That has made Netanyahu reluctant to take American advice on the war, and it suggests that U.S.-Israeli tensions will grow as Palestinians struggle to survive Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
“It’s not always clear who’s driving the train” in Israel, said a U.S. official familiar with American-Israeli discussions. “There have been times where [Netanyahu] has intimated or even been more explicit in telling us, ‘My hands are tied. You know, I have this coalition. It’s not me. It’s a coalition. It’s not me. It’s the political imperatives that I’m facing.’” The official, like a number of others I talked to, was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.
For many who watch Israeli politics, myself included, it can be hard to muster much sympathy for Netanyahu. In his desire to stay in power, he made so many compromises with Israel’s most extreme factions that he had tied himself down even before the war. Now, trying to please the Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs on his right is weakening his ability to make hard decisions during a moment of unusual peril for Israel.
Aaron David Miller, a former longtime Middle East negotiator, describes Netanyahu as increasingly desperate. This is, after all, a man who long cast himself as Israel’s best hope for security in a tough region — a brand badly damaged following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that sparked the war.
“It is a terrible example of a leader who has conflated his own political survival with what he considers to be the best interests of this country. It’s a horrible combination, and it leads to terrible decision-making,” he told me.
Netanyahu, whom many Israelis simply call “Bibi,” is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, holding the position on and off for some 16 years.
Now his chances of staying in power may be higher the longer the war lasts, some analysts and U.S. officials told me.
Despite Israeli citizens’ considerable anger toward Netanyahu over the Oct. 7 security failure, they may prefer political stability, at least during this intense fighting phase. In fact, Netanyahu’s saving grace may be that the conflict has led to a new sense of unity among Israelis who were previously bitterly divided over the judicial overhaul he tried to push through largely at the urging of his more right-leaning allies.
Privately, some in the Biden administration are seething that Netanyahu is still the man atop Israel’s government, and they believe
his political shelf-life is limited. They have not forgotten how Netanyahu, in their view, disrespected Barack Obama and cozied up to the former president’s successor Donald Trump — exploiting America’s own partisan divisions.
But U.S. officials aren’t giving up on Netanyahu amid this crisis.
President Joe Biden and his aides are in regular contact with the prime minister and his team, by phone or virtually if not in person. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Israel again this week as part of a fourth swing through the Middle East since Oct. 7, when
Hamas militants killed some 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostages.
At least 10 top Biden administration officials — including the president himself — have visited Israel since the war began, some multiple times. Many U.S. lawmakers also have made the trip.
So many American officials have seen or otherwise reached out to Netanyahu that some observers call it “Bibi-sitting.”
Asked for comment on Netanyahu’s standing in Israel and current ties to the Biden administration, Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said, “We will not comment on the domestic politics of another nation,” but noted that Biden and Netanyahu have a longstanding relationship.
A senior Israeli government official dismissed the idea of a weakened Netanyahu. “He is as robust as ever and is leading this war skillfully and judiciously,” said the Israeli official, who declined to be named. “We appreciate President Biden’s support and friendship for Israel and its leader.”
But, according to the people I spoke to, the Netanyahu of today is more chastened, tired and hollowed-out than in the past, when he was famously charming and arrogant. (Having seen him in person in calmer times, I was struck by his deep voice and how he could make people believe he answered their questions by explaining things to them, even when he didn’t answer the question at all.)
These days, he is sometimes more cautious and practical than others around him, including those in Israel’s
emergency war cabinet, which doesn’t include Smotrich or Ben-Gvir.
But two of the U.S. officials I talked to said he’s unwilling to agree to some American requests.
the U.S. has urged Israel to release a chunk of tax revenue meant for the Palestinian Authority, the body that governs parts of the West Bank. The U.S. sees a reformed Palestinian Authority as an important player in a long-term solution to the crisis. But Smotrich has opposed sending the money, and Netanyahu appears unwilling to cross him.
U.S. officials also believe that the political pressure from the far-right is one reason Netanyahu drags his feet on U.S. requests to permit more humanitarian aid to reach Gaza, where many Palestinians are starving.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” that first U.S. official told me.
Netanyahu also has at times broken with Biden and his team on more long-term issues — dismissing U.S. insistence that the Palestinian Authority play a role in eventually governing Gaza, not to mention the very idea of a future Palestinian state.
Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have gone further, reportedly
calling for the supposedly voluntary migration of Palestinians out of Gaza and future Israeli settlement and occupation of the territory. The State Department has blasted such comments as “
inflammatory and irresponsible.”
Washington has made little effort to build a relationship with either Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, worrying that the two could try to use such contact as a means of legitimizing their far-right ideas.
I asked if it had been a mistake to sideline the pair, but both officials and analysts told me no. They argued that the men were too rigid in their views and far less practical than Netanyahu.
“These are not tactical disagreements based on perceptions or even interests,” the first U.S. official said. “They’re doing this out of ideology and even zealotry. So I don’t buy the argument that if we sat down with them and had a glass of kosher wine that we would have seen our way through our disagreements — not at all.”
“They’re hard core,” the second U.S. official added. “Bibi, while weak and problematic personally, is not an insane ideologue like these guys.”
An aide to Smotrich declined to comment, while an aide to Ben-Gvir did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden and his aides have never been very optimistic about the level of influence they have over Netanyahu or any other Israeli leader. Biden has also long been unwilling to impose conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel — a move that would be politically explosive and run against what he has described as a deep personal affinity for the country. The U.S. remains a stalwart defender of Israel at the United Nations.
Critics say these are leverage points the U.S. should use, but it’s not certain that doing so would lead Israel’s government to rethink its national security decisions anytime soon or its prime minister to forget about his political standing.
Some American officials believe the U.S. can have more influence with Israel by staying friendly and that the situation in Gaza could be worse were it not for the U.S. using its sway with Israel to ease some of the toll on civilians.
Another factor is influencing the Biden administration’s approach:
It agrees with the idea that Hamas must be uprooted and degraded as much as possible, not just because the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist group but also because Hamas is a major obstacle to a two-state solution.
That’s why the U.S. won’t call for a permanent cease-fire. Instead, the administration wants Israel to change how it goes about waging the war — killing fewer civilians, for one thing. More than
20,000 Palestinians are reported to have been killed in the Israeli military campaign.
Netanyahu has long been on the right end of the Israeli political spectrum, and he’s never been comfortable with the idea of allowing a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel.
Given the atrocities Hamas committed Oct. 7, the tough Israeli military campaign has broad support in the country of 10 million — a reality surely influencing Netanyahu’s thinking. But
polls also show most Israelis want Netanyahu gone once the war ends.
The prime minister, though, recently
indicated he won’t resign even after the war is over. (And no, it’s not clear yet what will count as the end of the conflict.)
Plenty of officials and analysts suspect Netanyahu’s main motivation for staying in office is that he is hoping his far-right allies can help
protect him from having to face charges ranging from
fraud to bribery in multiple cases, including one in which he’s accused of inappropriately accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.
To keep the far-right’s support before the war, Netanyahu had promised to push through measures to weaken the judiciary’s ability to weigh in on government policies. The effort spurred months of massive protests from Israelis worried that it would damage Israel’s democracy by removing a critical check on the government in a country with no constitution.
The Oct. 7 attack led Israelis to set aside their divisions and focus on defeating Hamas. While Israel’s Supreme Court recently ruled against the judicial overhaul, the government has appeared willing to respect the decision for now as it focuses on the war.
The ruling, however, means that Netanyahu couldn’t deliver on a major promise to his political partners further to the right.
Now, he cannot point to it when seeking favors from them. And it makes it harder for him to deny their ambitions, such as expanding Israeli control over the West Bank, where far-right Israeli settlers ramped up attacks against Palestinians after Oct. 7.
Smotrich and Ben-Gvir probably won’t abandon Netanyahu’s coalition just yet, but “I do think he’s more vulnerable,” Miller said.
Some American officials argue that the longer the war takes, the easier it will be for Netanyahu to delay a serious inquiry into why Israel failed to prevent the Hamas attack. Successfully defeating Hamas could also reduce Israeli popular anger toward him.
But Israeli politics are unpredictable.
Even if the war shifts to a lower-intensity phase without formally being declared “over,” opposition politicians may quit the emergency war cabinet and return to agitating against Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s fellow Likud party members may see him as an albatross to abandon ahead of any elections.
That could make Netanyahu even more beholden to fringe figures in other parties in his coalition, the second U.S. official said.
Still, it would be unwise to write off Netanyahu. In his decades in Israeli politics, he’s learned a thing or two about dealing with both enemies and friends.
As that same official told me: “Bibi has always been a balancer.”