Netanyahu is clinging precariously to power with the Gaza hostage deal in the balance

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JERUSALEM – Facing growing demands for a new ceasefire deal and a clear strategy for Gaza after the war – ostracized by the Israeli public, pressured by its own government and growing opposition to Washington – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in deep political danger.

But you wouldn’t have known it as he took to the stage on Wednesday night to issue his new mantra of “total victory” in Gaza – exuding the same confidence that has carried him through six terms, 16 years and several scandals as the longest in the country. – head of service.

“Everyone who has praised Netanyahu has come out wrong,” said Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar, a member of the prime minister’s ruling Likud party. the war.”

The challenges for Netanyahu are many, creating a circle that seems impossible to square: The ultranationalist, far-right coalition partners are threatening to bring down the government if war breaks out. existence He is also under intense pressure from the families of Israeli hostages – and from within his own war cabinet – to end the fighting and release those still held by Hamas in Gaza.

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The United States, meanwhile, is pushing for a political framework for Gaza postwar that includes a road map for the creation of a Palestinian state, which Netanyahu has spent his political career trying to stop. “I am proud that I stopped the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said in December, adding that the Oslo accords that were broken by the US were “a terrible mistake.”

But Saudi Arabia also wants a two-state solution as the price of normalizing relations with Israel, a deal analysts say Netanyahu sees as the key to political survival.

“There are pressures from multiple directions,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. One of the institute’s recent polls found that about 70 percent of Israelis want early elections.

“It has never been worse for him if we compare it to the two or three decades since he was at the helm of Israeli politics,” Plesner said.

Netanyahu is widely blamed here for the Hamas-led attack on October 7, the bloodiest day in the country’s history, after years of building up his security credentials. He has again refused to answer questions about the security failures that day, saying there would be time for them after the war.

Polls show he would win only 16 percent of the vote if there are new elections, with around a third of his Likud base defecting to the party.

It has left Netanyahu “totally dependent” on the most radical members of his cabinet, according to Plesner, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has been criticized by US officials for his inflammatory views on Palestinians.

“Irresponsible contract = dismantling the government,” Ben Gvir posted on X last week as reports circulated about a new hostilities deal. While opposition leader Yair Lapid then offered a “safety net” – saying he would step in and end the coalition if Ben Gvir withdrew – it would not take time political for Netanyahu that he is looking for. Analysts say that Lapid would only protect Netanyahu from a vote of no confidence for a limited time while a deal is made.

Hamas’s response on Tuesday to a possible framework for a hostilities deal may have bought Netanyahu more time. The militant group demanded a 4½-month ceasefire, the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the Strip.

The agreement is a “non-starter” across the political spectrum, Plesner said, and was dismissed by Netanyahu as “false”.

As some Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza, long-term strategy remains elusive

In his speech on Wednesday, he again vowed to push forward to “total victory” – a slogan recently seen on the hat of one of his campaign managers. While Israel’s military leaders have quietly admitted that the war will weaken Hamas but not destroy the group, the Prime Minister continues to promise “the day after [the war] the day after Hamas.”

Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political analyst, said Netanyahu is “selling the Israeli public a false image that you can have everything,” including his promise to increase military pressure the enemies home faster – even as family members and before. detainees warn that their time is running out.

Netanyahu said the military campaign would continue for “several months” and would focus next on Rafah, next to the Egyptian border, where more than a million displaced Palestinians have fled for​​​​ safety – another breaking point with Washington.

“Military action right now would be a disaster for these people, and it’s not something we would support,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

Zohar, the Israeli culture minister, said that even the more restrictive framework recently issued by the US and Arab partners in Paris, which envisages a six-week ceasefire in fighting, would meet to strong resistance among Likud members.

“We needed more appropriate terms,” ​​he said.

“It’s a terrible dilemma,” Scheindlin said of Netanyahu’s calculation of a ceasefire agreement. “He knows that if he gets closer to a deal, he will have to face a coalition crisis.”

But Netanyahu may still be gunning for a big deal, said Ben Caspit, author of Netanyahu’s biography and columnist at Al-Monitor – raising his hopes of normalizing relations with Riyadh.

“It will be easier to convince the coalition partners to support a deal if it comes with a big reward,” he said. “It will tell them, what are 800 terrorists compared to peace with Saudi Arabia? He is very politically skilled and can try to revive himself through this opportunity.”

Fearing war and unrest, Arab leaders are calling for an end to Israel’s attack on Gaza

After October 7, Caspit put Netanyahu’s chances of political survival at “zero.” Now, he said, “I think it’s between 10 and 15 percent.”

He wants to convince Saudi Arabia and the United States that he is committed to a political settlement for the Palestinians, even if he still publicly denies the possibility.

Even paying lip service to a Palestinian state is not an option, Zohar said: “He has to reject that request from the Americans, and he has been successful in doing that so far. “

Netanyahu is an expert at buying time and running out the clock. He knows that Washington will soon be consumed by a new election cycle. And although the majority of Israelis want new elections, most believe that cannot happen until the war is over.

“At the end of the day, public opinion polls do not produce an election; only a vote in the Knesset does,” said Plesner. “In order for an early election to take place, at least five members of Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset would have to join the opposition.

“And the numbers aren’t there.”

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv.

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