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Facing Pressure From All Sides, Netanyahu Is Trapped By His Promises

If the Israeli prime minister backs the hostage-ceasefire deal announced on Friday by President Biden, the far-right parties in his coalition have threatened to bring down his government.
[additional-authors]
June 1, 2024
Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

The clock is ticking for Benjamin Netanyahu and getting louder by the hour.

If the Israeli prime minister backs the hostage-ceasefire deal announced on Friday by President Biden, the far-right parties in his coalition have threatened to bring down his government.

If he rejects the deal and forges ahead with the messy war against Hamas, a confluence of forces will come down on him, from the families of hostages to his U.S. ally to other nations and global leaders eager to see an end to the eight-month carnage in Gaza.

Bibi’s problem is that he’s trapped by his promises.

His first promise was to make the protection of Israelis his #1 priority. He failed miserably on that front when Hamas terrorists massacred more than 1200 Israelis on Oct. 7, taking several hundred hostages.

Knowing he was ultimately responsible for that disaster, and sensing the palpable rage toward Hamas among Israelis, he immediately shifted the attention from Israel’s inexcusable failure to protect its citizens to an all-out war to destroy Hamas.

He had little choice.

His security failure was so monumental, he needed a security reaction that was equally monumental. A ruthless war that would drag on indefinitely and disregard opposition from around the world would have that dramatic effect. Mr. Security was desperate for some sort of redemption, and nothing less than an “uncompromising warrior” image would fit the bill.

It was fortuitous, of course, that in the wake of the Oct. 7 national trauma, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews wanted exactly that all-out war.

Put yourself in Bibi’s shoes. Oct. 7 wasn’t just the darkest day in Israel’s history, it was also the most humiliating day in Bibi’s life. Don’t be fooled by his stoic facade. Inside, the unprecedented security breakdown and national tragedy must have shattered him, not to mention put his own political position in peril. Resigning in disgrace was out of the question, but an extended war against a vicious enemy might kill two birds with one stone— regain his security credentials and delay his reckoning.

That strategy, however, has an expiration date that is fast approaching.

The promise of a “total victory” was always more of a self-serving slogan than a realistic strategy. At which point would Bibi declare that total victory? Even with the major accomplishments of the IDF, and even assuming a successful operation in Rafah, is it a total victory if hundreds if not thousands of battle-hardened Hamas terrorists are still roaming the endless miles of tunnels under Gaza, primed as ever to ambush Israeli troops?

Is it a total victory if there’s no one to replace Hamas?

Is it a total victory if precious army resources stay stuck in Gaza while the dangerous border with Lebanon threatens to erupt?

Had Bibi promised a more realistic and flexible goal after Oct. 7– like making Hamas pay a very heavy price– he could have decided when to declare victory. He could have terrorized Hamas leaders indefinitely with surprise attacks, never letting them rest. But he didn’t. With his back against the wall and his job on the line, there was no room for surprises or caginess in taking on Hamas– to stay in power, he needed a very loud war with a very loud goal.

That’s why it’s hard for him now to support a ceasefire– given his blunt promise of total victory, it would look too much like a defeat. That is unacceptable not just to him but to his base and his far-right partners, who have their own plans to eventually resettle Gaza.

Keeping the war going has sustained Bibi’s makeover as the uncompromising warrior and kept him in power for eight long months, even improving his tanking poll numbers. That warrior image has been his political lifeline. A ceasefire that would eventually end the war would please the U.S. and the hostage families and get the world off his back, but it would risk his political downfall, a very high price.

Bibi’s habit of delaying decisions and keeping all options open, however, can only work for so long. With the bigger threat of Hezbollah looming in the north, a near-nuclear Iranian regime hungry as ever to destroy Israel, and about 125  hostages, dead or alive, continuing to languish in Gaza hell, the pressure is growing by the day to reach some kind of end game in Gaza.

So Bibi the master operator is stuck, stuck with overpromises he was forced to make, stuck with a war he’s not sure how to win or end, stuck with a deep desire to salvage whatever remains of his legacy, stuck with revulsion at the thought of replacing his seat as prime minister with a seat at his corruption trial, stuck with having to brave 100,000 Israelis demonstrating to bring the hostages home, and stuck with inexorable pressure from his U.S. ally and a loud clock ticking to make decisions he’d rather not make.

Bibi is such a political wizard he must be thinking up ways to thread the needle and keep buying more time, hoping something will break his way, perhaps hoping Hamas will let him off the hook by sabotaging the deal.

But the man who has been Israel’s longest serving prime minister is no stranger to Israelis. For all the great things he has done for Israel, many Israelis have long suspected that what keeps him most occupied are his own political needs, which today include a desperate need to deflect blame for Oct. 7 and staying in power as long as possible.

Maybe before Israel can forge a more victorious future, holding Mr. Security accountable for Israel’s biggest security failure may well be the total victory his country needs.

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