Proposed Gaza cease-fire puts Netanyahu at a crossroads that could shape his legacy

0
14

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — The cease-fire proposal announced by President Joe Biden has placed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a crossroads, with either path likely to shape the legacy of Israel’s longest-serving and deeply divisive leader.

The proposal offers the possibility of ending Israel’s war against Hamas, returning scores of hostages held by the Islamic militant group, quieting the northern border with Lebanon and potentially advancing a historic agreement to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia.

But it would also likely shatter Netanyahu’s governing coalition, potentially sending him into the opposition and making him more vulnerable to a conviction in his corruption trial. The full withdrawal of Israeli forces called for in the agreement could allow Hamas to claim victory and reconstitute itself.

Netanyahu’s rejection of the deal, on the other hand, could deepen Israel’s international isolation, worsen ties with an American administration eager to wind down the war and expose him to accusations of having abandoned the hostages to save his own skin.

It’s a conundrum, and that may explain the strange choreography of Biden’s Friday night address: An American president, announcing what he says is an Israeli proposal, during the Jewish sabbath, when Israel’s political class goes largely silent.

Netanyahu acknowledged the proposal but then appeared to contradict Biden’s remarks. He said Israel remains committed to dismantling Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and that any talk of a permanent cease-fire before then was a “nonstarter.”

On Monday, he said the destruction of Hamas is “part of the proposal” and was quoted as telling a closed parliamentary hearing that Israel reserves the right to return to war if its objectives are not met.

But it has never been clear what the destruction of Hamas entails or whether it’s even possible. Biden said Israel had degraded Hamas to the point where it could no longer carry out an Oct. 7-style attack, and that that by continuing the war, Israel risked getting bogged down in Gaza.

But Netanyahu appears to be seeking a much bigger victory.

‘NETANYAHU’S ENDGAME IS TO SURVIVE’

Netanyahu’s critics fear he will reject any cease-fire to appease his ultranationalist governing partners, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. They want to continue the war, fully reoccupy Gaza and rebuild Jewish settlements there.

They have already vowed to leave the government if the proposal announced by Biden comes to pass. Netanyahu’s political opponents have offered a safety net if he reaches a deal to release hostages but they are unlikely to help him stay in office long-term.

“Everything that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich demand or threaten to do, you see Netanyahu is very attentive to that,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political commentator. “Netanyahu’s endgame is to survive.”

Netanyahu’s current government, formed in late 2022 after five consecutive elections, is the most nationalist and religious in Israel’s history. Months before the war, it pushed policies that entrenched Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, deepened the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community’s reliance on state subsidies and set in motion an overhaul of the judicial system that tore the country apart.

The coalition initially had a slim majority of 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament -– enough to govern but with a fragility that would keep Netanyahu’s fate tied to the whims of any of the smaller parties that form the government.

A VETERAN OF ‘DIFFICULT’ POLITICS

Shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack ignited the war in Gaza, Benny Gantz, a former military chief and a top political rival of Netanyahu, joined the government in a show of unity. Netanyahu, Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant formed a three-man War Cabinet to direct the offensive.

Mazal Mualem, a Netanyahu biographer, said that effort largely succeeded in sidelining the ultranationalists and allowing Netanyahu to govern in a more pragmatic mold that has defined his 17 years in office going back to the 1990s.

She pointed to Israel’s limited response to an aerial attack by Iran in April, which Ben-Gvir criticized as “weak,” and to a cease-fire and hostage release deal reached with Hamas in November that Smotrich had initially opposed but later voted for.

“Over the years, Bibi has taught himself to do what he wants to do in difficult political environments,” she said, referring to Netanyahu by his popular nickname.

But Gantz has threatened to quit the government unless Netanyahu lays out a postwar plan by June 8, which would leave him far more reliant on Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

Netanyahu’s decision to press ahead with Israel’s massive military campaign in Gaza as scores of hostages languish in captivity has opened him up to fierce criticism from many Israelis, including families of the captives. Thousands have joined weekly mass protests.

“The government of Israel has given up on the hostages,” Yehi Yehud, who has an adult child being held hostage in Gaza, told Israeli Army Radio. “Bibi, you don’t have the permission or the moral validity to sacrifice them on the altar of your political survival.”

OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS

Netanyahu’s hard-line stance has also weighed heavily on Israel’s relations with its closest ally, the United States, which has provided crucial military support but expressed exasperation with civilian casualties and the lack of any realistic Israeli postwar plans.

Internationally, it has exposed Israel to charges of genocide, which it denies, and a potential international arrest warrant against Netanyahu himself.

In his address on Friday, Biden appeared to be offering Netanyahu a way out: Claim victory by saying a battered Hamas can no longer mount an Oct. 7-style attack, bring all the hostages home and then work with the U.S. and Arab nations to build a new regional security architecture.

But the fear of losing power could prevail.

Netanyahu has spent years nurturing an image that only he can lead Israel through its myriad diplomatic and security challenges. That legacy suffered a major blow on Oct. 7, with many Israelis directly blaming him for the most devastating security failure in the country’s history. Public opinion polls indicate that Netanyahu is trailing behind Gantz and would struggle to form a government if elections were held today.

For all their threats, his far-right allies are in a similar predicament. They would likely join him in the opposition if early elections are held, losing the power he has granted them over the Israeli police and settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

If Netanyahu can hold his coalition together until the next scheduled elections in 2026, he might be able to rehabilitate his image. His poll numbers have already started to climb from the depths they hit after Oct. 7 as he has presented himself as withstanding international pressure to end the war.

Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu adviser, said Netanyahu’s wartime decision-making has less to do with immediate political survival and more with securing a legacy that would not be entirely overshadowed by Oct. 7. That requires some kind of victory over Hamas.

“From a historical perspective, Netanyahu’s only option is to go all the way,” he said. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich “are helping him reach that destination, to keep his head above water.”

___

Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Source: post