Under Pressure from All Sides, Netanyahu Refuses to Change Course in Gaza

REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo
he International Criminal Court building is seen in The Hague, Netherlands, January 16, 2019.

TEL AVIV – With Israel’s war against Hamas now in its eighth month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a rising crescendo of criticism at home and abroad over his management of the conflict – threatening his leadership and his country’s place on the world stage.

The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court announced Monday that he would seek arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defense minister on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza. Within the prime minister’s own cabinet, key ministers say he is threatening the military’s tactical achievements, and they have set a deadline for him to map out a postwar plan. On the streets, protesters accuse him of prioritizing his political survival over the return of Israel’s hostages.

Netanyahu has assumed a familiar political posture, lashing out at critics near and far while giving no public indication that the pressure will make him change course. He has refused to budge from his original war goal of “total victory” over Hamas – which his own generals and his allies in Washington say is no longer achievable – and has dismissed urgent calls to formulate a day-after strategy. While his defiance may earn him a short-term burst of support from his most loyal followers, analysts and former officials say, his political position is becoming increasingly untenable.

In an interview Tuesday with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Netanyahu accused the ICC of a “hit job” that was “absurd” and “beyond outrageous.” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant joined the prime minister in his criticism of the court, calling its move toward warrants a “disgraceful” attempt to interfere with Israel’s right to self-defense.

But Gallant has also emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war. In a blistering statement last week, he gave voice to the deep misgivings of the wider defense establishment, which fears the government’s lack of a political strategy in Gaza will allow Hamas to regroup and force the Israeli military into a long-term occupation of the Strip.

“I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip, that Israel will not establish military governance in the Gaza Strip, and that a governing alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be raised immediately,” Gallant demanded Wednesday.

Netanyahu made no such pledge.

Benny Gantz, a war cabinet member from a centrist political coalition, turned up the pressure Saturday with an ultimatum, saying he would resign from the cabinet if it doesn’t adopt a postwar plan for Gaza by June 8.

Gantz said Israel must work to return the hostages, end Hamas rule, demilitarize the Gaza Strip, establish an international administration for civilian affairs, and work toward normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have long conditioned an agreement on Israel creating a viable path to a Palestinian state – a measure universally opposed by Netanyahu’s right-wing allies, who helped him return to power in late 2022.

“If you choose the path of zealots, dragging the country into the abyss, we will be forced to leave the government,” Gantz said in a televised statement. “We will turn to the people and build a government that will earn the people’s trust.”

Netanyahu brushed aside the deadline, saying Gantz’s demands would mean “a defeat for Israel.”

Yaki Dayan, Israel’s former consul general in Los Angeles and an expert on U.S.-Israel relations, said it was “just a matter of time” before Gantz left the coalition. If his departure were to set off a cascade of other resignations – five are needed in total – it would bring down Netanyahu’s coalition and would likely lead to new elections.

While international condemnation of the war – especially the move by the ICC prosecutor – is actually buoying the prime minister with his base, Dayan said, the resignations are a real threat to his government.

Netanyahu is also dragging his feet on another long-simmering, hot-button issue in Israel: the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox in the military. The community’s decades-long exemption from service is widely opposed by secular Israelis, and seen as a symbol of Netanyahu’s reliance on ultra-Orthodox parties to stay in power.

Gantz, a former defense minister, has repeatedly backed the ultra-Orthodox enlistment, saying last week that it was more critical than ever, with hundreds of thousands of reservists called up to the front lines after Oct. 7. As with calls for a postwar strategy, Netanyahu has framed the issue as one for another time.

With militants reemerging in northern Gaza, and Israeli soldiers slowly pushing into the southern city of Rafah, Netanyahu’s vow to “completely eliminate” Hamas seems increasingly out of touch with events on the ground. Netanyahu’s goal “has no military significance, even if it has political worth for the purpose of propaganda,” said Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Alon Pinkas, a veteran Israeli diplomat and former senior government adviser, said Netanyahu’s inaction has trapped the country in an unstable stasis. “Israel is not occupying the Gaza Strip, but is still there, is invading Rafah in a way that is certainly more than a surgical incursion, but still short of the full-scale operation that the Americans have opposed,” he said.

As the battlefield heats up and international isolation intensifies, Pinkas added, “Netanyahu is under pressure that he cannot sustain.” If the war cabinet falls, the resentment toward the prime minister and his far-right coalition partners – which led to unprecedented anti-government street protests in the months that preceded Oct. 7 – could surge again.

The war cabinet was hastily arranged in the early days of the war, under an unspoken understanding that Netanyahu’s government did not have the public confidence to manage a war many Israelis view as existential.

But the alliance is fraying as the conflict drags on. Israeli troops are returning to fierce urban combat in areas they had cleared months before, and the plight of Gazan civilians is deteriorating by the day. The United Nations says 900,000 Palestinians have been displaced over the past two weeks, and aid operations are collapsing as a “full-blown famine” in the north spreads south.

Street protests in Israel are escalating too, driven by a pair of overlapping movements with separate messages – one focused on freeing the hostages, and a second, which some hostage families have joined, calling for an end to the Netanyahu government and new elections.

Thousands took part in a “day of disruption” Monday. Convoys rode through the streets, art installations were erected and demonstrators blocked roads, hoisting Israeli flags and pictures of the more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza.

Hostage families met with far-right politicians at the Knesset – pleading with them not to forget their relatives after nearly 230 days in captivity – who have consistently opposed any hostage deal with Hamas and have blamed protesters for the breakdown in negotiations.

“The gaslighting is so effective that sometimes I need to remind myself that this is really not okay,” said Gil Dickman, whose cousin Carmel Gat was abducted from Kibbutz Beeri on Oct. 7.

He said Israelis must also grapple with international opposition to the war, even if it was “based on extreme hypocrisy, after the terrible massacre that happened in Israel.”

“But I also think that Israel could have worked to unite with the world, to collaborate with the international community to defeat Hamas and return the hostages,” Dickman said. “There could have been a different way.”