ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (2024)

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began addressing a solemn ceremonyin Jerusalem earlier this week commemorating the country's dead from wars and other hostilities,Nir Galon rose to his feet and proceeded with a silent,one-man protest.

Standing near the rear of the open-air auditorium,the 43-year-old Jerusalem IT entrepreneur unfurled a large Israeli flag with the date Oct. 7 etched in red and held it aloftuntil Netanyahu finished speaking.

As the prime minister, without looking up, returnedto his seat in the front row, another man in the audience yelled"Garbage!"

"He doesn't have the moral right to be here," Galon told CBC News after the ceremony.

Like many Israelis, Galon blames Netanyahu for not preventingtheHamas-ledattacks on Oct.7, whichleft more than 1,200 dead and resulted in the capture of more than 250 hostages.Israel responded with a ferocious military campaign in Gaza that has killed upwardof 35,000 people, according to the Gaza health ministry.

ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (1)

Egyptian and Qatari mediators, prodded by CIA director William Burns, have tried for weeks to cajole both Hamas and Israel into accepting a truce along witha prisoner and hostage swap. The Palestinian militant grouphas held firm on a permanent ceasefire with anIsraeli withdrawal from Gaza, something Netanyahuhas saidis totally out of the question.

Those talks appear to be in stasis, and Galon questions Netanyahu's motivation.

"I don't know what is his interest — is he making a decision because it's in his political interest or because he actually cares about people?"

Top among Netanyahu's personal interestsis avoiding a criminal trial on a series of charges including breach of trust and accepting bribes,which could proceed full steam ahead were he to lose the prime minister's job.

An alliance with 'Jewish supremacists'

Netanyahu not only boasts Israel's most successful electoral record —having won six general elections — but his mastery of the dark arts of political survival has so far enabled him to successfully navigate the fallout from the Oct. 7 attack and deflect blame.

WATCH | Pressure mounts on Netanyahu as war drags on:

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.

His partners in Israel's coalition government include far-right parties led by cabinet ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich,who left-leaning Israeli publications have called "Jewish supremacists."

Both men have called for Israel to sacrifice the remaining Israeli hostages and pursue the war against Hamas until the bitter end,with the ultimate goal of driving Palestinians out of Gazaand repopulating the territory with Jewish settlers.

Such calls for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza have infuriated Israel's allies, including the United States, and led to despair for the families of Israel's hostages. But Netanyahu has resisted every plea to distance himself from his far-right benefactors.

ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (3)

"The most important calculation [for Netanyahu] is how not to resign and stay in power. And he's done that," said Mitchell Barak, an American-Israeli political consultant and pollster based in Jerusalem.

With the support of the far-right parties, Netanyahu holds a four-seat majority in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. In spite of the withering andunrelentingdaily criticism he receives from those on Israel's left and in the political centre over his responsibility for the failures on Oct.7 and the conduct of the war,so far, the parliamentary math has not shiftedand he remains firmly in charge.

"For now, he's got a solid group of people who are backing him — until they decide not to," Baraksaid. "His greatest fear is within the Knesset. The thing that can bring him down now is within the Knesset."

In the aftermath of last year's attacks, Netanyahu forged an emergency war cabinet,bringing in rival ministers from other parties in a bid to create a unified approach to the war against Hamas.

ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (4)

But on Wednesday,long-running fissures in that unity cracked wide open whenDefence Minister Yoav Gallant said Netanyahu's refusal to outline a strategy for running Gaza after the war had become untenable.

Defiance over conduct of war

Gallantsaid the administration of the territory must be turned over to "non-hostile" Palestinians with the involvement of the international community — something Netanyahu and his right-wing partners have adamantly rejected,because they see it as a possible precursor to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Gallant's position is roughly in sync with what the Biden administration in the United States has been advocating as part of its plan to wind down the fighting in Gaza and set the conditions for a longer-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question.

Netanyahu has forcibly resisted.

"There is no alternative to military victory," he said in a videoreleased by the Prime Minister's Office on the same day as Gallant's message. "The attempt to bypass it with this or that claim is simply detached from reality."

