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How Netanyahu may be heading to victory in Gaza but defeat in Israel

Anti-Netanyahu protests have broken out in Israel in the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war

The only man doing most of the talking during the Israeli blitzkrieg on Gaza is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. He is clear: will demilitarise Gaza, give it to civilian control, but that would not mean the Palestinian Authority, and ultimately ensure victory against the Iranian “terror axis”.

The rhetoric is clearly targeted to impress upon Israelis, who were angered over October 7 Hamas attacks, but it barely conceals the fast brewing Israeli anger against Netanyahu, who if commentaries are believed, will soon be shown the door into political oblivion, and possibly a term behind the bars as well. But, for the moment, the anti-Netanyahu movement is subdued, in solidarity with the state of Israel.

In an interview with the Fox News last Thursday, Netanyahu said that he hasn’t set any timeline for demilitarising Gaza (meaning freeing it of Hamas), and that it might take more time than anticipated. It was in contrast to his earlier assurance that Hamas will be ousted from Gaza swiftly so that “a civilian set-up might replace it” under Israeli security management. He was also sure of managing freedom of hostages held by Hamas.

He promises no relief to hostages now, and is intent on destroying Hamas first before any next move later. “Our aim is to kill the killers first and then prevent the re-emergence of Hamas-like groups,” he said.

Netanyahu’s comments on post-Hamas Gaza governance are at variance with US officials and even his war cabinet colleague like Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. Both US Secretary of State and Gallant have hinted that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas will be handed over Gaza reins so that Arab and Palestinian sentiments may be assuaged once the war is over.

Key Israeli Faultline: Netanyahu’s Stay or Departure

There are two boiling points in Israeli politics at present: selling the military victory over Hamas in Gaza (whenever it comes), and ensuring accountability of Netanyahu whose baggage of political liabilities has long been brimming.

According to Politico magazine, the question for most Israelis now, it seems, isn’t whether Netanyahu should go, but whether he should go sooner rather than later.

Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which was at the vanguard of anti-Netanyahu movement only some weeks back, said in interview that he held back himself from answering questions on PM Netanyahu, saying “We have soldiers fighting and being killed in Gaza; we have families waiting for their relatives held by Hamas to be free; we are a country at war. So, I’m going to wait to answer the question (on Netanyahu).”

Lapid the only one who has temporarily shelved partisan domestic politics. The mass protest movement opposed to Netanyahu’s controversial judicial changes has also suspended its raucous campaign, focusing instead on aiding both the families of those who lost their lives in the Hamas attacks and the tens of thousands evacuated from Israel’s north and south. According to the movement’s leaders, government support for the evacuees has been poor.

But top activists are already drafting plans for mass protests the day after the war is over — or possibly sooner. And their target won’t be the judicial reforms but Netanyahu himself. “It is clear to everyone that the moment the war is over, the atmosphere of unity and shared destiny, Netanyahu’s ‘together we will win,’ his ‘out of the disaster arose a new nation’ and so forth, will become a thing of the past. It will unravel in an instant,” said columnist Yossi Verter.

Netanyahu is, in fact, the only person playing partisan politics at the moment, which is what prompted Yisrael Hayom to publish the column by its news head Uri Dagon, stating Netanyahu should quit the moment the war is over — a major departure for a newspaper that has been solidly pro-Netanyahu.

One widespread charge against Netanyahu is that he hasn’t become a truly national leader, and that he has prioritised keeping his coalition government together — one beholden to religious nationalists and extremist settler groups — above the national interest.

Israel has many political fault lines, but whether Netanyahu should go now or later has become a key one.