Photo: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty
Benjamin Netanyahu has mastered the art of staying in power. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has been the dominant force in the country’s politics for almost 15 years. Since he returned to power in 2009, having first led the country in the late 1990s, Netanyahu has outmaneuvered his opponents by focusing on security and economic prosperity, protecting his right flank, and undermining any real chance of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. After a brief period out of the prime minister’s office, a seemingly endless flurry of elections led to his reinstatement in late 2022, at which point he assembled the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history and embarked on a highly divisive judicial overhaul. But Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7 punctured his image as a national guardian, and Netanyahu has often seemed lost since. While his poll numbers crater,large sectors of Israeli society — most notably former Hamas hostages and their families — express open disgust with him. But it has never been smart to count out one of the world’s wiliest politicians. To gauge what comes next for Netanyahu — and whether a successor would be any better on the Israel/Palestine conflict — I spoke with Anshel Pfeffer, a reporter at Haaretz, correspondent for The Economist, and author of the 2018 book Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the days after October 7, there was widespread anger in Israel at Netanyahu and the Israeli government for failing to prevent Hamas’s attack. Netanyahu seemingly vanished from public view for a while, as did a lot of his ministers. There were indications that this could finally mark the end of the line for him, a view President Biden has apparently taken in private. Two months later, and nearly six weeks into Israel’s invasion of Gaza, is Netanyahu’s position any better than it was? Is it worse? Is it about the same?
I think it’s about the same. Because even during those first few days at the beginning of the war where we barely heard from him and he barely ventured out and we were saying “This is the end of the Netanyahu era,” we didn’t mean it would end in a matter of days or weeks. Even then, it was clear that it would be a process. And we’re still at an early stage of that process because you don’t just replace the prime minister. There are a number of parliamentary and electoral mechanisms for that happening, but those mechanisms have to run their course. And when you’re speaking about somebody like Netanyahu, who is totally shameless and will do anything in his power to hold on, then obviously those mechanisms will take time.
It also seems like there is, or was, a common feeling that now is not the moment to take any drastic political action — that there’s a war going on and the focus now is on destroying Hamas and politics will come later. Is that correct?
Yeah, I think it’s very correct because ultimately politics is about bandwidth, right? The people involved in politics have a limited bandwidth, and the same people who will be involved in replacing Netanyahu at some point are also the people now involved in running the war — at least some of them are. If the polls are to be believed, the main candidate to replace Netanyahu is Benny Gantz. He is now part of the war cabinet, and he’s very involved in all the military discussions. To be part of the process of replacing Netanyahu needs a lot of attention as well. Now, it’s obvious that’s what Gantz wants to do, and it’s not just his own personal ambitions — he thinks that Netanyahu should not be prime minister. But I think the calculations that he’s making, whether they’re political calculations or calculations of the national interest — I think that he understands that this isn’t the time. The time will come in a number of months.
There are other politicians, like the official leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, who say that Netanyahu should go now. But Lapid has remained in opposition. He’s not involved in running this war. So he is in the position of saying that Netanyahu should go, but he doesn’t have the votes to make that happen without Gantz. And when that does happen, he and Gantz will be rivals. And right now it looks like Gantz is in a much better position, if the polls are to be believed. I don’t see Lapid being the man who will enter the prime minister’s office instead of Netanyahu at this point.
This raises the obvious question: If there won’t be drastic political changes during the war, isn’t Netanyahu’s incentive just to keep it going as long as possible?
So there are two different things here. First of all, despite his image, Netanyahu is not a big fan of wars.
Yeah, this is a departure for him.
Well, there wasn’t much choice. Hamas attacked Israel and massacred 1,200 Israeli people and captured 240. But I don’t think winding down the war will have much to do with Netanyahu’s own political considerations. He’s not the one running it. Whether he would keep the war on to survive politically or not, that’s a good question. But I don’t see Netanyahu having the power to either stop or continue this war. He’s the minority in the war cabinet. The ex-generals, Gallant and Gantz and Eizenkot — they’re the ones who are really running the show. Another very influential figure in Israel’s war decisions is Joe Biden. And there’s what’s happening in the field. Israel is now embarked on the second stage of the ground campaign, attacking Khan Younis, the city where the Hamas leadership is believed to be holed up. It’s not something that you can pause. That is something which has started now and it’ll probably take weeks.
The real question is at what point does the war — not end, but when does it become less high-intensity? At what point does the IDF release a large proportion of the 360,000 reservists who were called up, or at what point is the war in Gaza less one of massive armored divisions maneuvering inside Gaza and something more mobile or smaller scale? And that’s when you’ll also have, I think, the political inflection points. The moment the war is less intensive than it is now, and assuming a second war doesn’t start up north with Hezbollah — that’s the point where a number of things will happen.
