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Israel is turning against Netanyahu — but can’t get rid of him

There is no chance of Netanyahu going voluntarily. Credit: Getty

January 24, 2024 - 1:00pm

Things are looking bleak for Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday, the IDF experienced its deadliest day of the war so far, with 24 soldiers killed in Gaza. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s sworn mission to destroy Hamas appears increasingly unachievable.

While the 7 October attacks disillusioned many otherwise liberal voters, the limited progress in the war and the failure to secure the release of the remaining hostages has cratered the Prime Minister’s popularity, with one recent poll finding that only 15% of Israelis wanted Netanyahu to stay in power.  

Given that any election would result in the end of his political career, Bibi is in a bizarre position. He is not, as with most politicians, acting in a way that would maximise his support in a future poll. Instead, he is doing whatever it takes to keep his existing coalition together so that he can stay in power. 

To do this he needs to shore up support from the ultra-religious settlers represented by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich (whose combined parties picked up over 10% of the vote at the last election). Both of these men believe that the 130 remaining hostages are not a priority, and may even be expendable — last year Smotrich floated Israel dropping a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip to defeat Hamas. 

This all means that Israeli politics has entered a quagmire, with a massively unpopular PM refusing to resign but no mechanism to force him out unless he loses the support of people who are even more unpopular than him. Therefore, he has no option but to stay and do things that make him even more disliked among the broader public to try and stay in power. This is why he continues to reject the prospect of any further ceasefires or deals with Hamas. 

Meanwhile, opponents of the government are becoming increasingly vocal in their criticism of the war. Last Thursday Gadi Eisenkot — a former IDF Chief of Staff, whose son Gal was killed fighting in Gaza last December — suggested that a permanent ceasefire which left Hamas intact would be an acceptable price to pay for returning the hostages. 

Since Bibi’s actions are determined by the extreme Right-wingers on whom he is dependent, he now finds himself more and more at odds with the prevailing opinion among current and former IDF commanders such as Eisenkot. At the same time, the ongoing invasion and escalating body count, combined with tales of heroism from retired officers on 7 October, means public support for these outspoken soldiers is increasing. 

A case in point is the rehabilitation of Yair Golan, a former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff who stood for the Left-wing Meretz party and was seen as a traitor by many Right-wing and even centrist Israelis. On 7 October the 61-year-old Golan jumped into his Toyota, picked up a rifle and drove straight into the fray. 

The contrast with the behaviour of Netanyahu, who spent weeks hiding from victims’ families, and that of his son — who unlike most young Israelis abroad did not return to serve in the reserves but instead remained in Florida — could not have been starker. 

The events of the past few months have not only increased the popularity of former IDF commanders critical of the government, but also Left-wing parties that two years ago were facing electoral oblivion. One recent poll suggested that the Meretz and Labor parties combined could win at least nine seats in the Knesset if there were an election today, compared with the four they managed in 2022. 

Herein lies the main problem in Israeli politics: while there are plenty of politicians, soldiers and voters who want Netanyahu replaced, there is little chance of him going voluntarily. And as long as he maintains the support of his coalition partners, there is no chance of fresh elections.

So if things look bleak for Bibi, the lack of an effective mechanism to remove him from power means that the immediate future for Israelis — and Palestinians — looks even bleaker.


David Swift is a historian and author. His next book, Scouse Republic, will be published in 2025.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago

Following last week’s Unherd article in which increasingly vocal critics of Netanyahu such as Eisenkot set out the new fault-lines that’ve arisen in Israeli leadership (in addition to existing fault-lines around separation of powers) i suggested that Israel’s best hopes for the future lay with ousting the incumbent.
This article sets out in greater detail the position(s) that Netanyahu must adopt to stay in power despite his unpopularity and increasing tactical unease. Whilst this is clear enough, somehow politics has a way of pushing those who won’t budge out of the way, and especially in wartime. Nothing i’ve read since, including Comments suggesting otherwise, convince me to change my opinion that only by ousting Netanyahu can Israel move forward to a position of longer term security.

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

longer term security
Thank you very much for the huge leap forward. You no longer say “security”, you say “longer term security”. I would like to clarify how much longer, especially if the efforts of the Biden administration, the UN and the EU to create a Palestinian state are crowned with obvious success after the ouster of Netanyahu. I have a practical interest in this sense, I would like to know how much time you left me 🙂

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Your personal interest is of little account. Smileys are no substitute for looking at the wider historical picture.

I abhor the Islamist mindset, but Netanyahu is yesterday’s man who failed to secure the border and is now flailing around to save his own political skin, which is as personal to him as your own perspective. New thinking is required.

