Fri 08 Mar 2024 12:40 pm - Jerusalem Time

Is Netanyahu prolonging the Gaza war to cling to power?

Analysis: An end to Israel's war in Gaza could mean an end to Benjamin Netanyahu's political career.

By Hanna Davis

Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s already rocky reputation was ruined following his defence failures on 7 October, he has been fighting to improve his legacy and ensure his political survival - trying at all costs to ward off an early election that would oust him from power. 

In recent weeks, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, calling for Netanyahu to step down and for elections to be held before their official date in November 2026. Only 15% of Israelis want Netanyahu to stay in office after the war on Hamas in Gaza and the vast majority (71%) want early elections. 

“Netanyahu came into the war already with low popularity ratings,” Mairav Zonszein, the International Crisis Group’s senior Israel-Palestine analyst, told The New Arab.

“After October 7, he lost all legitimacy and a lot of Israelis hold him responsible for what happened,” Zonszein said. “People want to see Netanyahu out.”

"Prolonging the war would first and foremost provide Netanyahu time to ensure his political survival"

So, Netanyahu is holding onto any last chance he may be able to pull off a war victory - which could re-energise his frustrated populace - while trying against all odds to keep an election at bay.

  “In short, the longer he’s embroiled in war, the longer he can put off some kind of domestic political shift,” Zonszein said. 

Netanyahu is playing up the challenges of holding elections during wartime and has made dramatic assertions like: “Hamas and Hezbollah want Israel to go to early elections, it would be a victory for them”. 

However, the majority of Israelis still believe that Netanyahu’s wartime decision-making is primarily motivated by political interests, according to an opinion poll conducted by the Israeli Channel 13. 

Netanyahu’s “main goal is to remain in power”, Zonszein said, and “he has been the most resilient political leader”.  The prime minister has in total served for over 16 years, Israel's longest-serving premier. 

Pushing the 'ball of war'

“Netanyahu is trying to push the ball of war as much as he can,” Khalil Shaheen, a Ramallah-based political analyst from the Palestinian Policy Network, said. He added that Netanyahu might want to keep the ball rolling until the US elections in November when Trump could return to the White House and be more willing to support his hardline plans for annexation in the occupied West Bank and indefinite Israeli military control over Gaza.

“He wants to maintain a level of tension everywhere,” Shaheen said, in the West Bank, Gaza, and on Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

“Keeping the whole society in Israel engaged in tensions and war is the best scenario for Netanyahu, so he can claim that it is not the time for elections,” he said.

Since 7 October in the occupied West Bank, there has been a “shocking spike” in Israeli forces' use of “unlawful lethal force” against Palestinians, according to the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International.

Israeli forces have killed at least 422 Palestinians and injured 4,650 others, according to Health Ministry figures.

In the north, Netanyahu has made clear Israel would continue attacks on Hezbollah until the group moves back from the border, regardless of if a ceasefire holds in Gaza.

Lebanese officials quoted by NBC News feared that as the cross-border fighting dragged on the Israeli prime minister might ignite the fighting into an all-out war in an attempt to secure wins to maintain his political survival.

In the south, waving the threat of the Rafah invasion could reflect another attempt by Netanyahu to draw out the war.

"Keeping the whole society in Israel engaged in tensions and war is the best scenario for Netanyahu, so he can claim that it is not the time for elections"

Zonszein said that prolonging the war would “first and foremost” provide Netanyahu time to ensure his political survival.

Then, she speculated, he could “pay lip service” to the Saudi-US normalisation deal and imprint his image as the leader who achieved normalisation with Riyadh - “which would be a huge win”.

Netanyahu might also want to buy time to secure a hostage deal, which “would be considered quite a success”, Zonszein added. 

“It’s possible that if he draws this out [the war in Gaza], and manages to squeeze out some kind of victory, then maybe he could salvage his career.

War ends, along with Netanyahu's career

Netanyahu is now in a tight political bind when it comes to ending the war in Gaza. A diplomatic deal that could free the remaining hostages - which Netanyahu needs to do to appease the Israeli public - is likely to leave Hamas in at least partial control of Gaza, which Netanyahu’s far-right coalition members would not accept. 