How do you see that playing out?
First of all, I think there will be more and larger protests against the government. The protest movement was very much mobilized in the first eight or nine months of this year before Hamas’ attack over the judicial-overhaul program. I think it’ll be back on the streets, and this time there’ll be a lot more anger and perhaps even bigger numbers of people calling for Netanyahu’s removal. That’s also the point where we’ll see political movement. Probably around then, Gantz will say, “Well, I came into the war cabinet for a limited period when it was absolutely necessary, that me and my colleagues would be here.” I think at that point, Gantz will say, “Well, this is where we have to also have political change.”
And then there are two scenarios, or three, actually. One scenario is that Netanyahu stays prime minister for a long period and Gantz, who will probably rejoin the opposition at that point, won’t have enough votes to remove him. If Netanyahu’s coalition stays intact, or even if they lose some of its members but the opposition can’t get an alternative majority to do something, Netanyahu will brazen it out.
Another option, with a slim chance of happening, is what’s called a “constructive no-confidence motion,” which is basically where the Knesset votes against the sitting prime minister, but it also has to vote in favor of an alternative prime minister. There may well be a majority against Netanyahu, but I doubt there’ll be a majority prepared to support someone else who will be prime minister in this Knesset.
The more likely scenario is that they’ll have a majority to dissolve the Knesset and hold a relatively quick election campaign, which would probably mean that the elections will take place sometime in mid-’24.
Netanyahu is very unpopular, but to what extent do you think his approval ratings even matter, given the nature of the parliamentary system and all the maneuvering you just described?
One important thing about the way Israeli elections act is that — let’s say Netanyahu has 50 percent or even a majority support. Many of those people would not be voting for Likud, but they would be voting for parties that support Netanyahu. These voters would have certain interests — their own communal, community interests — or they want something even more radical than Likud. They want Netanyahu as prime minister, but they’re not voting for Likud.
The flip side is that when the numbers start to go down, it means that the coalition, not just Likud, is losing votes. Netanyahu having 25 percent or 30 percent approval, which I think is close to what he has now, means that voters are saying, “It’s not just I don’t want to vote for Likud, it’s that I don’t want to vote for a party in Netanyahu’s current coalition. I want to vote for a party that will be part of a coalition replacing Netanyahu.” That’s why Benny Gantz is going up very, very quickly — both his own approval rating and his party. National Unity is doing very well. Because people are saying, “What is the option to replace Netanyahu?” What you’re seeing now is people turning both against Likud and against Netanyahu and against Netanyahu’s coalition, and it isn’t necessarily connected to how right wing they are or how or what they think about the war.
We are seeing something that doesn’t usually happen in countries at war. Usually there’s a rallying-around-the-flag effect at the beginning of the war — maybe not when the war is in more advanced stages and people become more disillusioned with it. But Israel’s still in a stage where a huge, huge majority of Israelis — I saw today a survey saying 84 percent — are in favor of continuing the war in the way it’s being conducted now. That is not translating into any support at all for Netanyahu. So there’s a war that almost all Israelis fully support, and they don’t see Netanyahu as in any way connected to the war efforts. 84 percent of Israelis are in favor of continuing the war as it is, and at the same time, there are polls saying that 70 percent, 75 percent of Israelis want Netanyahu to resign.
So he’s not connected to their feelings about what’s happening in Gaza.
They don’t believe Netanyahu’s the one leading the war. They think he’s hindering the war effort, and they see Benny Gantz in the war cabinet and say, “Gantz is the one we trust.” You’re even seeing much higher approval and trust ratings for the IDF and its generals, even though they’ve taken responsibility for the failure of intelligence and operational readiness on October 7. Basically, Israelis have forgiven the IDF. They haven’t forgiven Netanyahu.
That’s interesting, because recent reports have been so focused on specific intelligence failures, where IDF higher-ups ignored warnings about Hamas training exercises. I’m a little surprised that they’ve gotten off the hook so easily.
Well, first we have to remember something about the IDF. Even when the IDF fucks up big time, it’s still a people’s army. It’s still the most respected and revered public or national institution. That’s one thing. The other thing is when Israelis look at the IDF, they don’t just look at the generals. They look at their parents, their children, their siblings, and themselves because a huge chunk of the Israeli population has served in the IDF. And with the current levels of mobilization, almost everybody has very close relatives who are serving. So as much blame as there is for the generals and the intelligence chiefs and so on, it doesn’t translate into a wider anger at the IDF as an institution.
