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With Netanyahu increasingly seen as isolated, Israeli PM dismisses ‘petty politics’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau seems to be holding onto power – for now. But pressure is mounting for him to consider the future beyond Israel’s war with Hamas, and to stop putting his own interests ahead of the country’s.

Prime minister accused by some of putting his own interests first

People in a crowd hold torches at night during a protest.

One of the most common opinions offered up by Israeli protesters out in large numbers over the past week demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that he will prolong Israel's stated war against Hamas in Gaza as long as it takes — and no matter the cost — to ensure his own political survival.

To them, it's self-evident.

"Within a minute of the war [being] over, Netanyahu will be voted out," said Dorit Nagari, a 56-year-old biotech worker protesting outside the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

"So he's losing his power. You know? The war is over. He's losing his power."

Many Israelis taking part in what they called a "week of disruption" blame Netanyahu for security failings that allowed Hamas militants to invade Israeli border communities near Gaza in an unprecedented attack on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping about 250 others, and for what they call his botched handling of a war now in its ninth month.

A protester holds a sign while others march on the street.

They are angry over Netanyahu's failure to agree to a ceasefire deal as outlined by U.S. President Joe Biden in early June that would return Israeli hostages in stages and aim to establish a path towards regional stability and reconstruction of a post-war Gaza.

Despite mounting pressure on Netanyahu from the families of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza, public criticism from the military establishment, an ill-tempered rebuke offending Israel's closest ally and cracks within his extreme-right coalition government, the man known as Israel's great survivor seems to be holding on. For now.

WATCH | Pressure mounts on Netanyahu as war drags on:

Pressure mounts on Netanyahu as war drags on

1 month ago

Duration 2:56

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel is determined to defeat Hamas, but it has cost him support at home and abroad and put his political future in jeopardy.

"From Netanyahu's perspective, what he needs to do is just hang on till the end of July," said political analyst Gayil Talshir of Hebrew University.

That's when the Knesset — Israel's Parliament — will recess for three months.

"Netanyahu, you know, he's a genius in reading the political map and reshaping the discourse accordingly," Talshir said.

But while the clock is ticking, pressure is building on Netanyahu.

Netanyahu chastizes political partners for 'petty politics'

On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister was forced to withdraw legislation he had promised his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners that would have given the government power to appoint hundreds of municipal rabbis after some members of his own Likud party refused to back it, unhappy with increased demands from the religious right.

Another of Netanyahu's pledges – legislation to extend the exemption from military service that ultra-Orthodox men studying the Torah have historically enjoyed – may prove to be even more difficult to achieve.

On Friday, the prime minister chastized his political partners, saying it wasn't the time for "petty politics or for legislation that endangers the coalition."

"Therefore, I demand that all coalition partners get a hold of themselves and rise to the importance of the hour," Netanyahu said in a statement released by the Israeli Government Press Office.

The fractures within Israel's ruling coalition are providing some Israelis with hope for the future.

Researcher Ofer Shelah.

"There's hope among those who want to see Netanyahu removed and the coalition disintegrating that the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] politicians will say, 'We're not getting out of this coalition [what we want.],'" said Ofer Shelah, a senior researcher with The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a think-tank based in Tel Aviv.

"I think the chances of that are, I won't say they are slim, but they're under 50 per cent."

In an extraordinary video message delivered in English, Netanyahu also chose last week to accuse the Biden administration of withholding weapons from Israel in a time of need.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has confirmed a pause in the delivery of 2,000-pound bombs over concerns about their use in densely populated areas in Gaza, but the administration insisted other deliveries have not been affected.

But Netanyahu repeated his comments during a cabinet meeting on Sunday saying there had been a "dramatic drop" in weapons deliveries from the U.S.

His apparent decision to pick a fight — and drill down on it — with Israel's closest ally, has created consternation in Washington and amongst Israeli political pundits.

"You know Biden was the best leader of the free world Israel could ever have expected," said Talshir. "So to say now to Biden, 'What about our weapons?' What are you doing?"

Netanyahu also chose last week to accuse the Biden administration of withholding weapons from Israel in its time of need, to the consternation of White House officials and political pundits in Israel and abroad.

"You know Biden was the best leader of the free world Israel could ever have expected," said Talshir. "So to say now to Biden, 'What about our weapons?' What are you doing?"

