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14 October 2023

Benjamin Netanyahu’s war test

It took a devastating attack to expose the full extent of the prime minister’s failures. What happens next?

By Dahlia Scheindlin

For years Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, held a reputation as “Mr Security”. Together with his other brands – from “Mr Economy” to the grand chess master of Israeli politics – Netanyahu’s security cachet delivered electoral victories that have given him 16 cumulative years in power. But after the catastrophic Hamas terror attack on 7 October, which cost 1,300 Israeli lives and started a full-scale war, it isn’t only Netanyahu’s reputation that is at risk. There’s no guarantee that Netanyahu actually knows how to lead his country in a war. “We are striking our enemies with unprecedented might,” the prime minister said in a speech on 13 October. “This is only the beginning.”

Although he is associated with firm right-wing politics in Israel, Netanyahu’s security image was not grounded in an obsession with war. It was his arch-rival within his Likud party, the erstwhile general, infamous defence minister and later prime minister Ariel Sharon, who made his name as man who thrived on scorching, conquering, and presiding over ruthless killing. Sharon commanded the raids in Qibya in the West Bank in 1953, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed, in reprisal for attacks on Israel; and he was held responsible for the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982. In fact, until Sharon became prime minister in 2001, many considered him too dangerous to lead the country.

By contrast, Netanyahu earned his reputation through sophisticated conflict management and conducting limited tactical battles when needed; he was known to prefer a cautious, strategic approach over muscle. During his first stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu slowed the Oslo peace process that had begun three years earlier and which he had opposed bitterly at the time for giving concessions to the Palestinians. But he didn’t kill the process entirely and signed the last formal document in the series of agreements in 1998, an early indication of his big talk but less bite strategy. Netanyahu also boasted that Palestinian terror attacks declined at the time. By contrast, his immediate predecessor, Shimon Peres, led a war-like operation in Lebanon in 1996 just before Netanyahu ousted Peres in elections. Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, whom many Israelis considered left-wing, presided over the outbreak of the second major, bloody Palestinian uprising in 2000, a conflict which lasted about four years. There was no equivalent major conflict during Netanyahu’s first term. 

Israelis lurched to the right during the Intifada and the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which helped Netanyahu return to office in 2009. In 2011 he seriously considered an Israeli military strike on Iran in light of its emerging nuclear enrichment programme, which could have led to war, but backed down, apparently after listening to his ministers and military advisers. By 2017 Israeli society was told to ready itself for battle once again with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as leaders worried its strength was growing with Syria’s civil war – but again it didn’t happen.

It wasn’t an entirely peaceful time. Netanyahu did lead Israel into regular confrontations with Hamas in Gaza over this period, involving rounds of rocket barrages into Israel and Israel’s punishing air campaigns on Gaza, or sometimes a limited ground operation. But the first such war and ground invasion, with severe casualties and devastation in Gaza followed by a UN commission of inquiry, happened just before he took office in 2009. Of the subsequent wars on his watch (in 2012, 2014, 2021 and a small escalation earlier in 2023), only the one in 2014 matched the scale of 2009 – for Palestinians, more than 2,000 of whom were killed over July and August that year, leading to another international commission of inquiry. In Israel, the Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted many of the rockets launched by Hamas in these escalations, and Israeli casualties were low (always far higher for Palestinians). Israelis refer to these as “rounds” or “operations”, not wars, and many believed that Netanyahu provided what counts for security in a region of perennial enemies, while avoiding all-out war.

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[See also: This is no time for hostages, says Israeli hostages’ daughter]

This history of military restraint could be Netanyahu’s downfall now. Asked if Netanyahu is a wartime leader, Anshel Pfeffer, his biographer and a senior correspondent for Haaretz newspaper, responded flatly: “The answer is no. First, experience: he’s never led Israel in all-out war. His preference has always been to go for air strikes and special operations, Mossad [intelligence agency] operations. He doesn’t like to use the big army because he knows the unpredictability of that kind of a war.”

Beyond Netanyahu’s actual strategic skills and wartime instincts, the breach of trust with the public that has already taken place could have a profound impact. Israelis are wondering if the sophisticated security manager has been exposed as incompetent. Each of Israel’s vaunted intelligence services, as far as currently known, was blindsided by an attack that probably took a year of planning by Hamas involving thousands of people. It is impossible to overstate the centrality of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Israel’s collective imagination and even identity – at least for Jews. The army is the cornerstone of their national rebirth in the form of iron-clad physical protection following the Holocaust, as well as the source of national pride given the small country’s victories over the years. Yet this great unifier and protector (of Jews) failed thousands of dead, wounded and captured Israelis in their excruciating hours of need.

Polling is a fleeting snapshot in extreme times, but two surveys by two highly reputable pollsters conducted after 7 October found striking results. One poll conducted by Camille Fuchs on commission showed that two-thirds of Israeli Jews see Israel’s failure regarding the attack as worse than the surprise of the 1973 Yom Kippur war – long considered Israel’s greatest existential debacle. Three-quarters believe that the government of Israel had either very great or great “responsibility for the situation that led to the collapse of Israel’s defense systems for the communities of the south”.  

A second poll by Menachem Lazar for Maariv newspaper among all Israeli adults showed the political fallout: Netanyahu’s Likud is polling at its lowest result in recent memory. If a general election were held it would be projected to win just 19 seats, compared with 32 it holds today. Just 29 per cent think Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister, while 48 per cent chose Benny Gantz, a former chief of the general staff and now a politician, who entered into an emergency coalition deal with Netanyahu on 11 October to help run the war. Gantz’s party, National Unity, won more than twice as much support as Likud in the poll, with 41 seats. These findings represent a huge collapse of Netanyahu’s support, which was already declining due to the three corruption cases against him and the deeply unpopular judicial overhaul that has racked Israeli society all year. From the first hours of the attack on 7 October, many Israelis involved in the nearly ten months of protests against the overhaul accused the government of neglecting every other national priority – including, apparently, security.   

Graver still is that the two important factors – actual wartime leadership skills and public trust – are deeply intertwined during such an all-out campaign. “To be a war leader, it’s not enough just to make the key military decisions,” said Pfeffer. “One has to ensure that civilian affairs at the time of war are taken care of. Netanyahu has never in times of peace been particularly interested in Israel’s social affairs, and he is certainly incapable of doing so now, especially with the incompetent government that he leads.”

Yet nothing guarantees his demise. Wars often have a rally-round-the flag effect, and there is an unshakeable pro-Netanyahu constituency in Israeli society.  

But even if Netanyahu succeeds in this war – that is, if the campaign roots out and eradicates Hamas on the battlefield and one day Israel feels it has won – no Israeli will forget the trauma of 2023. Shai Cohen has been advocating Netanyahu’s ousting for years, as director of the Alliance for Israel’s Future, a civil society group active in the protests. “This shows just how right we were to try and topple him,” said Cohen, though he never anticipated how badly the state would break the basic contract of physically protecting its citizens. But, Cohen added, “it also showed how much we failed”. He meant that the country’s recent and unprecedented pro-democracy, anti-government activism had failed to convince enough Israelis of Netanyahu’s gravest incompetence before it was tragically too late.

[See also: Israel, Gaza and a war without limit]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown