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TEL AVIV — All eyes are on when retired general Benny Gantz is going to make his move against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Since Hamas’ murderous attacks on October 7, Israelis have largely put partisan politics aside, but the strain for such a highly rambunctious nation is starting to show. With the first phase of action in Gaza coming to a close, the weeks ahead now look set to roll into a potential endgame for Netanyahu, as many Israelis blame him for last month’s catastrophic security blunder.
Gantz is the most likely challenger to step up and call time on Netanyahu’s long political career. Before the attacks, the former defense minister expressed concern over the dangerously “extremist” direction Netanyahu and his allies were taking the country but after October 7 he was still ready to join Netanyahu’s war cabinet for the sake of national unity. As he noted: “There is a time for peace and a time for war. Now is a time for war.”
Since then, Gantz’s polling numbers have skyrocketed, while Netanyahu’s have plunged to an all-time low.
The starting gun on a resumption of politics as usual will sound the moment Gantz, a former chief of the general staff, decides to leave the emergency cabinet, said Nimrod Goren, an academic and analyst with the Middle East Institute.
“That will be the significant moment — when Benny decides to quit — and the public political discourse will change overnight,” he said.
There are clear signs things are already starting to shift. Gantz this week objected fiercely to the unfreezing of hundreds of millions of shekels in political funds earmarked for ultra-Orthodox and right-wing pro-settler parties. Gantz announced on Sunday his party’s five ministers would vote against the budgetary changes and, in a letter to Netanyahu, he criticized “disbursing coalition funds or any additional budget that is not connected to the war effort or advancing economic growth.”
Netanyahu, Gantz and the third war cabinet member, current Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whom Netanyahu fired last March for opposing his controversial bid to weaken judicial independence, have all sought to rein in their larger-than-life personalities and control their strong personal animosities. Even so, war cabinet meetings can be raucous and voluble, said two Israeli officials who have access to the sessions. They both asked not to be named for this article.
Likewise, while declining to join a national unity government, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, the largest parliamentary opposition faction, was wary about making a move. Until mid-November, he avoided joining a handful of mainly fringe politicians and former prime ministers in calling for Netanyahu to resign and to take responsibility for failing to prevent the Hamas attack. On November 15, he finally called for Netanyahu to step aside. Attacked by Likud, he pointedly retorted that he wanted a new prime minister, not necessarily a new ruling party.
While his diehard rivals have eschewed — at least in public — a return to the old political fray, Netanyahu has been much less restrained. So too some of his far-right allies, who’ve been jockeying for advantage with their eyes focused on what may happen politically once the war has finished.
Netanyahu has struggled to keep his far-right coalition partners in line. Several of them have been playing to their own loyalists and advocating ever more outlandish policies, including blocking any humanitarian aid to Gaza, annexing the Strip and even nuking it.
Netanyahu himself has been accused of self-serving “political mudslinging” after issuing a string of divisive statements blaming the country’s military and intelligence chiefs for the failure to prevent the October 7 attack.
The security chiefs have accepted their share of the blame — but Netanyahu has not, saying what went wrong should be assessed later, presumably when he hopes his polling numbers might have recovered. One formerly pro-Netanyahu writer, Uri Dagon of the newspaper Israel Hayom, accused Netanyahu of being “focused on saving his skin.”
Netanyahu’s evasion of any responsibility for Israel’s security lapses hasn’t helped his polling numbers. The Israeli prime minister isn’t getting any boost from the war, unlike Gantz, one of the leaders of the center-right National Unity party. In a mid-October poll, 41 percent of respondents said they wanted Gantz to be prime minister; only 25 percent picked Netanyahu. A late November election poll from the Maariv news outlet said Gantz’s National Unity party stood to increase its seats to 43 from only 12 now in the 120-seat Knesset if a vote were held. Likud would slump to 18 from 32.
Most Israelis think the Hamas onslaught exposed a “leadership debacle” with two-thirds wanting anyone but Netanyahu to lead the country. In another survey, 44 percent of respondents said Netanyahu was responsible for what happened October 7. Only 18 percent of Israelis thought that he doesn’t have to leave office. Seventy-six percent want him out of office sooner or later.
One widespread charge against Netanyahu is that he hasn’t become a truly national leader, and that he has prioritized keeping his coalition government together — one beholden to religious nationalists and extremist settler groups — above the national interest. Hence the outcry over the unfreezing of the funds for ultra-Orthodox causes and illegal settlements on the occupied West Bank.
But for the sake of national unity and out of a healthy wariness of Netanyahu’s political skills and his history of implausible comebacks against seemingly impossible odds, his political foes are for now biding their time and waiting for the most propitious moment to challenge him.
Behind the scenes, opposition parties are lobbying around a dozen moderate lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party to see if they would back a no-confidence vote. Opposition leaders have also talked with Shas, a Sephardic Haredi political party, which is center left on fiscal matters but conservative when it comes to religion and social policy. Shas is the fourth largest party in the Knesset.
Leaders of the protest movement comprising more than 200 groups that opposed Netanyahu’s contentious judicial changes are also discussing when they should fire up again with the aim of toppling him. Throughout much of this year, the movement, which included retired generals, judges, top business figures and army reservists, rocked Israel at times, bringing the country to a standstill.
But after October 7, attention shifted to helping evacuees, assisting the families of hostages and those killed by Hamas, and supporting communities in southern Israel. Now they’re starting to think about when they should begin again street protests.
They fear if they don’t act Netanyahu might just hang on, said Shikma Bressler, a physicist and mother of five daughters, who became one of the most recognizable faces of the protests after leading a miles-long column of demonstrators on a march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We could wake up if we do nothing with everyone gone but him — with all the heads of the security agencies and army resigning but with him still in office and continuing to hollow out the government and the bureaucracy by putting his own ill-qualified people in all the positions, which would be disastrous,” Bressler told POLITICO.
“Some say this won’t happen and that Bibi’s finished but I say that we don’t know, and we can’t take any chances,” she added. Bressler noted that the movement got hundreds of thousands out on the streets last time — about 2 million protested on one occasion.
“The scholarly literature says that the magic number for a protest to be successful you need about 3.5 percent of the population to take part. We had more than 20 percent of the population actively involved. It was a huge awakening of the normal, ordinary people in this country,” she added.
“It will be even bigger this time.”