The Washington Post

After Gaza cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in tough spot at home

The contrast was stark.

In Gaza, as Hamas leaders stood in a rubble-filled central square to declare an unequivocal victory, thousands of flag-waving supporters cheered.

In Israel, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a televised news conference alongside his defense minister and army chief to claim a win, he was slammed by the media, the public, the opposition and even members of his own party and coalition.

Although it is still too early to say which side, if either, was victorious in the 50-day conflict that claimed more than 2,200 lives, destroyed thousands of homes and other structures, and traumatized many more on both sides, there appears to be little doubt that Netanyahu is emerging as the biggest loser, personally and politically.

“I can say that there is a major military achievement here, as well as a major diplomatic achievement for the state of Israel,” he said at the news conference.

Newspaper headlines Thursday, however, dismissed Netanyahu’s victory speech. He was even described as an “empty vessel.” An analysis in the Hebrew-language daily Maariv said the prime minister had been forced to “invent” a military and political victory and had failed to convey the “strategic calculations that guided him.”

Even before Wednesday’s news conference, members of Netanyahu’s cabinet were publicly questioning his decision to agree to a truce, saying Israel had achieved none of its objectives.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett expressed frustration that the cabinet was not consulted on the cease-fire deal. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman took matters even further, accusing Netanyahu of reaching an agreement with “murderers,” strengthening their resolve and leaving Israeli citizens at risk of future attacks.

“As long as Hamas still controls Gaza,” Lieberman wrote on Facebook, “it is impossible to ensure the security of the citizens of Israel.”

Even the unexpected support of opposition parties throughout the conflict had stagnated by Thursday, with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog telling Israeli television that the outcome of the war “is far from satisfactory.”

The backlash is surprising, because just a few weeks ago, when Israeli tanks and troops rolled into the Gaza Strip, the prime minister’s popularity was soaring, his cabinet was firmly behind him, and Israel’s political echelons seemed united in their support for him.

The entire country appeared to be rallying to Netanyahu’s side. A poll in the last week of July, conducted by the Sarid Institute for Israel’s Channel 10 television, noted that 87 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the Gaza operation. In a survey by the University of Haifa, 85 percent of Jewish Israelis expressed satisfaction with Netanyahu’s leadership.

This week, however, the support had plummeted to 38 percent, according to a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 2 TV.

The public, it seemed, was dismayed at the war’s limited achievements, with rockets from Gaza still hitting Israel and no security solution apparent for the population, especially in the south, bearing the brunt of mortar and rocket fire.

“There was a sense of muddling through, and Netanyahu was not explaining to the public where they were heading, except to just hint about a war of attrition,” said Amotz Asa-El, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

“There is a feeling in all spheres that Israel has missed an opportunity to eradicate Hamas,” Asa-El said.

Pazit Ben Hamo, a mother of five and resident of the southern town of Sderot, said: “I don’t know if [Netanyahu] had our best interests at heart. I don’t know if he was thinking more about international responses to Israel’s war in Gaza.”

“From my experience of living here under rocket fire for 14 years, I don’t think this will end completely. We will definitely have rockets hitting us again at some point,” she added. “That’s what happens when you make agreements with a terrorist organization.”

An official close to Netanyahu said he had used Wednesday’s news conference to outline his official position.

“The prime minister is the son of a renowned international historian, he has a historic perspective about these events, and he knows to put the daily headlines and a momentary poll into perspective. He knows what is really important,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with the protocol of the prime minister’s office.

With Netanyahu’s reasons for accepting a cease-fire deal at this stage a mystery to most in Israel, the question is whether he will survive the personal and political attacks against him.

“I think he has been through worse politically and survived,” Asa-El said, adding that the pace of political events in Israel is rapid and predicting that nothing will happen to Netanyahu for at least half a year as the focus turns toward the annual budget, once parliament returns from its summer recess. “So he might emerge from this politically bruised but nothing more.”

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.



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