Inside storyPM believes war will last years, is dismissive of Saudi deal

Despite Oct. 7, Netanyahu is determined to run for reelection, and certain he can win

PM is confident his hostage deal offer, praised by the US, will help silence critics. And if it leads to far-right bolting his coalition, that will only ease his path to victory

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raises a toast at the weekly cabinet meeting ahead of the Jewish New Year,  September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raises a toast at the weekly cabinet meeting ahead of the Jewish New Year, September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In recent weeks, it’s become clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to once again run for prime minister in the next elections.

Although he hadn’t been definitive on this issue since the war in Gaza broke out, we’re now beginning to hear clear statements from him about the dramatic need for him to continue leading the country even after the next general elections, despite — and perhaps because of — the terrible national tragedy and disgraceful failures of October 7.

Netanyahu believes that Israel is in the midst of a war that will last for many years to come and that only he is fit to lead this challenge. More than that though, he is convinced that he will win an election — perhaps in the coming months — if a proposal for a hostage deal comes to a vote and wins the expected majority it needs to pass.

Netanyahu’s working assumption is that the vote will lead to ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit party resigning from government, followed soon after by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and the Religious Zionism party. Once that happens, elections will be inevitable, and he is confident he can beat any other candidate in the country (after he wins a Likud leadership primary, should anyone in his party seek to challenge him).

“None of the other potential prime ministerial candidates can hold a candle to him,” according to a source in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu and his people are delighted by the certificate of excellence they received from the Biden administration earlier this week, when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the offer put forward by Israel for a truce and hostage release deal as “extraordinarily generous.”

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, if the US gave broad legitimacy to Israel’s proposal, and even complimented it, he can’t be expected to offer any more generous terms, and there’s no use coming to him with complaints.

That complimentary US response also serves to dampen discontent or anger from the families of the hostages, he believes, as well as to counter comments from war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz and observer Gadi Eisenkot, who accused Ben Gvir and Smotrich of blackmailing Netanyahu for the sake of their political interests earlier this week.

Israelis march during a protest by the relatives of hostages held in Gaza by Palestinian terrorists, outside Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2024, to call for government action to release the hostages. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“I will only be a partner in a government that makes decisions based on the national interests of the State of Israel, and not on political considerations,” Eisenkot said on Tuesday.

Well, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, he is neither delaying nor derailing any deal, and Blinken’s praise for the Israeli proposal proves it. On the contrary, if he had wanted to, he could have blocked that proposal; instead, he essentially presented it to Hamas himself.

Hamas’s answer is expected soon, and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh on Thursday “stressed the positive spirit of the movement in studying the ceasefire proposal,” but one can never know how it will respond until it does.

A positive answer is crucial for the hostages and their families, but it will also deeply affect the future of Israel and its government.

Netanyahu and his associates believe that Ben Gvir won’t be able to stomach a deal that includes a massive release of Palestinian security prisoners and an extended truce in the Gaza Strip. He’ll vote against it and take his party into the opposition.

As for Smotrich, although he and his Religious Zionist party ministers voted in favor of the weeklong truce in November that saw 105 hostages freed, he has only become more opposed to any further deal since then. He and his party colleagues watch Ben Gvir and Otzma Yehudit gaining in popularity and don’t want to be left behind.

Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If a deal is brought to a vote, it will stipulate that after the truce expires, Israel will resume fighting in Gaza, which is how Netanyahu intends to appease his partners on the right.

There’s no guarantee that will work. But “Netanyahu is ready to get this deal approved and he won’t give in,” a source in the Prime Minister’s Office said.

As expected, Ben Gvir turned up the pressure during a one-on-one meeting with the prime minister on Tuesday. Following the meeting, he released a video announcing that Netanyahu had promised him that there would be no “reckless” deal and that Israel would continue the war and send troops into Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, as promised.

“I think the prime minister understands very well what it will mean if these things do not happen,” Ben Gvir warned. And indeed, Netanyahu does understand.

Netanyahu, Ben Gvir, Smotrich and all other right-wing lawmakers are united in one stance, however: The war cannot end like this.

Indeed, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, the war against Hamas will last a decade, maybe more. It will continue and be waged not just in Rafah but across the entire Strip, which is still infested with terrorists.