WATCH | Israeli protesters demand acceptance of tentative ceasefire proposal:

'Stop the killing, save lives,' says father of Israeli hostage

2 months ago

Duration 0:56

A group of Israeli protesters, including families of hostages, gathered in Tel Aviv to demand the Israeli government accept the tentative ceasefire proposal already agreed upon by Hamas. The protesters are calling on the government to bring their loved ones home and to put an end to the fighting.

Netanyahu is also seen as increasingly isolated from Israel's military establishment.

On Wednesday, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari gave an interview to an Israeli news channel saying it was impossible to destroy Hamas, Netanyahu's stated war aim.

"The business of destroying Hamas, making Hamas disappear – it's simply throwing sand in the eyes of the public," Hagari told Israel's Channel 13 TV. He also implied that if there wasn't a post-war strategy in place, Hamas would simply return.

It's an echo of Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant's comments in a televised speech last month. Gallant left this weekend for meetings in Washington, presumably part of an effort to smooth ruffled feathers in the wake of Netanyahu's criticism.

Add it all up and it does seem to paint a picture of a country paralyzed by the individual machinations and aspirations of one political leader.

"If you want to get the hostages back home, and you want to have regional stabilization, you have to take [the Biden deal]," said Talshir.

"You have to replace Netanyahu. You cannot wait for months and months and months. But the political ability to do that is very, very limited."

A delicate balance with coalition partners

That's mainly because some ofNetanyahu's other coalition partners — nationalist religious leaders on the extreme right, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — are pushing for the reoccupation and resettlement of Gaza and refusing to support a ceasefire with Hamas.

"They've threatened him that if he goes [for a ceasefire deal], they will bring down the coalition," said Shelah, the INSS researcher, who is also a former member of the Israeli Knesset and a veteran of Israel's Lebanon war in the 1980s.

"I've been talking about this as a complete conflict of interest for quite a while now," he said.

"It's obvious to everybody that Netanyahu is not leading this war according to a policy aimed at a clear goal for Israel, but according to his political needs."

A close up photo of a man with a serious expression.

Palestinians who have endured vast amounts of death and destruction in Gaza since the war began will find little surprise there. More than 37,500 Palestinians have now been killed in Gaza, according to the health ministry there, and more than 80,000 have been injured.

Nor will families of Israeli hostages who have been campaigning for a ceasefire agreement for months find anything other than anger in it. Of an estimated 120 hostages believed to be still in Gaza, 43 have been confirmed dead, according to Reuters.

"I want [the hostages] back. I want to know that my country, they do whatever she can to bring them back," said Ayala Metzger ,whose father-in-law Yoram was taken hostage. Israel Defence Forces said earlier this month that he died in captivity.

"We know that he's dead. But we don't know how yet," she said in an interview from her home in Ashkelon, which is less than 20 kilometres from the Gaza Strip.

A man poses

Her mother-in-law was one of 105 hostages released last fall during a truce that also saw 240 Palestinians released from Israeli jails.

Metzger says Netanyahu has treated families pushing for a truce as enemies.

"They can't manage a kindergarten," she said. "Sorry. They can't manage a kindergarten."

Demanding more courage from Israel's political opposition

Gayil Talshir, the political analyst, says Netanyahu views the families as obstacles to his efforts to remain in power.

She says more courage is needed from Israel's political opposition, including National Unity leader Benny Gantz, who walked away from the government's emergency cabinet in protest over Netanyahu's refusal to engage on a plan for what will come after the war in Gaza.

That includes a refusal to discuss any involvement by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which enjoys limited control of some parts of the Occupied Territories in the West Bank.

A woman sits in her home.

"Netanyahu, you know, his big mission is to wipe out any mention of a Palestinian entity. Basically this is what has become his way of getting the right wing around him," said Talshir.

"So why should Gantz and people that are much more centre left and moderate, why should they accept this framing?"

During his resignation from the war cabinet, Gantz also accused Netanyahu of putting his own "political survival" ahead of Israel's security interests.

It's the prevailing sentiment of the protesters who flooded Israeli streets over the past week. Demonstrators want to know why they should accept anything less than new elections.

Some of the many T-shirts sported in the crowd read, "We're all kidnapped."

"He doesn't see anybody," said Ruth Barak, a protester speaking about Netanyahu outside the Knesset in Jerusalem.

"He doesn't care about anybody. It's 'Me, me, and me. I'm going to stay in power no matter what.'"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Evans

Senior International Correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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