It’s only a matter of time before he’s ousted anyway, so best prepare yourself for what follows. The sooner he goes, the sooner the future of Israel as a beacon of hope can be secured.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

 only by ousting Netanyahu can Israel move forward to a position of longer term security.
like the security that existed before Bibi? Oh, that’s right; it was an illusion then, too. Every Israeli PM in my lifetime has faced the security question. It’s almost as if the issue extends beyond a particular elected official that some folks don’t like.

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago

Interesting, but not surprising, that Swift can mention the ‘tales of heroism’ from October 7th that are drawing support for the Israeli forces and away from Netanyahu, but he completely omits the reports of their deployment of the Hannibal Directive. The Israeli press aren’t so coy in this respect. It’s not just Netanyahu’s odious regime colleagues who think the hostages are expendable. What gives David?

You can find an English translation of the report here:

https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/asa-winstanley/israeli-hq-ordered-troops-shoot-israeli-captives-7-october

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I’m waiting for the your statement about October 7 as inside job.
You just need to live up to my expectations

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

To be honest, the trolling nature of your ‘contributions’ to this debate are more than a little ill-judged. You’ve claimed ‘special interest’ in more than one area of conflict and it seems like a tactic you employ to try to win an argument that haven’t got the wherewithal to do so otherwise. You’ve no answer to the point(s) raised about the future of Israel, have you.

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I did not want and do not want to win any argument with you.
I lived in Ukraine, in Mariupol, in Russia, in Moscow, and now I live in Israel. By “lived” I mean a period of at least 15 years. Short periods of about 3-5 years of residence in the Baltic countries or Central Asia are not taken into account.
When on one of the western sites I tried to explain the nature of Russia’s war with Ukraine, I was advised to shut up and listen to their only correct opinion by people who had never been to Russia, and who learned about the existence of Ukraine less than 10 years ago.
Now I repeated my mistake, trying to explain something to a somebody who already knows everything and far better than me.
All the best!

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

@El – whether or not it was an ‘inside job’ is beside the point. There’s very good evidence that the Israelis killed a lot of their own on October 7th – at the very least they were indifferent to their welfare. FWIW I thikn what happened was a complete ‘goat-f***’ with the complacent IDF massively panicking and over-reacting once the Gazans came in. Since then sthe horrendous Netanyahu regime has made hay helped along by our complacent media parping every one of their maximalist atrocity claims as if they were gospel.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
5 months ago

Do they not have votes of no confidence in Israel?

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

They weren’t blessed with the Westminster system.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
5 months ago

The writer says that ‘destroying Hamas appears unachievable’. I guess that 4 months into WWII, he would have been saying, ‘destroying the Nazis appears unachievable’.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
5 months ago

“the limited progress in the war and the failure to secure the release of the remaining hostages has cratered the Prime Minister’s popularity”
I guess it is unknowable, but have the total number of casualties in democracies been increased or decreased by widespread journalism documenting the progress of wars up close and personal? You might think they decreased, as public pressure arising from horrifying war images forced govt’s to scale back their military plans. Alternately, they might have increased, as public pressure causes waffling, strategic indecision, and other military failures that make it harder to achieve necessary war goals.
There is a similar issue in these articles criticizing Bibi, which typically do a very poor job explaining what exactly he should be doing differently, but instead rely upon emotional appeals to the lives of the innocent. “Limited progress in the war”? Isn’t that a direct result of the Israeli army trying to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties – a goal important to Bibi’s critics? “Failure to secure the release of the remaining hostages”? And pray tell how is he supposed to achieve that without giving Hamas the concessions they need to preserve their ability to kill innocent Israelis again? Bibi’s critics are always very short on specific things he should be doing to achieve the miraculous peace that has eluded Israelis for almost a century.
Then the author makes the classic mistake of the political minority – thinking a shrinking majority of the electorate, has shrunk so much it is no longer a majority. Well, there’s a way to test that… it’s called an election. Israel remains a democracy, and while the post-Oct-7 unity may be fraying, that doesn’t mean that a majority of Israelis want Bibi gone. If they do, there’s a process to make that happen, within the bounds of the normal democratic process.
The hidden issue in all these ‘we’re tired of Bibi’ articles that are coming out now, is that liberal Israelis still can’t quite accommodate themselves to what’s really going on. People hate you and want you dead, for no reason you can rebut through peaceful means… can you believe it? Liberal Israelis couldn’t believe it before Oct 7, and it seems they are having a hard time believing it again. But of any lesson of history, one would think Jews would have learned that one.

0 0
0 0
5 months ago

Bibi ended up a lot like all politicians who stay in power for to long, the power goes to their head, they become discontented from reality and start to take everything for granted and develop and extreme sense of entitlement, thus bringing out worst traits in them. They become addicted to the power and perks of their position and start to think they are infallible and thus began to make mistakes and behave selfishly, this guy is a good example of why we need term limits. He at one point was a capable statemen despite his deep character flaws and did a lot of good for Israel, but he is well past his prime and has worn his welcome and is nothing but a liability now, he is putting his interests before his country.