The crisis triggered by Hamas’ savage attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 is at a very delicate stage. As Gaza awaits a full-scale Israeli invasion, Iran and its proxies are dialing up their threatening rhetoric, and the U.S. is moving another carrier battle group into the region, major questions loom about the nature, scope, and consequences of the war the terrorists triggered.
It is not too early, however, to draw certain conclusions about the consequences unleashed by Hamas’ brutality.
One is that it is highly unlikely the Iranian-funded terror group will survive this war. Another is that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also almost certain to be brought down and many of his highest priorities dashed due to the widespread perception among the Israeli public that it was Netanyahu’s leadership failures that put the public at risk of the attack, an assault that resulted in the greatest single day loss of Israeli lives in that country’s history.
As the viciousness of the terrorists and the human toll of their crimes become clearer with each passing day, thinking in terms of political winners and losers or even geopolitical maneuvering seems almost petty. But because the role of leaders and that of regional players have had and will have such profound consequences for the lives of millions of others, it is essential we understand how the attack at the end of the first week of October may have changed the landscape of power in the Middle East.
Clearly, at this point, Netanyahu is beginning to understand. It looks like his more than two decades of dominance of Israeli politics is finally coming to an end.
Yes, he remains in office at the head of a “unity” government. But it is widely expected that he will be forced out after the end of the conflict in Gaza—if not before. Polls have made it clear that politically, he is a dead prime minister walking.
A Dialog Center poll indicated that nearly nine in ten Israelis characterized the terror attack as a consequence of a failure of the Netanyahu government. In the same poll, 56 percent of Israelis think Netanyahu should step down at the end of the war.
A big victory in the war in Gaza, a moment of sudden and unexpected competence for the Netanyahu government, could conceivably revive the prime minister’s chances to survive. But experts think that is unlikely.
One veteran of several Israeli governments said to me, “Frankly, I’m not even sure he will make it to the end of the war, especially if what happens in Gaza is drawn out and messy as it is likely to be.” This view is echoed by others with whom I have spoken who condemned the disorder in the Netanyahu government since the attacks and the absence of any long term plan for what to do after they invade Gaza and attack Hamas strongholds. This absence of a plan is also a reported concern of the Biden administration.
The next several weeks are fraught with risks. Gaza is densely populated and concerns about potential civilian casualties are very high. The Biden team has repeatedly urged that the Israelis be careful to observe international law and reduce the risks to the innocent population of Gaza. National security advisor Jake Sullivan said, “The many, many Palestinians who have had nothing to do with the brutal terrorist organization Hamas—the vast majority of the population of Gaza—they deserve dignity. They deserve safety and security.”
Sullivan also announced Israel would resume water supply to Gaza, a step which reportedly came after U.S. pressure. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of a U.S. diplomatic effort to confer with regional leaders, also underscored the need to protect civilians.
Another x-factor that was cited as a source of concern by Blinken in his meetings was the potential for the conflict to spread. Iran, the long-time sponsor of Hamas, has been ratcheting up its rhetoric and actions suggesting it would take an active role protecting its proxy. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian flaunted that relationship in a meeting with a Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, who resides in Qatar, over the weekend.
And, according to Al Jazeera, the Iranian foreign minister also indicated he had met with the leader of another proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon and threatened that Iran could enter the conflict depending on how it progresses.
In response to the potential for the conflict to spread, the United States deployed a second carrier battle group to the Eastern Mediterranean. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower strike group joins the USS Gerald R. Ford battle group which is already in the waters off Israel.
Not only is Netanyahu’s career likely nearing its end, so too are some of his ambitions seemingly doomed.
As long as the unity government is in place, there will be no progress on Netanyahu’s efforts to further hobble Israeli democracy through “judicial reforms.” The Israel-Saudi “normalization” deal that Netanyahu also hoped might benefit him politically is also on hold.
Should the Israeli invasion of Gaza result in even more significant Palestinian casualties, it will be very hard for the Saudis to enter into such an agreement for a long time. Even then, were it possible, the willingness that the Saudis and Israelis seemingly had to let the Palestinian issue slide somewhat—as part of such a deal—is gone. Any future such deal will have to include major concrete steps to benefit the Palestinians.
In the same vein, the Netanyahu government’s impulse to annex more settlements in the West Bank and to undertake even more aggressive policies there is now seen as having distracted the government from security concerns associated with Gaza that, in turn, may have helped create the opening for the Hamas attacks. (That is one of the reasons why many in Israel do not consider the Hamas attack to be so much an intelligence failure—there was warning a threat existed—but, rather, see it as a leadership failure on the part of the prime minister and his team.)
One of Netanyahu’s core objectives in seeking normalization with leading nations of the Arab world was to send the message that this could be done without addressing the Palestinian problem. Not only was that wrong, but in all likelihood, as the war progresses and the toll in Gaza (and, tragically, very likely many civilians in Gaza) compounds this deeply cynical goal of Netanyahu and his allies also appears to be undone. Should the next government be less extreme than Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, one would hope that many of his most odious and dangerous partners in that government might also see their influence decline.
(Also: In terms of U.S. politics, the assiduous cultivation of a relationship with Netanyahu by the Republican leadership is likely to have been for naught. Indeed, in a bizarre rant in which he actually praised Hezbollah, former President Donald Trump actually turned on Netanyahu because he committed the unforgivable sin of acknowledging the extraordinarily effective role President Biden and his team have played in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack.)
It is as premature as it is disrespectful to include Netanyahu’s political obituary alongside those of the innocent Israelis whose lives were put at risk by the failures of his government.
But those who track Israeli public opinion—and who also remember the inability half a century ago of Prime Minister Golda Meir to hold on to her office for long after the intelligence failures that led to the Yom Kippur war—feel that it is one of most likely consequences of this volatile moment in the region’s history.
Unlike those tragically claimed by this crisis to date, or those innocents who may yet be claimed, a racist, corrupt, ego-maniacal, would-be autocrat like Netanyahu is unlikely to be mourned by anyone of good character, or by anyone who has aspirations for a more just, peaceful Middle East.