Op-Ed

Netanyahu desperately seeks to strengthen his base, at the expense of US ties, hostages

Since October 7, the Israeli public has understood the PM is not Mr. Security, not Mr. Responsibility and not Mr. Empathy either. And none of his tricks and shticks can change that

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

US President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In Israel, there are some who believe that by acting with chutzpah toward the leader of a superpower, the prime minister of a small country will win enhanced support from his political base.

Over the past decade, all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s moves have been weighed according to what will strengthen him in the eyes of Likud’s 100,000 registered members and/or his most fervent supporters whose votes are worth some 15 seats in the Knesset.

Give a speech to Congress in 2015 behind Barack Obama’s back? This may hurt Israel, but to the base, he’s a hero. Embark on a tactical offensive against Joe Biden during a war? Well, that, too, is designed to strengthen him with the base.

Except that this approach is no longer working. The magician can’t pull the rabbits from his hat anymore. The tricks and shticks that succeeded for years have not restored Netanyahu’s popularity since October 7, as months of opinion polls demonstrate.

He tried to run a campaign against war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, claiming Gantz would give the Palestinians a state, but Gantz continued to rise in the polls. For months, he has pounded the slogan that Israel will not end the war against Hamas until “total victory”; that hasn’t helped either.

The premier’s latest campaign is to brand Biden as an enemy of Israel — publishing video messages against the US president, sending him ultimatums from Jerusalem, and on Monday, denouncing him for the US abstention on the UN Security Council’s demand for a ceasefire in Gaza during Ramadan and the immediate release of all hostages. All this clearly harms the interests of Israel and its citizens; it’s also highly unlikely to shore up Netanyahu’s standing with his base.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Israeli public is too beaten, battered and depressed to be impressed by Netanyahu’s efforts to project himself as a strong leader. On October 7, they understood he is not Mr. Security, not Mr. Responsibility, and not — given his and his wife’s attitudes to the hostages’ families in recent weeks — Mr. Empathy either.

No one can quite fathom his strategy of picking fights with the White House, his fudging of the ultra-Orthodox conscription legislation, or his decision to make a prospective IDF ground offensive in Rafah his hill to die on. It’s certainly not working.

The perfect storm

The events of recent days appear to be a perfect storm.

The US refrained from using its veto to block the UN Security Council resolution, a grave diplomatic incident. However, even this did not prompt Minister Gideon Sa’ar to delay his New Hope party’s decision to leave the government.

Sa’ar bolted the coalition on what turned out to be one of the busiest days of the news cycle. But he could not bring himself to wait even another day, because he sees what everyone else around him sees — the mounting failures and the lack of someone to avert them.

Along with the UN vote, the White House faceoff and Sa’ar’s departure from the government, the past day or so has also featured Netanyahu’s mass military conscription evasion project.

At the height of the storm, a faction of four seats quits the government, the American president turns a cold shoulder and the Haredi factions oppose a crucial law for the coalition. If the law passes, the Haredi parties could leave; if it does not pass, the High Court will cut funding for yeshivas with draft-evading students.

New Hope – The United Right chairman Gideon Sa’ar at a faction meeting in the Knesset, March 18, 2024. (Sam Sokol)

For Netanyahu, every option is worse than the next, and he can’t find the play to outflank and mislead everyone. Netanyahu always believes things will work out for him, somehow, at the last moment, but when the White House heard he was following through on his threat not to send two top aides to Washington for discussions on the military offensive in Rafah, in protest at the US abstention, the US National Security Council spokesman was thoroughly unfazed. After all, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was already in town.

“We’re very disappointed that they won’t be coming to Washington DC to allow us to have a fulsome conversation on the viable alternatives to going in on the ground in Rafah,” John Kirby said during a press briefing. But “the defense minister is here as we speak just in the other room.”

Kirby flatly rejected the charge by Netanyahu that the decision not to veto the UNSC resolution marked a policy change by the Biden administration. “That’s just not true… nothing could be further from the truth… We still have Israel’s back.”

“And we get to decide what our policy is,” he added dryly, before declaring, “It seems like the prime minister’s office is choosing to create a perception of daylight here when they don’t need to do that.”

“As you and I are speaking,” Kirby elaborated, “we are still providing tools and capabilities, weapons systems, so that Israel can defend itself against… a viable threat.”

On top of that, officials in the White House briefed reporters to the effect that Netanyahu was quarreling with the Americans to serve his own domestic political interests, intimating profound disrespect for the self-styled “leader in a league of his own.”

Presumably, if Netanyahu had focused on a program for the “day after” in Gaza, and for humanitarian operations there, the US would not have abstained on the ceasefire vote. Moreover, the face-off with the White House could have been avoided.

A different response

The UN Security Council resolution may not condition the demand for an immediate Ramadan ceasefire on the release of the hostages, but it does mention the issue in the same sentence. The resolution demands the release of all Israelis, soldiers and civilians, young and old, women and men.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield votes abstain on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, during a United Nations Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York on March 25, 2024. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

It does not include formulae for any exchanges of 30 murderers per female soldier, but simply demands the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.” In terms of its wording, then, the resolution is better than the principles discussed in Israel’s indirect negotiations with Hamas, in which there is talk of releasing only 40 of the 130-plus hostages, in the first phase of a deal, in exchange for hundreds of convicted terrorists including dozens of murderers.

Why couldn’t Netanyahu have responded by saying, Israel is ready to agree to the ceasefire on the basis of the release of all the hostages without any preconditions? That would have thrown the ball into the Hamas court. But the (former) supreme statesman is thinking about that elusive base, and not about life itself.

The significance of the resolution

The US decision not to veto does not directly impact the war, since Israel does not intend to implement the UN Security Council resolution, just like it hasn’t in the past.

Where is the resolution significant? In that there are countries — including the US — that may use it to justify blocking arms sales to Israel, or to signal that Israel is not complying with the provisional measures required by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The UN’s top court in January ordered Israel to refrain from any acts that could fall under the Genocide Convention, ensure its troops commit no genocidal acts against Palestinians, and improve the humanitarian situation for civilians in Gaza.

Israel’s delegation to the International Court of Justice in The Hague listens to the provisional measures ordered by the court against Israel, January 26, 2024. (International Court of Justice)

The Security Council decision — notably including Washington’s abstention — invites the international community to step up pressure on Israel. And it truly causes damage at the very heart of the US-Israel relationship.

But the most painful and severe consequence is on the hostage negotiations with Hamas, which on Monday, rejected Israel’s most recent offer, and reiterated its conditioning of any future release of hostages on Israel ending the war and withdrawing its troops. The US abstention, and the consequent result at the Security Council, encourages Hamas to hold fast in Gaza’s tunnels.

When you look at all these negative consequences, the heart sinks. And the direct confrontation that the prime minister is fostering with the US only deepens the hole in which Israel finds itself.

None of which is going to help Netanyahu with his base.

Translated and edited from the original Hebrew version of this article on The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael.

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