The countdown to Netanyahu’s departure has begun

Israel’s five-month-old war on Gaza is testing US-Israeli ties like never before. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at the center of rising tensions between the two close allies. It is not Israel’s right to defend itself and destroy Hamas, which is at the heart of the crisis. Still, Netanyahu’s unrelenting and brazen push to carry on with the massive destruction of the Gaza Strip, regardless of the horrific scenes, the brutal tactics and the shocking statistics, has become the indelible hallmark of this war.

US President Joe Biden has made no secret of his frustration with Netanyahu and his far-right coalition’s provocative and confrontational policies. Netanyahu’s Gaza war has become a US election issue, stripping Biden of much-needed young and progressive Democratic votes. Netanyahu’s rejection of Biden’s “red line” on the imminent offensive against Rafah has brought ties between the two men to an inflection point.

Then, last week, the most prominent US Jewish legislator, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, publicly rebuked Netanyahu’s handling of the Gaza war and called for new elections in Israel. He said that Netanyahu has “lost his way” and is an obstacle to peace in the region. Biden noted that Schumer delivered a good speech, leaving Netanyahu to retort that the senator’s statement was “inappropriate.” Republican lawmakers joined a chorus of Israeli politicians in denouncing Schumer for interfering in Israeli democracy.

Other Western leaders have stopped short of singling out Netanyahu. Still, they have made sure to criticize Israel publicly for hindering the flow of aid to Gaza, which is resulting in mass starvation and famine across the enclave and the death of Palestinian babies as a result of malnutrition and a lack of access to medical care.

Netanyahu’s refusal to approve a new hostage exchange deal has polarized Israeli society even further

Osama Al-Sharif

Domestically, Netanyahu’s approval ratings had been low even before the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. They remain low, even though a majority of Israelis continue to support the war and the destruction of Hamas, all while calling for new elections. Netanyahu’s refusal to approve a new hostage exchange deal has polarized Israeli society even further and weakened his far-right partners in the polls.

Netanyahu has also rejected Biden’s postwar plans for Gaza. He is refusing to consider handing over administration to the Palestinian Authority, withdrawing from Gaza and embracing the two-state solution, which he says rewards Hamas. In return, he has baffled his war Cabinet partners by failing to provide a realistic postwar scenario.

The Biden White House has pressured Netanyahu in an effort to rein him in. Washington has imposed sanctions on two West Bank settlement outposts involved in terrorizing Palestinians. The EU could soon follow suit. This is a precedent that could lead to hundreds of settlers being penalized, as well as foreign donors.

The US has circulated a draft resolution to be submitted to the UN Security Council sometime soon that supports international efforts to establish “an immediate and sustained ceasefire” as part of a deal to release hostages. The US has previously vetoed draft resolutions that called for such a ceasefire on four occasions.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has always been defiant and unconventional. Soon after the signing of the Oslo Accords, he sought to clinch the premiership by denouncing then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and any settlement with the Palestinians. He single-handedly took Israel off the peace path by empowering settlers and aligning himself with the ultranationalists and ultrareligious fanatics.

It is time for him to remove himself and let someone else take a subtler approach to the penultimate phase of the war

Osama Al-Sharif

In the aftermath of the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza, Netanyahu saw an opportunity to play one Palestinian faction off against the other. It is no secret that he propped up Hamas in Gaza against the PA in the West Bank for years by allowing Qatar to bring tens of millions of dollars into the blockaded enclave through Israeli checkpoints.

But Oct. 7 changed everything. Netanyahu, who is also still recovering from an unprecedented public backlash against his attempt to weaken the judiciary and prevent oversight of the executive branch, used the war against Hamas in Gaza not only to destroy the militant group but to carry out an ambitious scheme to bury the two-state solution, the PA and the Oslo Accords forever; all while delaying the inevitable: accountability for the Oct. 7 security disaster.

As the US and most Western countries supported his war on Gaza, Netanyahu and his army failed to secure a swift end to the onslaught. The war has dragged on and the piles of dead Palestinian civilians, including women and children, became too much to stomach for Netanyahu’s Western allies, who faced angry voters at home. The tide had turned and his closest Western friends began pressuring him to end the war.

As Netanyahu ignored such calls, Israel was facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice and accusations of deliberately starving millions of Palestinians, all while feeling almost total abandonment by the UN Security Council and the body of nations. Israel had lost control of the narrative. In the eyes of millions around the world, who were mobilized mainly by social media activists and the flood of raw images of daily massacres posted on such platforms, Tel Aviv’s claim that it was the victim in all this had collapsed.

Netanyahu’s calculations are now at odds with his allies at home. His war Cabinet is split and several rivals are vying for his place. The Israeli political establishment now views him as a liability. The families of the hostages see his rejection of any deal to return their loved ones as a betrayal. Moreover, even if his army ventures into Rafah at a heavy civilian cost that will compound the humanitarian crisis, there are no guarantees that he can secure the decisive victory he has promised the public.

For the Israeli political establishment, Netanyahu’s so-called achievements in Gaza are now being eroded by the severe damage he has done to Israel’s political assets abroad, especially in the US. It is time for him to remove himself and let someone else take a subtler approach to the penultimate phase of the war. Netanyahu has done a lot: weakened Hamas, destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, created a new buffer zone inside the enclave and partitioned the Strip. There is no way Gaza can go back to the pre-Oct. 7 reality.

His successor will carry out most of Netanyahu’s objectives with less drama and fanfare, while restoring ties with the US and initiating a damage-control operation regarding Israel’s scarred public image. In all cases, Netanyahu’s legacy in Gaza and beyond will likely endure: the two-state solution will still be bogged down by piles of details and last-minute addendums.

If elections were to be held today, Likud would be downsized and the far right would take a hit, but it would still have a voice in the Knesset. A new coalition of right-of-center parties, most likely led by Benny Gantz, would rule with little opposition.

What the Biden White House has come to realize is that Netanyahu has become radioactive, both within Israel and beyond. The countdown to his departure has begun.

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