According to intelligence documents that Netanyahu has received, thousands of terrorists fled and dispersed after the Hamas battalions in the cities and the refugee camps were taken apart, and are not now fighting against Israel.

Palestinians buy food at a local market next to destroyed residential buildings in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, March 14, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

It will take Israel many years to root them out and eliminate them, and if Israel doesn’t, they will build up their strength once more, rearm, rebuild their tunnels and carry out worse terror attacks on Israel than before.

Before the war, some 40,000 gunmen from Gaza’s terror groups were active in the Strip, most of them from Hamas, and while Israel believes it has eliminated some 15,000 of them, that means 25,000 remain. (The IDF says it has killed more than 13,000 gunmen inside Gaza and another 1,000 terrorists in Israel on October 7. Thousands more have been wounded or arrested.)

“We can’t eliminate all of them. We also can’t eliminate all of the terrorists in the West Bank,” Netanyahu has told his associates. “But we need to fight them to the end.”

Against this background, Netanyahu’s office is disdainful of the initiative put forward by the US, and of the ideas of those in Europe, who promise normalized relations and peace with Saudi Arabia and the establishment of a coalition of allies to face down Iran, in return for progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. And all, of course, contingent on the complete cessation of the war against Hamas.

“Would this new coalition stop the next massacre? Will the Saudis save us?” one of Netanyahu’s associates asked. “Hamas with its tens of thousands [of gunmen] will set out to commit another massacre, to kill hundreds more of us. How could we end the war now? Have we learned nothing from October 7?”

Netanyahu has moved the idea of normalization with Saudi Arabia — one of his flagship policies before October 7 — lower down the list of national priorities. Even the coalition against Iran, an idea which he worked on for years and which brought about the Abraham Accords, is suddenly less important than achieving the goals of the war — and it is unclear whether he can achieve them. It’s also obvious that if Hamas continues to demand an end to the war as a condition for the release of hostages, there will be no deal.

As of now, Netanyahu still has no definitive strategy for post-war Gaza, which of course bolsters Hamas’s hold on the territory right now. He and his people want the Egyptians to eventually establish a governing body in Gaza along with Jordanians and local Palestinians, even Fatah members. But not the Palestinian Authority.

“They are worthless. They aren’t even capable of ruling Jenin,” a source close to Netanyahu said of the PA.

But back to politics. What will happen if the much-discussed deal goes through, the government falls apart and Israel heads to elections? Netanyahu and his confidants are certain he’ll win the elections whenever they’re held. While it’s true that the most catastrophic failure in Israel’s history happened on his watch, the bottom line is that elections are a choice between candidates, and their conviction is that he can defeat any of his would-be rivals.

Then-prime minister Yair Lapid (right) and then-defense minister Benny Gantz attend the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

From his own polling and analysis, and despite national polls consistently showing Gantz well placed to form a coalition and more popular than Netanyahu as prime minister, Netanyahu detects a strong shift to the right. “And the right-wing majority in this country is looking at three prime ministerial candidates: Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and [Opposition Leader] Yair Lapid,” as a source close to Netanyahu explained. “It’s hardly Netanyahu facing off against Moses.

“As far as voters are concerned, Gantz is center-left, and Lapid is limited in terms of his capacity to run a country and stand up to international pressure,” the source elaborated.

Netanyahu, of course, is not planning on taking direct personal responsibility and resigning after October 7 and the series of tragedies Israel has experienced through the last seven months. The resignation of Military Intelligence Directorate chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva last week only serves Netanyahu’s narrative: The people who caused the disaster must and will go home, and the prime minister is not one of them.

As he and his circle see it, some interesting possibilities may also arise with the formation of new political parties.

If, for example, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen enters politics and joins forces in a party with Gideon Sa’ar and former prime minister Naftali Bennett, it would draw the votes of many right-wing Israelis who are unhappy with the idea of voting for Likud and Netanyahu.

But Netanyahu thinks that this would work in his favor. Cohen was and remains an admirer of his, and would accept his leadership and join him in forming a coalition without hesitation. That, at least, is the thinking in the Prime Minister’s Office, where Netanyahu’s next term as Israel’s leader is already being planned.

This article is translated from the original Hebrew on Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site

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