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition members, whom he brought into his government to win the election in 2022, oppose any ceasefire deal that would leave Hamas in power. The ultranationalist coalition member, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has threatened to quit the government over any “reckless” deal with Hamas.

Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party has 14 seats in the Knesset, meaning if Ben-Gvir and his party members left Netanyahu’s coalition, it could easily topple the premier’s current 64-member majority. 

Zonszein said in the event of an unfavourable ceasefire deal, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition members might “leave and protect their future political base”, which would lead to an election.

However, Nimrod Goren, a Jerusalem-based political analyst with the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab that Israel’s far-right politicians would be unlikely to make a move towards early elections because “they are holding onto a position of power that would be very difficult for them to get again”.

He said that the contentious debate over military exemption for Israeli ultra-orthodox Jews would be more likely to topple the government. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on 28 February called for the passage of a law to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are normally exempt from military conscription.

Gallant said he would only back the legislation if it is endorsed by centrist ministers, like Netanyahu’s chief political rival, Benny Gantz.

Gantz is very unlikely to support the law, which is likely to cause a clash with the Haredi religious political parties necessary for the survival of Netanyahu’s coalition. “This is the hook for political actors to create a crisis, which could lead to early elections,” Goren said. 

"The only thing that most of the Israeli political parties believe in is that Palestinians should leave the whole area, not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank"

Gantz soars in the polls

It is widely anticipated that when the war is over, Netanyahu’s emergency war cabinet would break up, Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political analyst, told The New Arab. This would leave Netanyahu’s coalition less stable, which Scheindlin said could “prompt a crisis that ultimately leads to the toppling of his pre-war coalition”.

Benny Gantz, and his centrist-right National Unity Party joined Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and religious government as part of the emergency war cabinet. Since the war, Gantz’s popularity has soared; he is touted by his supporters as their next prime minister and many of his party members are urging him to quit Netanyahu’s war cabinet. 

Gantz’s National Unity Party polled with 37 seats, compared to Netanyahu’s Likud party at just 18, according to a February poll. 

In a rogue move, Gantz arrived at the White House on Monday for visits with senior officials from the Biden administration - without coordinating his visit with Netanyahu. The visit infuriated Netanyahu, who said that Israel “only has one premier”.

His visit to the US comes as Washington is growing increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu’s hardline stances in the war. “The visit fits the pattern of international interlocutors desperately searching for someone they think is more rational on the Israeli side,” Scheindin said. 

She also said that it appears that Gantz “doesn’t mind sidelining Netanyahu”, adding that the defence minister “wants Netanyahu to be seen by the public as someone that’s not the point-person anymore because he’s too dangerous in terms of isolating the country”. 

Goren said that although the Israeli electorate has become more hawkish and is moving closer to the right wing, their electoral behaviour still sides with “someone like Gantz”, who appears more reasonable and “has military experience and access to international actors”. 

Although Goren made clear that Gantz would be unlikely to leave the war cabinet until the fighting cools, “When tensions are downplayed or there is an agreement, it will be easier for Gantz and his party to leave [Netanyahu’s] coalition”.

He added that especially with the threat of a war with Hezbollah still looming, Gantz will be unlikely to leave soon. 

'No Israeli party recognises Palestine'

Even if Netanyahu is ousted from power, the situation on the ground for Palestinians would largely remain the same. If Gantz took Netanyahu’s place, “there may be more willingness to cooperate with the US and to pay lip service to the notion of some kind of cooperation with the Palestinians,” Zonszein, from the International Crisis Group (ICG), said. “But very much on a very superficial level,” she added.

“There is certainly no political opposition that would significantly change the policies regarding Gaza or the crisis with Palestinians as a whole.”

Shaheen, the Ramallah-based analyst, said that nearly all Israeli parties don’t recognise a Palestinian state.

“The only thing that most of the Israeli political parties believe in is that Palestinians should leave the whole area, not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank,” he stated. 

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.


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Is Netanyahu prolonging the Gaza war to cling to power?


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