‘Mr Security’: Hamas war tarnishes Netanyahu’s image as Israel’s protector

On the campaign trail in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Israeli city of Ashkelon, which had recently been hit by rocket fire from nearby Gaza by Palestinian militants, to “return security . . . to the citizens of Israel” and topple Hamas.

Such tough talk helped Netanyahu win the election, and he positioned himself as “Mr. Security” — a leader who could ensure Israel’s security in a hostile environment without making painful concessions to the Palestinians.

But while Netanyahu has overseen many conflicts over the years, he has not tried to crush Hamas or other militant groups in Gaza. Last weekend, those forces launched their worst-ever attack on his country’s border — a devastating multi-pronged attack that has unsettled Israelis, undermined Netanyahu’s security credentials and cast a deep shadow over his political future.

“Netanyahu always said [he wanted to be remembered] As the protector of Israel. . . Everything that is happening now is crushing this tradition,” said Mazal Mualem, a Netanyahu biographer and senior political analyst at Al-Monitor.

“The most disturbing event for the Jewish people since the Holocaust in the south of Israel under his right-wing government.”

The attack killed at least 1,300 people in Israel and injured more than 3,000, while 120 people were taken hostage, Israeli officials said. Palestinian officials said 2,329 people were killed and more than 9,000 wounded in the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

According to Israeli officials, at least 1,300 people were killed in the attacks by Hamas in Israel © Khatib/AFP/Getty Images said

The military and intelligence failures ahead of the attack have shocked Israel, with analysts comparing it to the biggest security failure in the country’s history: the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria were shocked by a coordinated attack on the Jewish state.

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By Thursday, Netanyahu’s office insisted it had received no advance warning of the attack, following reports in the Israeli press about unusual movements by Hamas inside Gaza.

But critics say the Hamas offensive is not just short-term setbacks, but also Netanyahu’s strategy of trying to contain the militants with a combination of military deterrence and economic incentives. This approach assumes that limited economic aid to the citizens of Gaza – which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized the territory in 2007 – will help rein in a group sworn to Israel’s destruction.

“Every few months or years there is a round of fighting, you use massive force, and after each round Hamas is damaged and deterred by it. At least that’s it [Netanyahu] And the generals sold us out,” said Amos Harel, author of a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They completely ignored Hamas’s army and military structure, and its fundamentalist ideology remained unchanged.”

In the country’s 75-year history, military failures have often contributed to the downfall of Israeli leaders from Golda Meir to Ehud Olmert after Yom Kippur.

Some observers think the scale of last weekend’s security debacle will eventually oust Israel’s longtime prime minister. A poll this week found that 94 percent of Jewish Israelis hold the government responsible for intelligence failures before the attacks, and 56 percent believe Netanyahu should step down after the war.

“This is the end. . . If Netanyahu doesn’t approve it, the people of Israel will show him the door,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a political analyst turned adviser to Netanyahu, though he cautioned that this would not happen before the end of the war.

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“Let’s say he achieves all the goals of the war: Israel eliminates Hamas and [beats] Hezbollah. People still remember this horrible day. Netanyahu cannot run away from this. It was under his watch, carelessness was under his watch.

Benjamin Netanyahu's supporters react to the first televised election results samples at the November 2022 election event.
Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election last year in an alliance with far-right and ultra-religious parties. © Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Especially in Israeli politics over the past 25 years, Netanyahu has repeatedly outmaneuvered his rivals, a ruthless operator and master tactician, confounding critics trying to write his political obituary.

During his six terms, he became one of Israel’s most divisive politicians. Despite feuding with several former allies and being investigated for corruption charges he has denied, he won re-election last year in alliance with far-right and ultra-religious parties.

Just as Netanyahu’s trial has entrenched rather than changed supporters and opponents, Israel’s military debacle will likely fail to persuade deeply polarized voters to change their minds about him, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster.

“I still think that’s one possible scenario . . . the pro-Netanyahu right wing says: ‘This proves what we’ve been saying for a long time. Israel must be tough, give no concessions, no quarter.’ And his detractors say: ‘This proves how hollow his leadership has been,’ he said.

Netanyahu gave himself a breather on Wednesday when Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party agreed to join his coalition for the duration of the war. The deal will help curb a bitter fight over judicial reform pushed by Netanyahu and his far-right allies that has divided the nation for the past nine months.

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Some analysts said the alliance — sealed just before Israel is expected to launch a complex and bloody ground operation in Gaza — would project a sense of unity and allow Netanyahu to share some of the painful military political costs. Results the campaign can bring.

But others doubt the unity government will be more than a stopgap.

“It still does not promise any broad unity beyond that [the war]Nathan Sachs at the Brookings Institution said. “Logic would suggest that he’s a new Golda mayor from 1973, a former prime minister walking in. Of course, Netanyahu . . . may try to cling to power for a while, but it won’t last.

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