.

“He won’t give up,” the opposition figure says. “That’s why Bibi is Bibi.”

Ever since Hamas militants rampaged through kibbutzim in southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and seizing 250 hostages, according to Israeli officials, Netanyahu has stuck resolutely to the same pledge: the eradication of Hamas.

The more international pressure to halt the war has risen, the more he has bristled and pushed back. His government only agreed to open additional crossings for aid into Gaza last week after Biden threatened to condition support to Israel.

Many Israelis suspect Netanyahu’s survival instincts are already shaping how Israel conducts its war, with critics arguing it suits him to prolong the conflict to delay the possibility of early elections.

Palestinians walk through the destruction left by an Israeli air and ground offensive near Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on April 1 © Mohammed Hajjar/AP

“Immediately [Israel] goes to an election, he will lose. That he understands, so he tries to drag it out. Consciously or subconsciously it doesn’t matter, the end result is he does his best not to stop the fighting,” says Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who once served in Netanyahu’s government.

Others say it is too simplistic an argument. They point out that while Netanyahu has become a lightning rod for criticism inside and outside the country, the vast majority of Israelis support the war effort. Yet even those in that camp believe Netanyahu’s political predicament narrows his options.

“If he was in a different political situation, maybe he could have said ‘guys, we accomplished a lot, there’s still a lot to do and we’ll do it later,’” says Aviv Bushinsky, a former chief-of-staff to Netanyahu.

“In Israel, there’s an expression that became a joke, ‘we will react in a time and place that is suitable to us’. Netanyahu cannot use this term because he doesn’t have time.”

Even before Hamas’s attack, Netanyahu’s popularity was declining. Israel was riven by mass protests sparked by his far-right coalition’s pursuit of judicial reforms that critics warned would undermine the state’s democratic foundations.

Politics were bitterly polarised between staunch Netanyahu loyalists, known as “Bibi-ists”, and those who despised their leader. Thousands of military reservists were threatening not to serve. Netanyahu’s critics cite the tumult as one of the reasons Israel was caught cold by Hamas’s assault.

But Netayanhu’s instinct is not to yield. Rather, people who know him describe a political street fighter, increasingly cynical and populist, even before he went on trial for corruption charges. He is also convinced that he is the best man to lead the country.

Members of a Palestinian family mourn relatives killed in Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip earlier this month © Fatima Shbair/AP

While senior intelligence and defence officials have apologised for failing to prevent Hamas’s attack, Netanyahu has taken no such responsibility. Instead, he champions himself as the man to save Israel — the leader who will resist pressure to halt the war or take any steps towards the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.

Tapping into the fear, rage and sense of vulnerability triggered by Hamas’s attack, Netanyahu is creating a “new version of his self-narrative” as the “defender of Israel from the dangerous idea of Palestinian state” that would threaten a “new October 7”, says Yohanan Plesner, director of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“So ‘it’s not about me [Netanyahu] . . . it’s about do you want [another] October 7?’”

And the more he faces criticism, the more he will seek to exploit it to his advantage, says Danny Danon, a Likud member who once challenged Netanyahu in the party.

“I tell my colleagues from the left, the more you attack Netanyahu, you make him stronger,” Danon says. “When you hear [critical] voices from the outside, it makes his position stronger . . . we say, ‘whoa, you don’t tell us what to do.’”

Those who know the 74-year-old believe there is also another factor at play: Netanyahu’s desire to restore his legacy after Israel’s biggest intelligence failure in at least 50 years occurred under his watch.

The son of a historian and admirer of British wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill, Netanyahu’s self-proclaimed mantle as “Mr Security” was shattered by Hamas’s attack.

Protests against Netanyahu’s far-right government. Calls for early elections appear to be gaining momentum © Ariel Schalit/AP

To have any chance of redeeming himself, Netanyahu believes he has to be the leader who “really eliminated Hamas”, says Bushinsky.

That partly explains Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel needs to expand its offensive in Gaza to Rafah, despite the US and Israel’s other western allies warning that the consequences would be disastrous in such a densely populated area of the devastated strip.

Israel’s offensive has already killed more than 33,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, and forced 1.7mn of the 2.3mn population from their homes.

“For Netanyahu, from a historical point of view, this is something he must do. It doesn’t matter what other people think, the US or the Europeans,” says Bushinsky. “Which is why he will continue the war no matter what.”

If he agreed to a permanent ceasefire and the release of the hostages, “Netanyahu would have nothing to say”, he adds.

Another person who worked with the prime minister says Netanyahu is banking on more than just a victory over Hamas, describing his chosen path to redemption as a “trifecta” bet.

First, that involves destroying Hamas’s military capacity and “taking out” its top leaders. Next, he needs to be able to show that Israel has changed the dynamics on its northern border with Lebanon, where more than 80,000 Israelis have been displaced by daily clashes between Israeli forces and Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group. Five months of intensifying Israeli strikes against Hizbollah have already pushed its fighters back some distance, Israeli officials say.

However, the Damascus strike last week has raised the risk of a broader regional conflict. Defence experts in Israel say Iran’s options range from more strikes by Hizbollah to a direct attack by Iran on Israel itself. Israel has said it would respond to an Iranian attack by taking military action against Iran.

Third, Netanyahu is betting on being able to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia, long the grand prize for Israel, the person says. Riyadh was edging closer to an agreement before October 7, brokered by the Biden administration, which would have included the US agreeing to a security pact with the kingdom and supporting its domestic nuclear programme.

