Israel: How much is Netanyahu in control?

Despite clear polls and massive protests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still in office. Richard C. Schneider on the exhaus­tion of the people in Israel, possible scenarios for the end of the governing coalition — and why Netanyahu is playing for time.

What’s going on in Israel? The polls have been saying the same thing for months: More than 70 per cent of the Israelis want to get rid of their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For months, inter­na­tional media have been calling for the end of “Bibi”, as Netanyahu is known. And Israelis have been demon­strating against Netanyahu for months. So far, nothing has happened.

Why can’t Israeli society get rid of its hated prime minister?

Now observers — at least those who have no real knowledge of Israel — are hoping that Netanyahu will fall “right now” because Benny Gantz has left the “emergency govern­ment” together with his party colleague and former Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Netanyahu, however, is still in the Prime Minister’s Office and is planning an “all-out war” against Hezbollah in the north. Why can’t Israeli society get rid of its hated prime minister?

The answer is complex — but not really compli­cated. Several factors are paralysing the society in the face of Netanyahu’s claim to power.

Firstly, there is the total exhaus­tion of Israelis. Their struggle did not just begin on 7 October with the Hamas massacre. It began on 4 January 2023, when Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the plans for an illiberal judicial reform that would have abolished the sepa­ra­tion of powers in demo­c­ratic Israel. Since then, the Israeli society has been in a permanent state of emergency — both Netanyahu’s supporters and his opponents.

Biggest domestic political crisis in Israel’s history

The demon­stra­tions — but even more so the division in society that destroyed the Zionist consensus — cost the people, to para­phrase Churchill, “blood, sweat and tears”. Week after week after week, Israelis took to the streets against the judicial reform. But the supporters also mobilised and fought for their vision of a different Israel. Hatred of each other grew, the economy began to weaken, volunteer reservists refused to serve — Israel found itself in the biggest domestic political crisis in its history.

The people of Israel are exhausted

And then came the massacre, which reac­ti­vated the trauma of the pogroms and the Shoah. And finally the war, which has now been going on for eight and a half months and there seems to be no end in sight. To put it neutrally, the Israelis have barely any “capacity” left for an effective uprising against their prime minister.

The consensus of the ruling coalition

Without doubt Bibi’s Likud, the far-right ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and the ultra-orthodox parties are basically enemies. They don’t like each other, they don’t trust each other. But they need each other. And they all know that as long as they are in power, even with hated partners, they will sit at the centre of the state. Not only can they extract every­thing they need finan­cially for their goals and purposes, they can also gradually remodel the state to suit their ideas.

National Security Minister Ben Gvir’s regular threats to break up the coalition if Netanyahu does not do what he wants should therefore only be taken seriously to a limited extent. It is more like psycho­log­ical warfare, because Ben Gvir also knows that he would probably sit on the oppo­si­tion bench for a very long time if he pulled out of the coalition. And these benches are noto­ri­ously hard and uncomfortable

The threat as a common denominator

Even if this govern­ment is hated — there is a war going on. And ulti­mately, there is a majority that is not only convinced that the Islamist Hamas must be destroyed, but also believes that this is possible. What’s more, the consensus that the situation in the north must be funda­men­tally changed is rock solid.

Since the beginning of the Gaza war, the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Israeli army have been fighting each other. Since the beginning of the war, around 80,000 people in northern Israel have been evacuated from their towns and villages and are still unable to return home as Hizbullah’s drones, rockets, grenades and rocket-propelled grenades are gradually destroying their homes.

But they want to return, to a safe home. And they know that there is hardly any other option than to escalate the war with Hezbollah — even at the risk of destroying large parts of Israel’s infra­struc­ture and killing many Israeli civilians. We know that this price will have to be paid sooner or later, so why not now?

When would Netanyahu have to leave office?

Given all these reasons, it is unlikely that Netanyahu will have to leave office. From today’s perspec­tive, there are only two ways in which this could succeed.

Firstly, there would be an effort by the people. Not tens of thousands as at present, not hundreds of thousands as before 7 October. One or even two million Israelis would have to take to the streets to demand the end of Netanyahu. They would have to bring the country to a stand­still, prefer­ably with a general strike by the labour union. And not just on one day, but on several days in a row, until Netanyahu has to resign because the country would no longer be governable.

However, the chances of this happening are slim. The Israelis are too exhausted, have their sons, brothers and fathers in the army and are more concerned about them than about the government.

Contro­ver­sial law exempting the ultra-Orthodox from military service

The second possi­bility is the failure of the new law to exempt the ultra-Orthodox from military service. This law is due to be passed soon, but there are signs that not everyone in the govern­ment wants to support it. In an initial vote, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant voted against it, and there are now other politi­cians in the Likud who do not approve of this law. In these times, accom­mo­dating the ultra-Orthodox once again is hardly accept­able to Israeli society in view of the sacri­fices that every family currently has to make. What’s more, a new regu­la­tion provides for the extension of military service in all areas.

So while the majority of Israelis are facing even greater burdens, the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, are to be spared once again? That would be difficult to accept. It is quite conceiv­able that the coalition will break up over this law, even though Netanyahu will try every­thing he can to reach some kind of lazy compro­mise at the last minute to keep his govern­ment together. On 25 June, the Supreme Court ruled that the govern­ment must imme­di­ately conscript ultra-Orthodox young men for military service for reasons of equality. And: that yeshivot, religious schools, will no longer receive funding from the state because their pupils are “skipping” military service.

Netanyahu is playing for time

Netanyahu will defi­nitely try to save himself for the summer break at the end of July. The Knesset will not meet again for another three months. And only the gods know what will happen by then anyway. It is possible that Israel will already be in an all-out war with Hezbollah by then. Then the Israelis would have completely different problems. Because this war, which gradually seems inevitable, would mean a level of destruc­tion on both sides that even the war-hardened Israelis cannot imagine.

And Netanyahu, if he were to win this war, would then even have the chance to be re-elected as a war hero. That’s how crazy Israeli politics can be. So it should come as no surprise to anyone if Bibi really is counting on this oppor­tu­nity to consol­i­date his power once again. But the price would be very high — for the Israeli population.


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