Netanyahu has always been seen as somebody who doesn’t have good relationships with the army hierarchy going back throughout his career as prime minister. And I think Israelis are also very much aware that the problem wasn’t just the intelligence failure on October 7. There was a problem here with strategy, even though Netanyahu denies it.
The fact that he cultivated Hamas?
I don’t think “cultivated” is the right word. I think he perpetuated Hamas’s control in Gaza — he didn’t really do anything to end it or to try and mitigate the danger of Hamas. So this was not just an intelligence and an operational failure of the IDF. It was a strategic failure of the man who was Israel’s prime minister for so many years.
And security was his whole thing — protecting Israel from exactly this kind of situation.
Exactly. So I think the great majority of Israelis believe Netanyahu is responsible, along with the commanders of the IDF, who have actually admitted responsibility, and everybody’s expecting them to resign once the war is over. Nobody has any real expectation of Netanyahu ever resigning voluntarily. So for all those reasons, yes, it’s a pretty unique phenomena that the rallying around the flag at the beginning of the war doesn’t translate into support for the prime minister. But I think in this case, it’s quite understandable.
Could it go in reverse? Netanyahu is making noises about assassinating the head of Hamas, Yahya Sinwar. Could he get credit for something like that?
Obviously, Netanyahu always takes credit for anything good that happens.
Right. Whether people believe him is the question.
Truthfully, in the war cabinet, Netanyahu is dithering most of the time, and the other members are making the big decisions, or he’s waiting for the other members to fight it out and reach a consensus and then he basically goes along with them. All of this is coming out. So Israelis do not see Netanyahu as the one leading them through this war. Assuming there will be positive news from Israel’s perspective further down the road, I don’t think Netanyahu will get the credit.
He’ll certainly try to claim it, but — we saw it already in recent days, where he tried to take credit for the fact that during the week of the truce, 110 hostages were released from Gaza. From what we’ve seen, that hasn’t so far improved his standing in the polls in any significant way. And I don’t think it will. But he’ll certainly try, and he’s been behind in the past and managed to beat the odds. And maybe he’ll do it again.
Obviously, this time is different.
It kind of reminds you, for those who were around back in the day, of 1995, when he was dramatically behind in the polls following the assassination of Rabin. And at the time it was also seen as this massive blow. He was 30 points behind, and people said, “There’s no way that he’ll ever come back from that.” And then, nine months after the assassination, he won the election. So it could happen.
And he had much the same reputation as he does now in many ways, right? An outsider, an instigator.
Somebody who exploits the divisions in Israeli society and maximizes his base, and this is what he’s going to try and do again — that’s his M.O. And we’re already seeing leaks coming out from his circle about him saying in private that he’s the only person who can prevent a Palestinian state. That is very clear messaging to the right wing. And it’s an attempt to try and rebuild the base. Because what’s hurting him in the polls is the fact that right-wing voters have gone to Benny Gantz, and he wants to try and bring them back home. So that’s his strategy now.
And some people even think that he may preempt an election himself. Not that he’ll resign but that he’ll agree to dissolve the Knesset, hold early elections, and use the pressures coming from the Biden administration on that very issue — of the solution the day after the war. Because Israelis aren’t in favor of a Palestinian state right now. Israelis saw Palestinians massacring them, carrying out the most terrible atrocities. This is not the best time to sell a two-state solution policy to the Israeli public.
But Gantz is not in favor of that either, right?
Gantz is very vague on that. I think he understands that this is a huge wedge issue, and he doesn’t want to fight Netanyahu on it, especially because he knows that to get a decisive win in the election, he needs to take a chunk of voters away from Netanyahu. So he doesn’t want to say whether he is for or against. Gantz has always been very opaque about what he really believes, if he believes in anything.
American liberals who want a two-state solution have been looking for a silver lining in this awfulness and think maybe it could all eventually lead to something better, the way the Yom Kippur War led to peace with Egypt. It’s a given that Netanyahu has to be out of the picture for any of that to happen. But would Gantz, or whoever comes next, be any better on the issue?
Not necessarily. We’re talking here about a very different Israeli political landscape after the war, and certainly after Netanyahu leaves, and to say that this will obviously lead to a two-state solution or it won’t is impossible to predict. Israel has been in a political paralysis now for a number of years. That’s why there were five elections in four years. Netanyahu lost and then kind of drew, and then he lost, and then he won again. And none of this has really been very conclusive. It hasn’t meant at any point that Israel has agreed on what its future should be like. Basically, everything has been referendums about Netanyahu — yes or no. And that’s all Israel’s been dealing with now for years.
