ESTRICH: The Netanyahu of it all

What do Jews talk about when we talk about the war between Israel and Hamas? Obviously many things, including the outing of all the antisemites out there and what’s happening on college campuses and how scary the random acts of hate are and then whose friend or family in Israel has been called up or evacuated or grew up with someone whose kid was murdered. But mostly I’ve found that what we always get to, if we don’t start with it, is Benjamin Netanyahu.

There will be a time, Israeli officials said in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacre, to talk about the utter security failure that occurred on the Israeli side. But that time comes after we win the war. It sounds good, but it doesn’t wear well with time. The questions — the whys (as in why was Israel at its woefully weakest) and the hows (as in how is this war being waged) — get louder every day, and in so many ways, answering them takes you back to Netanyahu.

In his desperation to protect himself, he was willing to divide the country by undercutting the independence of the judiciary, and he clung to office thanks to allying himself with the far right, which increased the tensions on the West Bank (at the expense of a stronger military presence in Gaza?). Hamas is the villain, no question of that, and we tend to credit Israeli intelligence when they point out Hamas targets or disclaim responsibility for an errant jihadist rocket more than some networks do. But as to how this war is being waged and its obvious human toll, what we can see is that Israel is losing face all over the world, and you can blame Hamas propaganda, and you can blame the media, but the real answer to how it’s being waged is that it’s being waged by Netanyahu.

This is when we all confide what we think about Netanyahu and how it is possible to be staunchly pro-Israel and almost as staunchly anti-Netanyahu and how hard it is to explain that, or maybe justify that, right now. And the disillusionment with the man at the center of Israeli politics and presence right now is, from left to right, in a popular phrase, “not good for the Jews.”

The disillusionment is clearly reflected in the latest poll numbers in Israel. Numbers released by the Hebrew outlet Ha’aretz and reported in the Israel Times show that if elections were held today, the parties in Netanyahu’s current coalition would drop from the 64 seats they captured in November 2022 to 41 seats out of 120. At the same time, parties in the “change” alliance, combined with the Arab Hadash-Taal would increase to 79. Benny Gantz’s National Unity party would win 43 seats compared to the 12 it won last November, while Netanyahu’s Likud party would win just 18 seats, down from 32 in November 2022.

The poll was taken before the hostage exchange deal, but the comments page in the Jerusalem Post was mostly written after the deal was announced, and it was not kind to the prime minister. What was striking to me was how many angry critics Netanyahu had on his right flank, where he was being criticized for caving to President Joe Biden’s pressure and making a deal with Hamas, as opposed to pushing forward while momentum may be on Israel’s side. Would giving up four days of bombing give Hamas the time to regroup and rebound? How many hostages is that worth? Is 1-to-3 the right balance? What about the humanitarian aid desperately needed by innocent people in Gaza who are themselves civilians and not supporters of Hamas? And, ultimately, can you trust Netanyahu to thread the needle and get the balance exactly right in waging this war? We have to trust Netanyahu, even though we don’t, which is a nuance that is not easy to embrace.