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In Israel, anger at Netanyahu is getting louder

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent his career defying political gravity. Since October 7, he's faced his biggest challenge yet. The Hamas attack killed 1,200 people. Hamas took more than 200 hostages. And in the first weeks of the war, Netanyahu was asked at a press conference whether he should step down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The only thing that I intend to have resign is Hamas. We're going to resign them to the dustbin of history.

SHAPIRO: Netanyahu has said he'll face questions about responsibility when the war is over, but there are signs that reckoning is already approaching. NPR's Daniel Estrin has covered Netanyahu for many years, and he's in Tel Aviv. Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What are the recent signs that you're seeing to indicate that Netanyahu may be in trouble?

ESTRIN: You know, for the first months of this war, Israelis really did put politics aside. They rallied around the troops. You know, this is a national emergency that Israelis have never experienced before in their entire history. But the tone really has changed in the last few weeks, and there have been public protests calling for Netanyahu to step down. I attended one of those protests last weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: And Israelis were packed in a Tel Aviv square. They were shouting for the resignation of Netanyahu's government. Resignation now is what they shouted. And I met a psychologist in the crowd who has been treating survivors of the Hamas attack. She's Sharon Shitrit, and she said many Israelis feel that the attack was like a holocaust.

SHARON SHITRIT: In a way, it's harder than the Holocaust because Israel is supposed to be the place that will protect us from a second Holocaust, and we had a second Holocaust in Israel. I thought that maybe this Holocaust will shock the government that we have, but we realize that nothing has changed. The feeling is that this Holocaust didn't do nothing to them.

ESTRIN: Now, she expected Netanyahu to take responsibility for the colossal security failure that led to the Hamas attack. But Netanyahu has said that now is not the time for him to face questions of responsibility, that that has to come only after the war.

I met another Israeli protesting in the crowd. He had been evacuated from his home after the October 7 attacks - Guy Becker. And he doesn't trust Netanyahu to wage this war with the country's interests in mind.

GUY BECKER: If he knows that everything will be investigated when the war is over, does he really have an incentive to finish the war?

ESTRIN: And he also questioned Netanyahu's military strategy in Gaza and whether it's truly possible to eliminate Hamas.

BECKER: There aren't real plans for what they're looking to achieve. What do you plan to do with this place after you finish achieving those goals? And they haven't done any of that.

ESTRIN: So those are just some of the voices that we're hearing rising now in the Israeli public. You know, Netanyahu refusing to hold discussions about, the day after the war, who rules Gaza. A lot of questioning about Netanyahu's handling of this war. You know, the thing that is going for Netanyahu, though, is that there is overwhelming support in the country for the war, that the war is justified against Hamas.

SHAPIRO: One complicating factor for Netanyahu is that there are still more than a hundred Israelis being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. They've been there for close to four months now. And those hostages' families are a vocal force in Israel. How is Netanyahu dealing with them?

ESTRIN: Yeah. I mean, Netanyahu really faces a dilemma here. He has been arguing that the military pressure and the intense combat in Gaza is what is needed to lead to the hostages' release. But this has been a very hard argument to make because several of the hostages have been killed accidentally by Israeli soldiers and others killed under circumstances potentially resulting from Israeli bombing.

And so the families of these hostages have been ramping up their pressure and calling for Israel to make a - strike a deal with Hamas to get their loved ones out of Gaza. They've been camping outside Netanyahu's residences. Netanyahu, the other day, said that he rejected Hamas' terms for a deal, and that angered many relatives of the hostages. And they stormed the Parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: They burst into a committee hearing, and they yelled, Netanyahu says there won't be a deal? That is on our backs. What would you do if your child was in Gaza?

So Netanyahu really is in a bind here. You know, he's under a pressure to strike a deal with Hamas to release the captives. But if you strike a deal with Hamas, then you empower Hamas instead of destroying it, which Netanyahu says he is vowing to do. On top of that, you have the large soldier death toll only rising in Gaza. So Netanyahu just faces no good solutions here. That just increases the pressure he's under.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about another pressure point here, which is the Biden administration. It looks like the rift between President Biden and Netanyahu has been growing as the Gaza war drags out. What role is U.S. pressure playing right now?

ESTRIN: You know, the Biden administration's message to Netanyahu has been, we do want you to defeat Hamas, but the death toll in Gaza is rising. It's above 25,000 people. Biden has been pushing Netanyahu on the need to protect civilians and also on the need to plan for Gaza's future. The U.S. wants Gaza to be ruled eventually by the Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership, and eventually that there should be an independent Palestinian state. And if that happens, then Saudi Arabia will pour money into Gaza, other Gulf countries, too, and that this whole disaster of the war in Gaza could lead to a better future for Israel.

But Netanyahu, as he has for many years, is saying there will not be a Palestinian state, standing up to Biden on that. Netanyahu is worried that if he embraces Palestinian rights, he will lose the support of his ultra-right political base, which he depends on for his political survival.

SHAPIRO: We began this conversation talking about demonstrations calling for new leadership, new elections in Israel. Any sign that new elections might actually happen? Do they seem likely?

ESTRIN: They seem very likely. There's a recent poll out that found that a large majority of Israelis, including more than a third of Netanyahu's own voters, want early elections. And the polls show that Netanyahu would lose if there were an election, by a large margin, to his main centrist rival, Benny Gantz. So things are not looking good for Netanyahu. He still faces a corruption trial. There is this public anger brewing in Israel over the war and the sense that it's dragging on with few good results.

But Netanyahu has proven to be a master political survivor. He's been in power mostly for the last decade and a half. And if a war continues, that can help him hang on. And there is potential of an even new war on Israel's northern border with Lebanon, so Israel could find itself at war for a long time to come and with Netanyahu still at the helm.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICO SEGAL SONG, "PASS THE VIBES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.