Paralysis at the Top in Israel

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One thing that is obscured into the current chaos and killing in Israel/Palestine is that the current government is essentially paralyzed. Benjamin Netanyahu remains Prime Minister despite a catastrophic loss of public support tied to his failure to prevent the October 7th massacres in southern Israel. In theory there’s a government of national unity now in place, with a war cabinet made up of Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, one of the two main leaders of the opposition. But just how much control Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, is exercising is unclear.

Meanwhile many government ministers have been close to invisible since the war started. Some basic news about government policy comes out in the US first and only then gets reported in Israel. I should add that from a distance and without a subtle grasp of the textures of Israeli politics it’s difficult for me to judge the extent of this invisibility. But I’ve asked this question of numerous Israelis whose opinion I trust and all seem to agree with this basic read of the situation.

On top of this you have a Prime Minister who is thoroughly discredited but seems to be spending most of his time, or at least focus on, a) keeping out of jail (for his longstanding criminal prosecution) and b) lining up his defenses for an inevitable post-conflict inquiry into the failure to prevent the October 7th massacres. Needless to say that’s not what you want your head of government focusing on at a time like this. Over the last three weeks most of the key stakeholders in the Israeli national security sector have come forward with public apologies for their failure to prevent the October 7th attacks. But Netanyahu has conspicuously refused to do so.

Overnight Netanyahu tweeted explicitly blaming the country’s intelligence chiefs for failing to prevent the October 7th massacres. The response to this was so overwhelming that Netanyahu was compelled to delete the tweet and publicly apologize. For context, this is on par with Donald Trump apologizing. It doesn’t happen. He hastily affirmed his confidence in the intelligence chief who is, needless to say, in charge of running a significant part of the current war. In short, Netanyahu is distracted, discredited and clearly focused in large part on saving himself.

With all that, how is he remaining in power? Quite simply, there’s no viable mechanism to remove him. In theory, all that is required is a defeat in vote of no confidence. But that’s all but impossible to imagine under current circumstances. First, his coalition is made up of extremists who are extremely dedicated to him personally and to the agenda he made synonymous with his continuation in power. Second, those goals and political futures rely entirely on him. If an election were held today it’s all but certain that his coalition would lose power and that many of its members would lose their seat in the Knesset. In this way, the government’s very unpopularity fastens it to power. As long as his coalition holds, they are not required to hold a new election for more than three years.

In practice an election at this moment is all but unthinkable, simply as a practical matter. The government has actually delayed local municipal elections until the beginning of next year because of the difficulty of holding them in wartime. But a new government doesn’t require an election. A different agglomeration of 61 Knesset seats could bring one into being. But the current 61 seats are locked in for the reasons I described above.

I should add one point. Some assume that the collapse of support for Netanyahu means a collapse of support for the current war policy. Far from it. At the outset of this war, many in the US predicted a rally-round-the-flag effect which would buoy Netanyahu’s political fortunes. What you had was what one might call a literal rally-round-the-flag effect, in which war spurred a spike in social solidarity and support for aggressive military action without any of that support accruing to the leader in power.

Addendum: I realized after writing this that I hadn’t quite captured one dimension of this. There appears to be a widespread view in the country’s security establishment that Netanyahu has not only lost his legitimacy but almost his reason. I don’t mean that like he’s gone crazy or something. But it’s more than just bad decisions. The overnight tweet captures some flavor of it. Erratic. Not clearly focused on state security in a crisis that is almost certainly the gravest the country has faced in 50 years. (It doesn’t seem quite right to us to say that is an existential crisis. But there’s no question many Israelis do see it that way.) This is related to the sense I noted above about the government being paralyzed, invisible. The country is on a full war-footing but at least many leaders in the national security establishment don’t know and don’t trust on what basis the head of government is making decisions.

I should add this caveat. Even within Israel, among those most tuned in and plugged in, this is all a matter of impressions, informal conversations. In the nature of things, top IDF generals, heads of the intelligence agencies and such can’t speak to the public about what they’re thinking about the Prime Minister. It’s all the more complicated for someone like me trying to make sense of things from thousands of miles away. But the above is my best effort to give you a flavor of the situation based on closely following a breadth of news, social media and private conversations.

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