The World

For Netanyahu, Israel’s Fight With Hamas Is Going Just Fine

Two weeks ago, he was about to lose his job. Now, he’s stronger than ever.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of an overnight stampede during an ultra-Orthodox religious gathering in the northern Israeli town of Meron, on April 30, 2021. - The massive stampede at the densely-packed site near the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday, killed at least 44 people in northern Israel, blackening the country's largest COVID-era gathering. (Photo by Ronen ZVULUN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by RONEN ZVULUN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of an overnight stampede during an ultra-Orthodox religious gathering in the northern Israeli town of Meron on April 30. Ronen Zvulun/Getty Images

There’s at least one person between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River for whom gruesome recent events have worked out just fine: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Two weeks ago, while tensions were already growing over the planned eviction of six families from a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem but before they were exacerbated by police raiding the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel’s longest-serving leader was in a jam. The inconclusive results of the country’s fourth election in two years had left him unable to form a government. His rivals were on the verge of forming an unlikely right-center-left-Islamist coalition for the specific purpose of removing him from power.

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Those talks collapsed last week when right-wing kingmaker Naftali Bennett pulled out, saying that the “emergency situation” in the country required a military response, something he thought would be impossible in a government including the Arab party Ra’am. A potential breakthrough for Jewish-Arab political cooperation was snuffed out as Jews and Arabs fought in the streets.

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Netanyahu’s rivals have stopped short of blaming him for creating the crisis—most put the blame on Hamas, which, enmeshed in its own internal political struggle, began firing rockets at Israeli cities from Gaza—but at the very least, it has been a lifeline for the prime minister.

From a leader who recently looked on the verge of removal from office (and possibly jailtime given the wide range of corruption charges he was facing), Netanyahu now looks like one with few meaningful constraints on his power. Some of the Israeli government’s recent actions, from the storming of Al-Aqsa during Ramadan to the bombing of the AP’s office in Gaza, almost have a deliberately provocative, trolling quality, as if Netanyahu is daring his critics to be outraged.

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The crisis has mostly neutralized the prime minister’s domestic opposition. Most Arab governments have condemned Israel, in line with public sentiment, but a split has emerged, as the governments that signed on to the Donald Trump–sponsored “Abraham Accords” with Israel last year have been more muted in their response.

As for Israel’s most important international backer, Joe Biden has certainly not embraced Netanyahu with the same fervor as Trump, but that’s not the same thing as applying real pressure. Biden finally called for a cease-fire on Monday in a statement that felt as if multiple committees had gone over it with a fine-toothed comb and notably did not include any timeline. This came after the U.S. used its veto in the U.N. Security Council to block a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, and after Biden defended Israel’s bombing of Gaza as a proportionate response. The administration has also approved the sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, a deal that has been in the works since before the latest violence began.

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Through his public clashes with the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal, and his enthusiastic embrace of Trump, Netanyahu has done much to make U.S. support for Israel—once a sacrosanct matter of bipartisan consensus in Washington—into something closer to a partisan issue in the U.S. Polls show Republicans have become dramatically more sympathetic to Israel and Democrats dramatically less so over the past 10 years.

But so far, Netanyahu hasn’t paid much of a price for this. When Republicans are in office, they support almost everything the Israeli government does. When Democrats are in office, they do so with less enthusiasm and some concerns. (It’s worth noting that the Iron Dome rocket defense system, which has kept Israeli casualties remarkably low despite Hamas’ barrage was funded by the U.S. under Obama.)

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This may not last forever. Skepticism of unwavering U.S. support for Israel among elected Democrats is growing, and it’s not just Bernie Sanders, “the squad,” or even younger Jewish members like Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, but longtime AIPAC stalwarts like Rep. Gregory Meeks and Sen. Robert Menendez.

At some point, Netanyahu may have to contend with a U.S. administration that puts constraints on military aid or no longer goes to bat for Israel at the Security Council as a matter of course. At some point, his rivals—left, right, and center—might actually cobble together enough votes in the Knesset to oust him. (They came very close this time, and a fifth election is likely coming soon.) At some point, Netanyahu’s right-wing settler allies might actually expect him to deliver on his talk of annexing parts of the West Bank; a move so provocative and illegal it even made Mike Pompeo nervous.

But these are long-term concerns, and right now, Netanyahu does not appear to be thinking about the long term. He’s governing week-to-week, election-to-election, and for the time being, there’s nothing constraining him from doing whatever it takes to survive.

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