Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
What will be the destiny of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? He is more unpopular than ever among many Israelis following the shocking Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks. As of this writing, over 1,200 Israelis and more than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed in the war that is unfolding in response to an armed assault that caught one of the world's most sophisticated militarized security states off-guard.
Hamas' exposure of weaknesses in the architecture and focus of Israeli intelligence was a blow to Israelis, but the timing of the attack, which coincided with the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, also mattered for Hamas’ goal of inflicting deep psychological distress on Israeli society. Taking hostages, committing sadistic acts far outside the laws of war, such as atrocities against children, and using social media to publicize those atrocities, are designed to cause maximum trauma.
Hamas' ultimate goal, set out in its original 1988 charter, is nothing less than "the complete destruction of Israel." Its vision of a free Palestine is a "theocratic state based on Islamic law (Sharia)." Within this framework, the October attack is part of a design to destabilize Israel's political leadership and deepen Netanyahu's specific crisis of legitimacy. That crisis of legitimacy is my focus here.
In December 2022, Netanyahu thought he had won the autocrat's lottery, having been re-elected despite charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and a corruption trial ongoing. He promptly initiated a "judicial reform" that would limit the Israeli Supreme Court's authority and clear the way for him to realize the strongman dream: becoming personally untouchable by the law.
Instead, this authoritarian overreach led to the largest protests in Israeli history —protests that united grassroots activists and elites and included refusals by Army and Air Force personnel to perform military service. But Netanyahu did not back down. Propelled by a desire for self-preservation, and unencumbered by any moral code, strongmen with legal troubles that threaten their power become laser-focused on making those troubles go away for good. Netanyahu fits this model.
The Hamas attacks thus came at a moment of deep fissures within Israeli society The sense of a vacuum of leadership that privileges collective welfare increased when the Prime Minister and his Likud party did not communicate promptly with the public after the attack, and when state military, law enforcement, and emergency personnel did not reach civilians under fire quickly (leading to lone-wolf heroic rescues of civilians by retired Generals and others).
This "total system failure on Israel's part," in former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk's words, has prompted civilian and military calls for Netanyahu to resign. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon pointed out, for example, that Bibi cannot be an effective wartime leader because many Israelis do not trust him.
There are also reports that Netanyahu did not listen to expert advice. This is a recurrent strongman habit and I describe its deleterious consequences in detail in my 2020 book. He did not heed warnings, including those coming from military and security elites, that his self-interested attempt at a judicial coup was taking a toll on the armed forces' morale, focus, and combat readiness.
Netanyahu also did not seem to care that empowering his far-right extremist partners (his Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has been convicted of supporting terrorism) to try and realize their fantasies of a Jewish ethno-state and West Bank annexation could have dangerous consequences for the nation.
With a two-state solution off the table for Netanyahu, repression of Palestinian human and political rights has been the default solution, along with giving Palestinians some limited economic benefits. That this was not tenable did not interest him. That typical authoritarian rigidity and hubris is why former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon told Le Figaro that Netanyahu's government bears "a large part of the responsibility" for creating a climate that Hamas judged propitious for an attack.
After some delays, Netanyahu has now formed an emergency government with the opposition National Unity party. As news of the level of Hamas violence circulates, hardening the will for revenge, we can expect the government to continue to punish Palestinian civilians with blockades and sieges, and to direct to Hamas the kind of "overwhelming, shocking violence" that observers such as Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a former U.S. Middle East commander, believe is the only way to deter the terrorist entity. That may be hard to pull off without escalation into a larger war, given that Hamas has powerful backers and will now feel more emboldened.
To survive politically, Netanyahu needs to "redeem himself through the conflict," as Indyk puts it, but several problems will remain even if he convinces Hamas to accept some sort of temporary truce or cease-fire. One is his partnership with extremists. The lesson of authoritarian history is that when strongmen leaders normalize extremists, lawless and violent people are elevated to positions of extreme power, accelerating the assault on democracy and bringing unrest and instability. That is the role Ben-Gvir and other fanatics have played so far.