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The war in Gaza isn’t going well for Israel, but it’s far from over for Netanyahu

Israelis don’t trust Netanyahu. They’re still not ready to retreat from Gaza.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s head and shoulders, with a US flag and an Israeli flag standing behind him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as the US Secretary of State gives statements to the media inside The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Defence Ministry, after their meeting in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. 
Jaquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Pressure is mounting on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the war in Gaza brings high costs and few operational successes.

Monday marked the deadliest day in the war for Israeli forces, with a total of 24 soldiers killed in southern Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces said all but three of them died in a building collapse after a rocket-propelled grenade fired by militants caused an explosion. Netanyahu called Monday “one of the most difficult days since the outbreak of the war.”

He’s also facing louder demands to reach a hostage deal with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that attacked Israel on October 7, launching this phase of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During their attack, Hamas and allied operatives captured more than 200 people and have since released 110 of them as part of temporary ceasefire deals.

Family members of the estimated 107 remaining hostages and their supporters broke into the Israeli Parliament on Monday to call for urgent action, since they worry time might be running out: Some hostages are already confirmed to have died in captivity, and others have been accidentally killed by the IDF in Gaza. Israeli officials reportedly extended an offer of a two-month ceasefire to Hamas in exchange for the phased release of all the hostages — an offer Hamas has reportedly rejected. Hamas wants the war to end entirely.

The US and its regional partners are also looking to facilitate an end to the war as the death toll among Palestinians in Gaza climbs beyond 25,000. The US reportedly floated a Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement in exchange for a Palestinian state, a proposal that Netanyahu rejected. Brett McGurk, a senior Biden administration official, is visiting Egypt and Qatar this week with the aim of mediating a hostage deal as a key step toward ending the war.

But none of these developments necessarily mean Netanyahu is close to ending the war. The Israeli death toll may be mounting, and the hostages may have few prospects for release, but there’s little sign the Israeli public is ready to pull the country’s forces back.

“You have this weird situation where nobody trusts Netanyahu but everybody believes in this war,” said Mairav Zonszein, a senior Israel analyst for the International Crisis Group, of public sentiment in Israel.

Are these pressures going to make Netanyahu end the war in Gaza?

Netanyahu appears intent on drawing out the war so long as it remains popular, and he has little personal incentive to end it. Corruption scandals, questions about whether his government could have prevented the October 7 attack, and a push for unpopular legal reforms have weakened his grip on power. As long as the war is going on, all that is moot.

And at the moment, most Israelis support the war: A January poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) found that 56 percent of Israeli adults thought that the continuing war in Gaza was the best way to recover the hostages. That’s despite the fact that Israel’s stated military aim of eliminating Hamas is unachievable, as even Israeli war cabinet minister and former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot has recently admitted.

Israel may be able to deal a blow to Hamas’s military capabilities, but neutralizing it entirely appears currently out of reach. Israel has no long-term plan for what happens after the war, and as soon as the fighting stops, Hamas may have the opportunity to rebuild to its earlier strength. Hamas’s command structure remains intact, the group still has control over much of its sprawling tunnels (which may be even bigger than previously known), and it’s still been able to launch ambushes from the north, an area that Israel purportedly controls.

Israelis can see that the IDF isn’t achieving its objectives — only winning “small tactical achievements, nothing of a strategic breakthrough” — but they nevertheless “still think that those objectives are legitimate,” Zonszein said.

It’s unclear how long that will remain the case and what, if anything, might change public opinion. But what is clear is that Netanyahu’s days are likely numbered. The January IDI poll found that only 15 percent of Israelis surveyed wanted him to remain in office after the war ends. “Most people believe that he’s interested in prolonging the war to keep himself in power,” Zonszein said.

If elections were called, Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity party currently seems the most likely to win power in the Israeli Parliament. Gantz is seen as more moderate on the war than Netanyahu, whose colleagues in his right-wing Likud party have made statements now being cited as evidence of genocidal intent against Palestinians in South Africa’s case at the Hague. Gantz has called for an exit strategy for the operation in Gaza, warning about Israel pursuing an endless war.

Losing his position would be a problem for Netanyahu, not just because he would be forced out in disgrace after a total of 16 years as prime minister, but also because he would be left to face his legal troubles. He’s been charged with fraud, bribery, and breach of trust in three separate 2019 cases. The trial has been repeatedly delayed — at first due to the pandemic and more recently because of the war in Gaza — but it resumed in December and is expected to drag on for months. An appeals process could take years. Netanyahu’s lawyers have asked for fewer hearings for the duration of the war.

If convicted, he could be removed from office and face up to 10 years in prison. He tried to implement controversial judicial reforms that many Israeli political experts warned could have been used to eventually shield him from the charges, but Israel’s Supreme Court struck them down earlier this month. Some members of Netanyahu’s cabinet have said that they wouldn’t let the decision stop reform efforts, but it’s unclear how they could try to circumvent it.

For Netanyahu, the war is therefore just as political as it is personal.

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