By Howard Goller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Inside Israeli defence headquarters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu monitored the first release of Hamas-held hostages while outside, their families in a Tel Aviv square gathered around Benny Gantz, his leading challenger for the top job.
On camera Gantz, a former army chief and opposition leader who joined Netanyahu’s war cabinet last month, pointedly asked a TV crew to leave him alone with the families. Photos published later showed him hugging individuals in the crowd.
Facing a huge wave of criticism over his failure to prevent the shock Hamas infiltration of Israel on Oct. 7, Netanyahu has largely avoided the limelight while conducting a two-front war, one against Hamas and the other for his own political survival.
Netanyahu, 74, has long maintained an image as a security hawk, tough on Iran and backed by an army that ensured Jews would never again suffer a Holocaust – only to experience on his watch the deadliest single incident in Israel’s 75-year-old history.
Israelis have shunned some of Netanyahu’s fellow cabinet ministers, blaming them for failing to prevent the Palestinian Hamas gunmen from entering from Gaza, killing 1,200 people, abducting 240 more and engulfing the country in war.
In separate incidents, at least three of his ministers were subjected to derision and abuse when they appeared in public, underscoring the scale of public fury over the failures that paved the way for Hamas to carry out the attack.
Over the weekend, his office issued videos showing him in the Defence Ministry situation room. On Sunday, Netanyahu visited Gaza. His office issued photos afterwards showing him in a helmet and flak jacket meeting soldiers and commanders.
Known by his nickname “Bibi,” Netanyahu stands to gain from a war that further delays his 3-1/2 year-old corruption trial and puts off an expected state inquiry into why Israel under his leadership was caught off guard.
Huddling with generals, he may also hope to salvage his reputation through his conduct of the war and the return of hostages while refusing to accept responsibility and dismissing a question at a rare press conference asking if he would resign.
But his biographer Anshel Pfeffer said: “No matter how long Netanyahu manages to hold on to power, he won’t salvage his reputation.
“He is now tainted irretrievably by the failure to prevent the Oct. 7 massacre, by his own strategy of allowing Hamas to remain in control, with its military arsenal, in Gaza and by the utterly inept civil relief efforts of his government since the Oct. 7 attack.”
The author of the 2018 book “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Pfeffer said surveys in recent weeks showed Israelis trusting the security establishment to lead the war effort, but not Netanyahu.
“The failure of Oct. 7 is his legacy. Whatever success Israel will have in the aftermath will not be ascribed to him.”
NETANYAHU VOWS TO CONTROL SECURITY IN GAZA INDEFINITELY
Netanyahu has vowed to control security in Gaza indefinitely, adding uncertainty to the fate of an enclave where for seven weeks Israel was on the attack before forging a temporary truce with Hamas and the freeing of hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinian detainees from Israel.
Some 14,800 Palestinians have been killed in the war, Gaza health authorities say, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu has survived many a political crisis, staged several comebacks, and need not face another election for three years if his coalition remains in tact.
“I know him very well and he concentrates on what he is doing, he is really a very hard-working person and now he is running a war and he is holding, like a juggler, half-a-dozen balls in the air – and to keep them only in the air he must concentrate,” said Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
“To go out and face people who shout at you and really hate you, there is no benefit of doing that, so he decided to give it up,” Diskin said.
GANTZ IN CABINET OFFERS NETANYAHU STABILITY
Slim, tall and blue-eyed with an easy way about him, Gantz, 64, joined an Israeli war cabinet that Netanyahu formed days after the Hamas attack to unite the country behind a campaign to destroy Hamas and retrieve the hostages.
With nearly 40 years in the military, the centrist Gantz offers Netanyahu and his rightist Likud party a more stable government that reduces the influence of the far-right and religious coalition partners on the fringes of Israeli society.
United in war perhaps, they are at odds politically.
He, Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud have together held press conferences. A photo of one such event that went viral on social media captured Netanyahu alone, and Gallant and Gantz standing together off to the side.
A Nov. 16 opinion poll found the Netanyahu-led coalition that won 64 seats in a November 2022 election would garner 45 in the 120-member Knesset today compared with 70 seats of parties led by Gantz’s National Unity Party, enough to assume power.
The survey for Israel’s Channel 12 took place a week before Qatar announced the hostage deal and was conducted among 502 respondents by pollster Mano Geva and the company Midgam and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Gantz has little of Netanyahu’s experience or flair on the world stage, and critics say his laid-back manner shows indecisiveness and a lack of principles. Gantz has described himself as having more grit than varnish.
Often perceived as being every bit as hawkish on Palestinians as Netanyahu, Gantz has stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek, but in the past backed efforts to restart peace talks with them.
Israelis have gone to the polls five times in the last five years. No single party has ever won a simple parliamentary majority, and a coalition of parties has always been required. With a war on, no one is suggesting holding elections again.
But two weeks ago centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid said it was time to replace Netanyahu without going to elections.
He suggested there would be broad support for a unity government led by Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, but no one within Likud has emerged to challenge Netanyahu.
“We can’t afford another election cycle in the coming year in which we continue to fight and explain why the other side is a disaster,” Lapid wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
(Reporting by Howard Goller; editing by Diane Craft)