And now, assuming Netanyahu is out of power in a few months or whatever, there’ll have been this terrible trauma of October 7, the war that came after it, and the departure of Netanyahu. So to try and predict what Israeli politics and Israeli society will be like in a year from now after these really cataclysmic events and the departure of this man who has dominated Israeli politics and society for so many years — I wouldn’t risk any kind of prediction of what things would look like.
It could mean that any hope of talking about a real solution to the conflict is off the table for another ten years or more, but it could be the other way around. People want to be optimistic and look for that silver lining, and it’s not outlandish. It took six years after the Yom Kippur War for Sadat to land in Jerusalem and for the peace process between Israel and Egypt, which was at the time the biggest thing — the biggest Arab country and Israel’s biggest enemy. Look even further back at the first diplomatic agreement with Israel and Germany in 1953. Who would’ve imagined at the end of the Holocaust that it would take eight years for a Jewish state and a new German republic to have any type of engagement?
That’s very true.
I mean you can learn from history, though history doesn’t always repeat itself. But it’s certainly true that convincing the Israeli public of the necessity of a two-state solution is pointless at this moment. And that also means that if an election is held in the near future, Netanyahu will try to make it about the Palestinian state and all his opponents will try not to talk about it. Because if they fall into that trap, Netanyahu has a chance, perhaps, of winning. And it would probably be best then for the Americans also to not talk about it during the election campaign unless they want to help Netanyahu.
But we’re talking here about something that is not going to take a few months. We’re talking here about a process that hasn’t succeeded in 30 years. So even if this is a watershed moment and there’s a chance for some kind of a resolution of conflict with Palestinians, it’s not going to happen in months. It’s still going to take years, at least.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial started back up again this week. Is that much of a threat? Could it even be helpful to him because it’s seen as a sideshow to more serious matters?
If we’re honest, it’s been a sideshow for a while. It was big news when it started, when the charges were served and the trial began, but Netanyahu brazened it out. And at some point Israelis just lost interest because those who were for Netanyahu accepted his claim that he’s the victim of a witch hunt. And those who didn’t were against him anyway.
There’s a certain parallel here to the U.S.
It’s not just everything around Donald Trump; it’s the way politics are in many countries nowadays. Things happen where you say, “Oh, this would’ve brought down a government. This would be something that nobody could agree with.” And they’ve become commonplace and don’t convince anybody to abandon their position. And in this sense, Netanyahu is a classic avatar of this period. Some would say he was there first — he was there before Trump. But we can look at places like Italy where Berlusconi was doing this.
There are lots of potential progenitors to choose from all over the world, all with their own unique spins.
But Netanyahu is that classic populist-nationalist politician who has succeeded by degrading and sowing doubt and mistrust regarding Israel’s democratic institutions, especially the courts and the media. It’s just classic Populism 101. And I remember when my book was coming out in early 2018 — and that was when some of the main revelations were breaking about what became the charges of bribery and fraud — I remember people saying to me at the time, “Your book is going to be too late. Bibi will be gone, and he won’t survive his main advisers all becoming state witnesses against him.” Every couple of weeks, we were getting another headline — this guy is going to testify against Bibi, and this guy’s going to testify against Bibi. Now it’s nearly six years later. And most Israelis really are indifferent to the trial because it’s just become a feature of life.
It’s background noise, similar to Trump’s trials so far.
It’s like everything to do with January 6. Americans have thought quite rightly that there’s no coming back from that, and now he’s ahead in the polls. So yeah, it’s become background noise — not just having a prime minister on trial but having a prime minister who is ostensibly leading his country during wartime on trial.
I was kind of surprised they started it up again, though I understand the impulse to resume some semblance of normal life.
It’s not an impulse. Because of the Jewish High Holidays and then the war, the courts weren’t functioning except for emergency and war-related issues. The moment the courts resumed their normal functioning, which they did this week, so did the Netanyahu case. Netanyahu’s lawyers are trying for more delays because that’s always been one of their tactics. But I can go out of the house and have a drink or a coffee or something. There’s a war on, but places are still open the same way the courts have reopened. And part of normal life in Israel has been for the last three years that the prime minister’s on trial.
So you know things have settled down when Netanyahu is back in court.
Yeah. Anybody who said before, “How can somebody run the country while they’re on trial?” — People who were saying that — I’m one of them — we feel even more vindicated. . And how can the country be at war with the prime minister on trial? But that’s Netanyahu. He doesn’t care. And there are enough people who voted for him and for the parties of his coalition in the last election just over 13 months ago. A tiny majority of Israelis voted for his coalition, and he got back into power despite being on trial.
And that’s the Bibi story encapsulated.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.