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Netanyahu's failure to provide the Palestinians with a genuine sense of statehood, has dashed hopes for the future and led to today’s dramatic situation not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank.
The attack carried out on 7 October by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, was the deadliest since the country’s foundation and is the result of changing conditions since Netanyahu’s assumption of the office of prime minister following the election in November 2022.
Netanyahu’s Dysfunctional Policies
In his 15 years as Israel’s prime minister and as the country’s longest-serving politician, Netanyahu has polarised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and internal divisions more than anyone.
While setting up the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history and amid the distractions that accompanied their campaign to assert control over Israel’s judiciary and efforts to expand the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu and his cabinet allowed the decline of military readiness, leaving outposts on the Gazan border in the south unmanned.
As reported by The Guardian, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak characterised the attack as “the most severe blow Israel has suffered since its establishment to date.” Barak expressed “doubt about the people’s trust in Netanyahu’s leadership, especially in light of such a catastrophic event occurring during his tenure.”
Although no one can say Netanyahu bears the moral responsibility for Hamas’ attack – on the day now referred to as the “black Shabbat” – there are factors that have facilitated it.
Far-right Coalition and Settler-led Government
Over the last decade, settlers have succeeded in establishing themselves as a hegemonic force in Israeli politics, education, culture and society.
As a result, Netanyahu’s choice to appoint his two closest allies in the coalition to key ministerial positions – Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich as the ministers of national security and finance, respectively – following the election victory in November 2022, not only led the country into an unprecedented spiral of violence against Palestinians but also caused deep friction within Israeli society.
Since November 2022, backed by Netanyahu’s political power, extremist groups of settlers have initiated a relentless process of fragmenting the West Bank into enclaves, which has created a sense of frustration among Palestinians that has been building up ever since.
Netanyahu’s failure to provide the Palestinians with a genuine sense of statehood, along with the complete lack of security, equal economic and political opportunities and the constant policies of ‘divide and conquer’ concerning the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, has dashed hopes for the future and led to today’s dramatic situation not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank.
Assault on the Judicial System and Failure to Negotiate with the PA
Netanyahu’s attack on one of the most revered and respected institutions in Israel, the Supreme Court, has deepened divisions within Israeli society and weakened the country’s democratic processes.
The reform of the judicial system became a central topic in Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent electoral campaign to avoid going to trial for corruption. Driven by his provocative speeches, essential economic funding and political efforts were diverted toward this personal matter.
Netanyahu’s personal crusade has weakened the security apparatus and threatened Israeli political institutions. Significant roles in delicate matters like the Palestinian Cause and other geopolitical concerns were relegated to low-profile figures. Despite warnings from defence chiefs and former leaders of the country’s intelligence agencies, Netanyahu proceeded with his divisive strategies, ultimately eroding the unity within the country’s security services.
According to Martin Indyk, a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration, these internal divisions caused by legal changes contributed to the Israelis being caught off guard.
Ambiguity Surrounding Hamas
Since 2008, Netanyahu’s position on Hamas has been marked by ambiguity, despite his consistent public stance criticising the Palestinian faction and promising to “overthrow Hamas’ reign of terror.” Netanyahu’s actions, however, diverged from his rhetoric.
His soft approach to Hamas revealed how the goal of distinguishing between Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, combined with the systematic weakening of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, was aimed at obstructing the Palestinians’ statehood efforts.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited Netanyahu’s statements during a Likud meeting in March 2019; he emphasised that “those seeking to hinder the establishment of a Palestinian state should endorse the strengthening of Hamas and the transfer of funds to Hamas.”
Netanyahu’s silent decision to allow Qatar to inject tens of millions of dollars into the Gaza Strip as “humanitarian support” helped him to gain support as Hamas’ presence in Gaza was perceived to pose a significant threat to Israel.
On the other hand, it further empowered Hamas and its capabilities, as Netanyahu confirmed in an interview with Time in 2019 — a strategic and fatal misconception of the Palestinian group’s real intentions.
UN Speech and Failed Political Agenda
“The people’s fate will be determined by the choices they make between blessings and curses. We face this choice today.” In September 2023, Netanyahu delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, emphasising his and his government’s achievements in the Middle East.
During his address to world leaders, the Israeli prime minister appeared to catch Saudi leaders off guard as he unveiled not yet public plans and exposed diplomatic initiatives facilitated with the support of the United States and its allies.
As he disclosed the ongoing diplomatic efforts to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and establish peace agreements with several Arab regimes in the region, Netanyahu reiterated that the notion that Israel cannot forge peace agreements with Arab states until the Palestinian Cause is resolved was “outdated.” He revealed that the Palestinians had not been consulted or taken into account in any peace negotiations with the Arab regimes.
Many observers pointed out that his speech, a mix of arrogance and boldness, could have been perceived as an existential threat by both Hamas and Iran, potentially influencing the timing of the attack during a crucial phase for the region’s geopolitical balance.
A Country Without Leadership
While other political leaders and the heads of the security establishment have publicly reiterated their responsibility for the attack, the Israeli prime minister has yet to take full responsibility for the political failure to prevent the killing of hundreds of Israelis.
It is no surprise that the government’s strategy in Gaza and its war with Hamas remains unclear while many in Israel begin to ask for Netanyahu’s resignation. His party, the Likud, is experiencing a deep and quick change within its ranks and a shift from full support for its leader to growing criticism of his abilities as a political leader.
As reported by Haaretz, one Likud minister remarked, “Every decision Netanyahu has made in the last two years was wrong, including the reform. It is either he didn’t make a decision, or he made the wrong decisions.”
In Israel, as elsewhere, Hamas’ attack seems only the conclusion of faulty policies: the choice to align with the most extremist political parties and their agendas, the total lack of a feasible strategy towards the Palestinians, and judicial reform which would have changed the core of Israel’s system of checks and balances forever.
What seems unavoidable, however, is that these events have created a point of no return not just for Netanyahu’s career but for the country as a whole.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.