Barak says publicly defying the U.S. may work toNetanyahu's advantageshould he end up fighting another election.

"He's like the victim:the man that wants to save Israel and Joe Biden is stopping him," Barak said."That's the familiar place that he likes to be in."

ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (5)

Even so, recent public opinion surveys in Israel suggest Netanyahu is facing sizeable political headwinds as he tries to push ahead with the military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah,possibly at the expense of a peace deal.

A survey by the Israeli Democracy Institutepublished on May 13indicated a majority (56 per cent) of the Jewish public in Israel sees a deal for the hostages as a higher priority than continuing with the war. The result held even for people who identified as voting for Netanyahu'sLikud party in the last election.

'He's sacrificing Israel's national security'

Eran Etzion,a former diplomat and Israeli political strategist,says the disconnect between the Netanyahu government and the Israeli public may yet pressure some of his coalition partners to reconsider their support.

"Netanyahu has long forgotten, or has long abandoned, this position of a reasonable prime minister," Etzion told CBC News from his home outside Jerusalem.

"He's acting completely out of his narrow political interests. He's sacrificing Israel's national security. He's acting against the will of 80 per cent of Israelis, against the deeper strategic interests of Israel in terms of its relations with the Americans, relations with Egypt."

Egypt, a one-time enemy that has forged a key security partnership over the past four decades,hasfiercely criticized Israel for proceeding with its incursion into Gaza. There aremultiple reports that Egypt may downgrade its diplomatic relationship.

But for many Israelis,it's the downturn in relations with the U.S.— Israel's biggest providerof weapons — that is most worrying.

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Etzion says it appears that through its near-daily public admonitions,the Biden administration is trying to go over Netanyahu's head and speak to Israelis directly.

"What the Americans are trying to do is to demonstrate to the Israeli public that ... their government is not representing their interests, and their government is actually working against their interests," said Etzion. "This is true around the negotiating table [with Hamas] and it's true in the wider sense of where this war is going."

After seven months of combat,Israeli forces are now returning to northern and central parts of Gaza where earlier they said Hamas had been subdued.In neighbouring Israeli communities,air raid sirens warning of rocket launches from Gaza have become a familiar sound again.

U.S. officialssuch as Secretary of State Antony Blinken have warnedIsrael risks anarchy,chaos and an unending insurgency unless it comes up with a sustainable plan for the future of the territory.

Religious exemptions

So far,Netanyahu's defiance of the U.S. and the broader international community over the attacks on Rafah,along with his refusal to sack his extremist cabinet ministers for advocating war crimes in Gaza,has notcost him his political majority.

WATCH | Netanyahu defiant in face of U.S. warning against Rafah invasion:

ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (7)

Netanyahu defiant in face of U.S. warning against Rafah invasion

9 days ago

Duration 3:07

In a video released Thursday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a defiant tone in an apparent rebuke to U.S. President Joe Biden's threat to cut off weapons shipments if Israel went ahead with a major operation in Rafah.

One potential threat,however, could upend the political math.

While serving in the military is mandatory for Israeli Jews, ultra-orthodoxmen have been able to avoid conscription by signing up for Torah study instead.

The country's high court hasordered an end to subsidiesfor Torahstudents, setting up another political fight between the country's far right and other parties, who argue the Haredim, as they're known,should have to do their part in defending the country.

The Haredim community has an extremely high birth rateand is expected to make up 40 per cent of Israel's population in the coming decades.

ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (8)

Benny Gantz,the leader of the Israel Resilience Party, who is a member of Netanyahu's coalition and his war cabinet, has said he will quit the government if the religious exemptions persist.

"There's a real problem within his cabinet, within his government," said Mitchell Barak,the political communications consultant.

But even if the government collapses over the Haredim issue,Barak says Netanyahu's defeat in asubsequent election is not a foregone conclusion, despite his current unpopularity.

"I think he's focusing on the issue of [rejecting] a Palestinian state at this point — and thinking that that's his ticket [for getting re-elected]."

ANALYSIS | At the top of Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda: self-preservation | CBC News (2024)
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