Netanyahu ‘Mr. Security’ Image Fades as Rivals Want Him Out

(Bloomberg) -- As the young couple prepare for a night out, the doorbell rings. Outside stands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, universally known as Bibi. “You ordered a babysitter?” asks the smiling premier. “You’re getting a Bibi-sitter.”

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The 2015 campaign ad concludes with Netanyahu addressing the camera: “This election, you decide who can best take care of our children.”

Eight years on, the spot that helped propel Netanyahu to another term in office is being revived on social media, interspersed with chilling footage of the killing of Israeli children by Hamas operatives on Oct. 7.

It’s become part of an intensifying campaign to hold him accountable and force him from office — an effort that now includes not only the political opposition but many former associates as well as some former heads of Israel’s security agencies and military intelligence.

For many in Israel, the tipping point came on Sunday, when Netanyahu — who’s long positioned himself as “Mr. Security” — issued a late night post rejecting responsibility for the border breach that killed 1,400 and led to 230 being abducted. Once he laid it at the feet of the security services, the gloves came off.

The aftermath marks what may be the ultimate test of Netanyahu’s political survival skills. Although Netanyahu, 74, deleted the post and issued a rare apology hours later, the calls for him to step down are becoming an ever-louder chorus.

At a press conference Monday evening, Netanyahu dismissed the appeals. “The only thing I intend to have resign is Hamas,” he said, vowing to fight the group “until the battle is won.”

Still, critics have been increasingly emboldened to go as far as to question his ability to lead Israel as it wages a punishing war in Gaza.

No Trust

Moshe Yaalon, his former defense minister, did so in a radio interview, saying the prime minister “is solely engaged in political maneuvering and his attitude is, ‘Let the nation burn.’ I don’t trust him to lead the military campaign.”

The attack initially ushered in a period of unity in Israel, as Netanyahu formed an emergency cabinet with an opposition leader Benny Gantz and said the time for responsibility will come after victory.

For three weeks, that bought him time with most Israelis, even those who’d spent months in the street protesting his populist policies.

But now, opponents say, the man who has served as prime minister longer than any in Israel’s history failed spectacularly by ignoring Hamas’ true intentions. His polling numbers are tanking as he struggles to keep his government functioning, rescue hostages and defeat Hamas, which the US and the EU have designated a terrorist organization.

Within hours of Netanyahu’s message on X, formerly Twitter, backlash followed, straddling the political divide.

Gantz, himself a former defense minister, was among the first to call out Netanyahu and demand he retract the comments.

‘Show Responsibility’

“When we are at war, leadership must show responsibility, decide to do the right things and strengthen the forces in a way that they can to realize what we demand from them,” he said on X. “Any other action or statement - harms the people’s ability to stand and their strength.”

Polls conducted soon after Hamas’ attack suggested Netanyahu’s popularity had dived, while that of Gantz had soared.

In an essay in business daily Calcalist, Amnon Shashua — the co-founder of Mobileye NV, Intel Corp.’s Israel-based autonomous vehicle unit — wrote of Netanyahu’s “failures, dissonance and incompetence” since Oct. 7, saying the government must be replaced immediately.

Left-leaning Haaretz newspaper’s lead editorial on Monday was a call for Netanyahu to step down. Within his own Likud party and coalition, he’s been met with private agitation but public silence.

When asked for comment, Mark Regev, a Netanyahu adviser, said on Bloomberg Radio that he was “not aware of any pressure for him to resign. It’s clear there were failures on the Israeli side.”

It’s a message echoed by Danny Danon, a Likud legislator and former United Nations ambassador.

“Now no one should resign,” Danon said in a telephone interview. “We are in the middle of a war. We need to win the war. After we finish, we will have a full inquiry and those who need to will pay the price.”

Misreading Hamas

The failure to protect against the Hamas assault stems from a view that wasn’t unique to Netanyahu.

Virtually the entire security establishment, along with political leaders left, right and center, had grown to accept the idea that Hamas was deterred and its leaders were interested in ruling and economic prosperity rather than anti-Israeli violence.

Some 18,500 Gazans were working in Israel, bringing home salaries and helping stabilize the impoverished region, a policy begun under the previous government and continued by Netanyahu. The plan was to increase the number this very month.

Yet, while Hamas was broadcasting a desire to go along with Israel, its military wing was methodically preparing its devastating attack.

Questions Emerge

At first, Netanyahu was granted leeway since he wasn’t alone in accepting the misconception. But quickly other arguments were made.

Netanyahu effectively undermined the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in a kind of divide-and-conquer approach to the Palestinians. And he had midwifed the arrival of hundreds of millions of dollars in Qatari aid for Gaza, which may have permitted Hamas to spend intensively on military training.

In addition, when he formed his most recent government last December, he brought in extremists on the right who worked to increase Israeli settlements in the West Bank and weaken the country’s Supreme Court. This split the nation, producing weekly protests and prompting thousands of military reservists to refuse to go to training.

Many people warned the prime minister that he risked weakening the country economically and militarily, and that its Iran-backed enemies — militias like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon — saw it as an ideal moment to pounce. Stocks fell, the shekel plunged, foreign investing declined.

Whenever protesters or security chiefs said Israel was in peril — and they did so repeatedly and with growing urgency — Netanyahu would play down their concerns. He was trying to bring Israel ultimate security through a deal to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.

For many of his critics, Netanyahu became an unreliable leader when he was indicted on charges of bribery and fraud in early 2020. The following year, he lost an election to a broad coalition and many believed his political career was over.

But a year ago, he pulled together a group of ultra-nationalist and religious parties and returned to office.

The priorities of his partners took center stage, leading to the weekly protests. As the Saudi deal looked likely this past summer, Netanyahu seemed, once more, to be spinning political magic, keeping the Palestinian issue on the back burner.

Then Hamas struck.

Consensus Breaks

Although the country has unified around the war, it hasn’t taken long for many Israelis to express contempt for their elected leader and his fellow ministers. And while many both in and out of government offered public apologies for what happened, Netanyahu wasn’t among them.

Pressure built for him to accept responsibility. At a press conference last Saturday night, most of the questions were about that.

After midnight, he issued his post foregoing any guilt over the failure. Four hours later came the deletion.

His critics say they won’t let it go at that.

“Ultimately, Netanyahu scored an own-goal,” said Sima Kadmon, a veteran commentator at Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. “He has provided legitimacy for the other side to begin to discuss Netanyahu’s responsibility before the war is over. This is the war within the war.”

--With assistance from Henry Meyer.

(Updates with Netanyahu dismissing calls for resignation in seventh paragraph)

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