A mounted border guard rides a horse past ultraorthodox Jews blocking a road in Bnei Brak as they protest against their conscription into the Israeli armed forces earlier this month © Oren Ziv/AFP/Getty Images

Since Hamas’s attack, Washington has touted normalisation as part of a broader plan to work towards a settlement to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet while Riyadh has not taken the option off the table, it has made it clear it would want far more Israeli concessions for the Palestinians, including steps towards a Palestinian state, before inking any deal — something Israel is loath to do. And no deal with Saudi Arabia or Hizbollah will be possible as long as Israel continues it war in Gaza.

Still, if Netanyahu is able to pull off all three “maybe he thinks that he can reinvent himself”, his former staff member says. He argues that it would be easier for Netanyahu to sell concessions to Saudi Arabia, instead of to the Palestinians.

“It’s difficult for him, but not impossible. There’s no doubt that for all sorts of reasons internationally he’s the bogeyman. And his ratings have never been lower,” the person says. “But people have to understand the paradox that his core positions are Israel’s. He understands that and sees a possible path back.”

Polling backs the latter comments, with more than 70 per cent of Israeli Jews backing an offensive on Rafah, where Israel says Hamas’s remaining battalions are located.

Escalating tensions with Iran and Hizbollah could delay any day of reckoning over October 7 and reduce pressure for early elections. Such is the public mood, just over half of Israeli Jews also support a pre-emptive offensive against Hizbollah, according to the IDI, even though it would risk a full-blown conflict on the northern front.

“He is the best politician we have in terms of his ability to read what’s written on the wall,” says Tamar Hermann, director of public opinion at the IDI.

A more direct confrontation with Iran might also lead the US to curtail its criticism of Netanyahu’s tactics in Gaza. While Washington is desperate to de-escalate regional tensions, Biden responded on Wednesday to Iranian threats against Israel by saying that US support for Israeli security was “ironclad”.

Netanyahu’s chances of clinging to power will also depend on another critical factor: his ability to hold his governing coalition together.

With 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, it includes Likud, far-right ultranationalist settlers led by national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and ultraorthodox parties.

As long as the coalition remains intact, Netanyahu is likely to avoid imminent elections — his term officially ends in 2026. That need to keep the governing coalition together also influences his decision making, analysts say, as he risks losing the far-right if he is seen to be making concessions to the Palestinians.

The prime minister has already displayed his willingness to placate the extremist elements in his government. He refuses to rein in emboldened Jewish settlers who have rampaged through the occupied West Bank or develop a clear postwar plan for Gaza, infuriating Washington.

Last month, the government said it would advance the construction of more than 3,000 Jewish settler homes in the occupied West Bank, which Smotrich had pushed for.

And while the government was forced to slash spending in its 2024 budget to pay for its military operations, it maintained spending on subsidies for the ultraorthodox.

There is, however, a complicating factor. The government is under pressure from some members of the coalition to pass legislation that ends the ultraorthodox, or Haredim, exemption from military conscription. It is a long-running issue that Netanyahu has sought to sidestep to keep his Haredi allies happy. If the ultraorthodox are forced to do military service, like other Israelis, the coalition could fracture.

Netanyahu could also be unseated without elections, through a “constructive” no-confidence vote in the Knesset. But that would require at least five lawmakers within his coalition to vote against him and for those rebels and all opposition MKs to agree on a candidate to take over as prime minister, something analysts believe is a long shot.

Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem along with members of his coalition government © Ronen Zvulun/Pool/Reuters

His party has slumped in the polls. Likud, which won 32 seats in the 2022 election, is now polling in the teens, while Gantz’s National Unity party would be on course to increase its seats from 12 to the mid-30s.

A senior Likud member worries that Netayahu is driving the party on a “highway to the opposition”. But he believes the prime minister, who has over the years promoted loyalists and ousted potential rivals in the party, would likely win any primary contest. “I don’t see how anyone challenges him and wins.”

But if US pressure mounts to the point that Washington restricts arms sales and insists on a ceasefire, Netanyahu will face a backlash at home. “Then the right would turn on him . . . people in Israel right now are pretty militant, definitely right of centre, and it’s going hurt him even more,” the Likud member says.

For now, pollsters and politicians caution against putting too much stock in polls outside of an election period. Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, any politician seeking the country’s top job is forced into coalitions to form a government, and smaller parties with few seats often become kingmakers.

If Netanyahu is able to delay an election until at least the second quarter of next year, Barak says “a different story” could emerge. “After you allow him to lead through a war, no matter our frustrations . . . he will always be capable of putting the blame on all those around him.”

Ultimately, much will depend on what a supposed military “victory” looks like. 

“If you have somebody on Al Jazeera saying ‘no, Israel lost the war, or it was a tie, it’s not clear who won’, we have a problem,” Danon says. “It’s very hard because of the international community, and I think time is not working on our side.”

The history of Israel is littered with leaders who lost power after periods of conflict, notes Gideon Rahat, a politics professor at Hebrew University, including Golda Meir after the surprise Arab offensive that sparked the 1973 war.

“But Netanyahu is a different story,” Rahat, a critic of the prime minister, continues. “It’s populist politics, it doesn’t have anything to do with reality, it has to do with the narrative that Netanyahu is trying to hold on [to] — that he’s the only viable leader.

“Netanyahu is really playing the game; it’s maybe the last game of his career, but maybe he will survive.”

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