Israel’s Netanyahu, master of political survival, tested by conflict with Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he shows a slideshow
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he shows a slideshow during a briefing to ambassadors to Israel at the Hakirya military base in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
(Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Few politicians have quite the knack for turning adversity to advantage as does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Before fighting erupted May 10 between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the country’s longest-serving prime minister looked set for a spectacular fall from grace. His political opponents were putting the finishing touches on a coalition agreement that would likely have seen him finally ejected from office after 12 years, and left him even more vulnerable to the criminal corruption charges he is currently battling in court.

But the 71-year-old prime minister, famed for his Houdini-like ability to wriggle out of tight spots, now looks positioned to possibly remain in power — even though his hardline base is angry that the government agreed to a cease-fire rather than pressing ahead with the military campaign in the Gaza Strip.


Before a cease-fire took hold early Friday, 11 days of intense cross-border aerial bombardment between Israel and Hamas left nearly 250 Palestinians dead, more than 60 of them children, and 12 deaths on the Israeli side.

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“The fire always breaks out just when it’s most convenient for the prime minister,” Netanyahu’s exasperated chief rival, opposition leader Yair Lapid, wrote on Facebook last week.

Lapid had reason to be irate: The outbreak of conflict seemingly crippled his prospects for assembling a ruling majority in the Knesset, or parliament, perhaps the closest yet a rival has come to unseating Netanyahu.

The crumbling of Lapid’s envisioned coalition came in part because a political party in the grouping represents Palestinian citizens of Israel, and what would have been its historic participation in an Israeli government is less feasible after the worst bout of violence in decades between the country’s Arab nationals and its Jewish majority. Far-right politician Naftali Bennett, another key partner in the odd-bedfellows opposition coalition, also backed away from talks after the conflict started.

As Israel moved to a war footing, Netanyahu, with his background as an elite army commander, found himself on favorable turf: projecting toughness in the face of an external threat. The hail of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli towns and cities made it critical to degrade Hamas’ military capabilities, the prime minister and his military chiefs declared.


“What helps Netanyahu is that it’s always good to be prime minister in time of war,” said veteran political analyst and former journalist Chemi Shalev. “The war rearranged the political map, and the woes hanging over his head have been removed. It opens up new opportunities for him.”

Netanyahu has always been most comfortable branding himself as a leader who will risk world opprobrium in order to defend Israel. The Gaza conflict, the worst fighting in seven years between Israel and Hamas, drew sharp international criticism that was fueled to some extent by Palestinians’ growing place in a worldwide racial-justice movement that grew out of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States, made it clear to the prime minister last week that civilian carnage in Gaza due to bombardment — the Israeli military’s thunderous response to more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas since May 10 — had to stop, and the cease-fire took effect early Friday. But Netanyahu made certain to not acquiesce too quickly to President Biden’s truce call.

Armchair psychologists tend to have a field day at points of crisis in Netanyahu’s political career, of which there have been many.

His late brother, Yonatan Netanyahu — said to have been the favorite son of Netanyahu’s formidable father, a prominent historian who died in 2012 — remains a revered hero in Israel, nearly half a century after he was killed during Israel’s daring 1976 raid that rescued hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, after a Palestinian hijacking. Some longtime observers of the prime minister tie his constant thirst for affirmation to that difficult family dynamic.

Netanyahu has both benefited from and helped to create the political stasis currently gripping Israel. After inconclusive March 23 elections — the fourth national balloting since 2019 — he was handed the first chance to put together a governing bloc, but could not manage to secure the necessary commitments from coalition partners.

Around the time that the coalition-forming mandate was passed to Lapid, simmering tensions in Jerusalem boiled over — exacerbated by what turned out to be fateful moves by allies of the prime minister. Those included Israeli authorities blocking a central gathering point for Palestinians just outside the Old City during the opening days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, police raids on the Aqsa Mosque compound on a plateau sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and the prospective eviction of several Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah.

Despite his longtime aura of political invincibility, Netanyahu’s luck could yet run out.

In theory, Lapid, a telegenic centrist, could still manage to meet a June 2 deadline to patch together a governing coalition with a 61-seat Knesset majority, especially if Bennett changes his mind and returns to the table.

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust will continue — although if he stays in power, he can use his office to keep firing public salvos at prosecutors, investigators and the courts, while seeking to secure immunity through parliamentary allies.

Depending on the extent to which the Israeli public is ultimately disillusioned by the fighting’s outcome, the Israeli leader could face strengthening criticism. Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of the prime minister, said Netanyahu had undoubtedly reaped short-term political gains from the Gaza conflict, but that those might not prove durable.

“Even though Israel has not suffered that many casualties, and from a military point of view the operation went quite well, there is still a sour taste among Israelis,” said Pfeffer. “There was not a major achievement against Hamas. Israelis will remember the rocket fire, because there won’t be anything else tangible.”

Some of the far-right political figures the prime minister has courted so assiduously in recent years are venting bitter disappointment over the cease-fire. One of the most extreme — parliamentarian Itamar Ben-Gvir, who became a lawmaker with Netanyahu’s help — wrote on Twitter that halting the bombardment of Gaza amounted to a “shameful” surrender.

In the meantime, the relationship with Israel’s most important ally is in flux as well. In Biden, Netanyahu faces a leader who will not give him the same unquestioning backing that he enjoyed under then-President Trump.

Biden himself is fending off political criticism from both left and right: from progressive Democrats who say he was too accommodating toward Israel during the Gaza fighting, and from Trump allies who accuse him of failing to more vigorously support Israel’s right to self-defense.

Biden and Netanyahu have a decades-old acquaintance, and an accordingly fraught history: Biden was vice president when Netanyahu, in a stinging and startling public slap at a sitting U.S. president, went before a joint session of Congress in 2015 to heap scorn on the Iran nuclear accord that then-President Obama regarded as among his signature achievements.

If no Israeli politician is able to form a governing coalition, new elections could be on the horizon. Using Netanyahu’s best-known nickname, Pfeffer said voter support for the prime minister could ebb due to “Bibi fatigue,” a byproduct of him having been omnipresent for so long in the country’s political life.

Dan Shadur, the director of the documentary film “King Bibi” — an allusion to ardent supporters’ chants of “King of Israel!” — said the prime minister’s formidable survival skills are once again on full display.

If the Gaza fighting comes to seem like a failure, he said, Netanyahu is a master of deflection and will seek to ensure others appear more blameworthy. But the prime minister is also highly adept at self-marketing and will keep the spotlight on achievements like the successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Shadur predicted.

For a political figure of Netanyahu’s ilk, simply staving off a reckoning and living to fight another day can look a lot like victory.

“The upside is,” said Shadur, “he is gaining more time.”

Special correspondent Kraft reported from Tel Aviv and staff writer King from Dubai.