February 22, 2024 - 3:00pm

Fears over an impending assault on Rafah and speculation about American support for a ceasefire come amid an increasingly dire political situation for Benjamin Netanyahu.

Growing opposition from the Israeli public since 7 October has until now been ineffective, but there are signs that momentum is building to force elections or otherwise remove him from office. At the weekend, the head of the Histadrut (Israel’s equivalent of the TUC) called for elections and stated that Netanyahu should have already resigned.

This was significant, as the trade unions form a key part of Netanyahu’s and Likud’s power base. During the judicial reform crisis of last year Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David consistently refused to call for a general strike, despite intense pressure from activists who even took to picketing outside his house.

After meeting Netanyahu last July, Bar-David argued that industrial action to prevent the laws from passing or bring down the government would be illegitimate. He criticised those pushing for Bibi’s resignation as “illogical” and “engaging in a politics that is out of date” given the threats and the difficulties faced by Israel.

Yet in Saturday’s speech in Beersheva this language had shifted notably, with Bar-David stating that “someone has made us enemies of each other”. Apparently, these words led to “hysteria” in Netanyahu’s office and they have since been making pleas for statements of support from heads of industry.

It was notable that these remarks came in a speech in Beersheva — a poor, peripheral city heavily populated by working-class and Mizrahi Israelis, far away from the hipsters and liberals of Tel Aviv. What’s more, his comments are part of a broader trend of developing opposition to Likud among groups not typically associated with the Left.

The number of prominent ex-military personnel campaigning to remove Netanyahu expanded last week to a group of veterans from the 1973 war, who took over one of his holiday villas in a bid to force action on hostages. Meanwhile, there is growing opposition among people displaced from the city of Sderot — the closest major settlement to the Gaza border and a hotbed of support for Likud — who criticised the government for neglecting their interests.

That so many of the hostage families are from communities that have traditionally been supportive of Bibi is particularly damaging for his prospects. After Einav Tsengauker, whose son Matan was kidnapped along with his girlfriend from Benir Oz, was attacked by a Netanyahu supporter in Tel Aviv recently, she told reporters: “I have been a Right-wing woman all my life. I have always voted for Netanyahu, including in the last elections. But the only people who sympathise with me, who give me real help, are the people of the protest organisations […] Those who went out to demonstrate against the legal reform are the ones who now give me support.”

Since the 7 October attacks and their aftermath heightened opposition to Bibi among sections of Israeli society which previously contained his biggest supporters, the Israeli Prime Minister has become more dependent on the religious settler element of his base. He is under ever more pressure to accede to their maximalist demands; in his latest such concession this week, Netanyahu overruled objections from security officials and agreed to limit Arab Israeli access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, despite the obvious risk of violence.

At the same time, actions such as these — combined with the increasingly unsustainable situation in the West Bank (whose economy has been devastated by the loss of work permits since 7 October) and the pending attack of Rafah — mean that pressure in the opposition direction from the United States and the international community will only increase.

While the exigencies of the war have done much to keep him in position so far, it’s increasingly hard to see him surviving to fight an election. And when his downfall comes, it is likely to be swifter than previously expected.


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

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