Netanyahu is trying to avoid an accounting for October 7. This time, he won’t escape

The PM’s press conference was no genuine effort to answer potent questions during wartime, but a characteristic exercise in evasion. But even he can’t rewrite this story of failure

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks (left) as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) and head of the National Unity party Benny Gantz (right) listen, during a joint press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. October 28, 2023. (Dana Kopel/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks (left) as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) and head of the National Unity party Benny Gantz (right) listen, during a joint press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. October 28, 2023. (Dana Kopel/POOL)

Contrary to what our wartime leaders – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the minister Benny Gantz – said on Saturday, Israel isn’t in a second, existential War of Independence.

But these are unbearably difficult days, stifling and dark. As the hours and days pass, the feeling of depression deepens. It’s there in every home in Israel.

Every few hours, the media attempts to broadcast an uplifting story — about a wedding taking place during reserve duty, or about group of volunteers helping fellow citizens. But there is no escaping the emotional pressure exerted by those 230 hostages — parents, children, the elderly, children, youngsters, soldiers.

And that was the context in which the gloomiest press conference Israel has known took place.

Netanyahu, the aging leader who thinks of himself as an all-powerful king, had been unable to bring himself to face the public for 21 long days since the war started. When he finally caved and held a press conference, with no desire to give genuine answers, he brought along two bulletproof vests in the form of fellow war cabinet members Gallant and Gantz.

The idea of Netanyahu facing reporters’ questions alone was a nonstarter. If this event was going to be rescreened endlessly in Israel’s annals, it would be better for the perpetually image-conscious Netanyahu to have their protection and complicity.

But the journalists directed all except one of their questions to Netanyahu. Their message was: You’ve been afraid to talk to us about your failure, so we will focus on you.

Gallant had held a press conference at the Kirya, the IDF’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, two days earlier, as had Gantz the same day at a Tel Aviv hotel. These two defense experts have not avoided interviews and press conferences over the last few years.

Only Netanyahu is afraid of the media. The last time he was interviewed on Kan was September 14, 2019, and the last time he was interviewed on Channels 12 and 13 was in March 2021. He had not held press conferences at all for many years.

His Saturday night presser was received in some quarters like a modern miracle. But it was infuriating. If the key purpose was to take questions from journalists representing the public, why did Netanyahu, Gallant and Gantz use up most of the allotted time for pompous speeches?

I have seen leaders who settle down for a press conference, say “hello,” and immediately invite questions. But Netanyahu, and the other two as well, wanted their statements, not true discourse, at center stage.

Do they really not realize that the people have heard enough hot air and cliches through the years, that they should have spared us the sweaty effort to cultivate a fighting spirit and instead just honestly answered as many questions as possible?

As ever, Netanyahu didn’t address what he was asked. He arrived at the press conference with a page of prepared messages, and lowered his eyes to his paper to stick to his pre-prepared words. Zero public courage.

He didn’t answer questions about what kind of commission of inquiry would be established to probe the October 7 debacle of Hamas’s mass border breach and slaughter, nor acknowledge his personal responsibility. Asked whether the preoccupation with judicial reform had emboldened our enemies, he delivered the non-answer he had ready: “The reform is not on the agenda today. We have removed all differences of opinion between us. We’re standing here together. We spend almost 24 hours a day together.”

Did he regret the 2011 deal to free over 1,000 security prisoners to secure the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit? “There were difficult things in that deal, there were other considerations,” he said blandly. “When the day comes, we will discuss it.”

That was his theme: The day will come; we will discuss things in the future. But everyone knows what he plans for the future. When it arrives, he will count on the public’s short attention span, on other preoccupations, and on his ability to remake narratives and distort history — precisely as he did in the past year to claim that he was an opponent of the 2005 Gaza disengagement.

When the moment comes to adress his personal responsibility for October 7 and everything that preceded it, he will invent and revise and evade. “History is written by the winners” is one of his foundational beliefs.

In the war of October 7, the State of Israel was not wiped out, and its second War of Independence did not arrive. But Israel lost that day. The battle was harsh and cruel. The number of victims is beyond comprehension. Israeli communities were occupied by the enemy for many hours. On that day of terrible battles, we lost.

And, therefore, where the history of October 7 is concerned, Netanyahu will not be on the side written by the victors. This time, even he will not be able to evade, distort, revise and remake the narrative.

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