Beirut, Lebanon — As the families of Israeli captives held in Gaza march from Tel Aviv to Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on Saturday, Israel’s longest-serving premier has never been less popular.
A poll from November 14 has Netanyahu’s popularity among Israeli Jews at about 4 percent and both his opponents and traditional allies are calling for him to resign once the current war ends.
“He’s very vulnerable, more than he’s ever been in his political career given that he presided over the greatest intelligence security failure in Israel’s history,” Khaled Elgindy, an expert on Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera. “Prime ministers have fallen for far less than that.”
Ever since he won elections last November and installed the most right-wing government in the country’s history, Netanyahu has battled criticism. Protests have plagued Netanyahu’s latest term over his attempts at judicial reforms. But October 7 has eroded much of even what remained of the support Netanyahu once enjoyed, say experts.
“I suspect there’s a lot of discontent with his leadership of the government, even within his own party,” Zachary Lockman, an expert on Palestine and Israel at New York University, told Al Jazeera.
In Israel, 94 percent of the population believes Netanyahu’s government is at least partially to blame for the events of October 7, when Hamas fighters broke through border fences and attacked southern Israel, killing 1,200 people.
A majority of Israelis believed in the days after the attack that Netanyahu should resign after the war ends – and that frustration has only grown since then. Much of the criticism directed at Netanyahu has been on his seeming lack of interest in freeing the more than 200 captives held in Gaza by Hamas and other armed groups.
On Friday, Israel found the bodies of at least two of the captives. Four captives have been released through mediation efforts led by Qatar and other nations.
But Netanyahu has so far refused a larger deal for a temporary ceasefire in exchange for the release of more captives. He said he would only consider stopping the assault on Gaza when all hostages are freed. Reports suggest that Palestinian groups offered to release at least 50 of the hostages in exchange for a three-day ceasefire but Netanyahu allegedly rebuffed the deal.
“They’ve had the full support of the United States, but the patience of the Biden administration may run out at some point,” Lockman said. “Demands for a ceasefire are increasing in the United States but [also] in Europe and other places.”
Inner party turmoil
Netanyahu may maintain Biden’s support, but his own base is fraying.
After the conflict ends “there will be a large group of people in Likud that will change the existing situation,” Yehiel Zohar, the Likud-affiliated mayor of Netivot, a town about 8.5km (5.3 miles) from Gaza, told the Times of Israel.
The frustration at Netanyahu is boiling over to the point some are even quitting the Likud party altogether. Tamir Idan, the head of the Sdot Negev Regional Council, tore up his Likud membership card on live television. He said he was frustrated at the lack of support from Netanyahu’s government.
“[National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir won’t answer us. [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich sends his assistants,” Idan told the Times of Israel. “Others don’t come at all. This government does not function.”
In the media, Israel Hayom, a right-wing newspaper that often backs Netanyahu, called for him to, “Take responsibility and accept that the buck stops with you.”
The only thread holding Netanyahu’s government together seems to be coming from the far right, which, until now, has continued to back Netanyahu, while taking advantage of the focus on Gaza to continue its aggressions in the West Bank.
“The status quo is very good for Ben Gvir and Smotrich,” Elgindy said. “Netanyahu is battling for his life and everyone is focused on Gaza so they can do whatever they want in the West Bank. The settlers are rampaging, the army is on a rampage and very few people are paying attention so they get to implement their radical agenda.”
But cracks are emerging even there. After the Netanyahu war cabinet agreed on Friday to allow two trucks of fuel into Gaza every day — which activists, nonprofits and others have described as little more than a token gesture for a population of 2.3 million people — Smotrich and Ben-Gvir both criticised the move.
Opponents ready to pounce
Netanyahu has also accrued plenty of enemies over the years. These figures are lining up to take shots at Netanyahu, but few have volunteered to take over for him in the interim. As Netanyahu’s popularity has fallen, one rival, the former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, has seen his rise.
Gantz is also a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet and criticised the prime minister after October 7, when he blamed Israel’s intelligence services and military for the Hamas attack.
“He’s been dreaming of [becoming prime minister] for a long time and framing himself as the natural leader at the centre of the Israeli political spectrum who could unite the left and right and centre,” Lockman said. Gantz is also “free of some of the many burdens that Netanyahu carries,” such as the corruption cases that the prime minister faces.
The November 14 poll asked participants, “Who is more suitable for the position of premier, Netanyahu or Gantz?” Israel’s current prime minister lost out to Gantz by 22 percentage points. But whether Gantz can displace Netanyahu remains to be seen — where he agreed to join Netanyahu’s team after October, many others among the prime minister’s critics refused.
One of those opponents was Yair Lapid, the center-left opposition leader. He said on Wednesday that “another Likud prime minister” should replace Netanyahu. Lapid agrees with Netanyahu that Hamas needs to be eradicated, though both Israeli and Palestinian figures have pointed out the notion’s futility.
“It is interesting that people are starting to demand for him to step down now as opposed to after the war,” Elgindy said. “Maybe that’s a realisation that the war isn’t going to end any time soon. Israel has very open-ended, unclear objectives and they are probably unachievable, at least in the way they’ve articulated them.”
The war effort is costing the Israeli economy about $260m daily, according to Bloomberg, and 300 prominent Israeli and foreign economists urged Netanyahu’s government to “immediately come to your senses”. Public support is mounting against him and the international support he carried early after October 7 continues to erode as the death toll in Gaza mounts.
“The war is not going to end with the great victory that Israelis have been led to believe,” Lockman said. “And when that letdown sets in, you know, somebody will have to pay the price for this politically.”
But Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has managed political comebacks before, including last year when he already had corruption charges hanging over his head.
“My sense is this is probably fatal for him politically. I don’t see how he survives this politically,” Elgindy said. “People are angry about October 7th and the hostages and he was already unpopular before October 7th.”
Elgindy paused for a second, before adding, “But if anyone could engineer a path it would be him.”