Netanyahu clings precariously to power with hostage deal in the balance

JERUSALEM — Facing growing calls for a new hostage release deal and a clear strategy for postwar Gaza — on the outs with the Israeli public, squeezed by his own government and increasingly at odds with Washington — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in deep political peril.

But you wouldn’t have known it as he stepped to the lectern Wednesday night to tout his new mantra of “total victory” in Gaza — projecting the same confidence that has carried him through six terms, 16 years and countless scandals as the country’s longest-serving leader.

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

The challenges for Netanyahu are abundant, forming a circle that is seemingly impossible to square: His ultranationalist, far-right coalition partners are threatening to bring down the government if there is any letup in the war. He also faces intense pressure from the families of Israeli hostages — and from within his own war cabinet — to secure a pause in the fighting and the release of those still held by Hamas in Gaza.

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The United States, meanwhile, is pushing for a political framework for postwar Gaza that includes a road map for the creation of a Palestinian state, which Netanyahu has spent his political career trying to thwart. “I’m proud that I prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said in December, adding that the U.S.-brokered Oslo accords had been a “a fateful mistake.”

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

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

“It’s never been worse for him if we compare it to the two or three decades of him being at the helm of Israeli politics,” Plesner said.

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

Polls show him winning only 16 percent of the vote in the event of new elections, with about a third of his Likud base having turned on the party.

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

“A reckless deal = the dismantlement of the government,” Ben Gvir posted on X last week as reports circulated of a new hostage release deal. While opposition leader Yair Lapid then offered a “safety net” — saying he would step in and shore up the coalition if Ben Gvir were to withdraw — it would not give Netanyahu the political longevity he seeks. Analysts say Lapid probably would only protect Netanyahu from a no-confidence vote for a limited period as a deal is done.

Hamas’s response Tuesday to a potential framework for a hostage deal may have given Netanyahu more time. The militant group demanded a 4½-month cease-fire, the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and the ultimate withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Strip.

The deal is a “non-starter” across the political spectrum, Plesner said, and was rejected by Netanyahu as “delusional.”

As some Israeli troops leave Gaza, a long-term strategy remains elusive

In his speech Wednesday, he vowed again to push on until “total victory” — a slogan spotted recently on the hat of one of his campaign managers. While Israeli military leaders have quietly acknowledged that the war will weaken Hamas but not destroy the group, the prime minister continues to promise that “the day after [the war] is the day after Hamas.”

Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political analyst, said Netanyahu is “selling a false image to the Israeli public that you can have it all,” including his assurance that increased military pressure will bring the hostages home sooner — even as family members and former captives warn their time is running out.

Netanyahu added that the military campaign would continue for “several months” and would focus next on Rafah, along the Egyptian border, where more than a million displaced Palestinians have fled for safety — another point of friction with Washington.

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

Zohar, the Israeli culture minister, said even the more limited framework hammered out recently out by U.S. and Arab partners in Paris, envisaging a 60-day pause in fighting, would meet strong resistance among Likud members.

“We would need more acceptable terms,” he said.

“It’s a searing dilemma,” Scheindlin said of Netanyahu’s calculations on a cease-fire agreement. “He knows that if he gets any closer to a deal, he is going to have to face a coalition crisis.”

But Netanyahu may still be gunning for a grand deal, said Ben Caspit, author of a Netanyahu biography and a columnist at Al-Monitor — pinning his hopes on normalizing relations with Riyadh.

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

Fearing war and unrest, Arab leaders demand end to Israeli assault on Gaza

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

It will require him to convince Saudi Arabia and the United States that he is committed to a political settlement for Palestinians, even as he continues to publicly reject the possibility.

Even paying lip service to a Palestinian state is not an option, Zohar said: “He will need to refuse that demand by the Americans, and he has succeeded in doing that until now.”

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

“At the end of the day, public opinion polls don’t bring about an election; only a vote in the Knesset does,” said Plesner. “For an early election to happen, at least five members of Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset would need to join the opposition.

“And the numbers are not there.”

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv.

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