He first became prime minister in 1996, and has been pushing the country further right ever since. Most agree his political days are numbered – but the approach he established will prove very difficult to shift

Tue 21 Nov 2023 05.00 GMT

An attack like Hamas’s 7 October massacre was not supposed to have been possible. Certainly not while prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in charge. He was, as his acolytes put it, “Mr Security”. He wanted to be remembered, he said, as “the protector of Israel”. He boasted that Israel had never known a more peaceful and prosperous time than the roughly 16 years he has been in power. It was under his successive administrations that Israel installed the Iron Dome system to intercept rockets from the Gaza Strip, and constructed, along the Gaza border, a 40-mile, $1.1bn fence, equipped with underground sensors, remote-controlled weapons and an expansive camera system. The success of Netanyahu’s vision of Fortress Israel could be measured in the imperceptibility of the Palestinians and their suffering from the comfort of a Tel Aviv cafe.

But the relative calm of the last decade-and-a-half was built upon a series of illusions: that the Palestinians and their aspirations for freedom could be hidden behind concrete barriers and ignored; that any remaining resistance could be managed through a combination of technology and overwhelming firepower; that the world, and especially Sunni Arab states, had grown so tired of the Palestinian issue that it could be removed from the global agenda, and consequently, that Israeli governments could do as they pleased and suffer few consequences.

The attack on 7 October shattered all these presumptions. Hamas gunmen on motorbikes and the backs of pickup trucks sailed through the “smart” barrier that cost more than the entire GDP of Grenada. Caught off guard, Israel’s army appeared almost immobilised, unable to regain control of some towns and kibbutzim for more than 48 hours. Every aspect of Netanyahu’s project collapsed on the Saturday morning Israelis have taken to calling “the black shabbat”.

Successive Netanyahu governments did not make Israelis safer. Instead, they made them vulnerable to attacks such as the one Hamas carried out. Netanyahu did not chart a path for Israel out of its dependence on the United States. Instead, he left Israel as dependent on its US backer as it was during the only comparable disaster in Israel’s history, the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Netanyahu promised to streamline the state and make government more efficient. Instead, Israel’s bureaucracy has been hollowed out, its social services underfunded and unresponsive.

And yet, while Netanyahu’s vision for Israel has been utterly discredited, there is no clear successor poised to break with it. The iron tracks that Netanyahu laid may prove too hard to shift. The current crisis may very well mark the end of Netanyahu’s public career. But Israel may also be trapped in conditions of his making long after he is gone.

* * *

On a dark October night in 1995, Netanyahu stood on a balcony overlooking Jerusalem’s Zion Square. A banner reading “Death to Arabs” had been unfurled before him. An inflamed crowd of tens of thousands stood below him. Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister at the time, was pushing for a negotiated settlement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and this was a protest organised by the Oslo Accords’ rightwing opponents. At the time, Netanyahu was the 46-year-old elected leader of Israel’s rightwing Likud party. He was widely seen as a brash new face in a tired political scene still dominated by veterans of Israel’s founding.

A savvy political operator, Netanyahu had staked his political future on opposing the Oslo peace process. That summer, he had joined a demonstration that featured a mock funeral procession for Rabin, replete with a coffin and a noose, where protesters chanted “Death to Rabin”. In the streets of Jerusalem that October night, demonstrators brandished signs denouncing Rabin as a traitor. They held aloft pictures of him in the uniform of the Nazi SS, and in PLO chair Yasser Arafat’s keffiyeh. They chanted “in blood and fire we will expel Rabin”, and, again, “Death to Rabin”.

One month later, a religious nationalist law student named Yigal Amir fired two shots into Rabin’s back, killing him and the vision of territorial compromise he represented. Outside the hospital where Rabin’s death was announced, a crowd of the prime minister’s supporters chanted “Bibi is a murderer”. It was, of course, Amir who pulled the trigger. But Netanyahu was among the most prominent figures who had fuelled the atmosphere of violence in which Amir did the deed.

In 1996, the Labor party leader and Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, called elections in the hope of reaffirming a popular mandate for the Oslo peace process. According to the polls, it was a safe bet. Netanyahu’s popularity had begun to flag in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination. But after a string of suicide bombings in the months before the May elections, Netanyahu’s fortunes began to improve. He hammered Peres on the perils of territorial compromise, framed his dovish opponent as weak and warned that Peres “would divide Jerusalem”. By a threadbare margin – less than 1% of the vote – Netanyahu staged a surprise upset. He became the youngest prime minister in Israel’s history.

The Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with US president Bill Clinton at the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. Photograph: Ron Edmonds/AP

Netanyahu’s first three-year term was not a success, but many of the hallmarks of his approach were already evident. Pressed by the Clinton administration to advance peace negotiations, Netanyahu strung the Americans along, committing only to the bare minimum required to keep the peace process alive, while doing everything possible to prevent a final status agreement in the long run. In the eyes of his rightwing critics, Netanyahu did not break decisively enough with the two-state solution. As Netanyahu saw it, however, the best way to prevent a Palestinian state was to do so quietly, without the fanfare that formal annexation or direct rejection of the US-led peace process would have entailed.

Netanyahu is not a conventional ideologue. His opposition to a two-state solution does not derive from any messianic conviction or biblical inspiration. While many of his supporters are religious traditionalists, he is staunchly secular and doesn’t even keep kosher. Instead, his worldview is shaped by deep pessimism. “I’m asked if we will for ever live by the sword – yes,” he told a group of Knesset members in 2015. He had absorbed this view as a child. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was a dyspeptic historian of the Spanish Inquisition who died in 2012, at the age of 102. “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts,” Netanyahu Sr once told the New Yorker’s David Remnick. For Netanyahu the son, that catastrophic vision of history has meant that nearly all matters of defence appear refracted through the lens of existential threat. According to such calculus, any Palestinian state would almost certainly devolve into an Islamist terror state threatening Israel’s existence; therefore indefinite Israeli control over the occupied territories is an absolute necessity for Jewish survival.

Netanyahu combined this bleak worldview with a mastery of the art of political presentation. He was Israel’s first real TV prime minister. He took acting classes to perfect his public performances. He wore makeup and made sure the cameras only showed his good side. At a time when most other Israeli politicians still favoured rolled-up shirt sleeves, Netanyahu appeared in bold Brioni suits, and this taste for luxury, too, would remain throughout his years in power.

A former special forces commando turned management consultant, Netanyahu embodied the new Israeli synthesis of hawkish neoliberalism. He was, at once, a technocrat and a populist. In 1996, he arrived in office with elaborate plans to remake the Israeli economy along Thatcherite free-market lines: restructuring of the country’s bureaucracy, liberalising the labour market; cutting subsidies for struggling industries. He accomplished little of this programme. More significant were the changes he brought to the country’s political culture. Ever since Menachem Begin’s premiership in the 1970s, Likud had used the rhetoric of class resentment and religious traditionalism to mobilise its base of largely working-class Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern and north African origin. Netanyahu sharpened Likud’s populism for the age of the soundbite. His supporters rallied behind the slogan “Netanyahu – good for the Jews”, which implied that his opponents were disloyal to Jewish interests.

After he returned to power in 2009, Netanyahu vowed never to lose it. As Israeli journalist Ben Caspit details in his book, The Netanyahu Years, Netanyahu crushed or expelled any potential rivals within Likud. By 2015, he had “metamorphosed”, Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote, “from a risk-averse conservative into a rightwing radical”. He transformed a party that, while always staunchly and even violently nationalist, had once included economic and social liberals into an authoritarian populist party centred on his charismatic personality. Encouraged by his wife, Sara, and his son, Yair, Netanyahu also began to think of himself as indispensable, as the incarnation of the national spirit, as identical to the state itself. “Without Bibi,” Sara Netanyahu has repeatedly said, “Israel is doomed.”

* * *

Over his long years in power, a distinct “Netanyahu model” of politics emerged. When it came to the issue of the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s core belief was that the occupation could be managed and maintained indefinitely. In theory, Netanyahu suggested that he would be willing to accept the “demilitarised” Palestinian state that he described in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. Yet in practice, as he outlined in the same speech, the conditions under which he would agree to such a state were ones that no Palestinian leader could ever accept: not just demilitarisation and Israeli security control over airspace, but also an Israeli capital in an undivided Jerusalem. It was a bluff to keep the illusion of a peace process alive while further entrenching the occupation.

Netanyahu’s belief that the occupation could remain in perpetuity was, and is, widely shared. The Israeli centre-right’s leading intellectual, the philosopher Micah Goodman, gave the idea of occupation-management a respectable patina of pragmatism in his 2018 book Catch-67. Rather than hoping to “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Goodman suggested that it might be “minimised” – for instance, by expanding areas of limited Palestinian autonomy while maintaining ultimate Israeli dominance in the occupied West Bank.

Even Netanyahu’s political opponents have embraced this approach. The short-lived “change” government led by the former TV host Yair Lapid and settler leader Naftali Bennett, which briefly deposed Netanyahu in the spring of 2021, did not deviate from the Netanyahu model, but deepened it further. It was under the Lapid-Bennett government when Palestinian casualties in the West Bank began to spike. This was also the period when Benny Gantz, at the time minister of defence, designated six leading Palestinian human rights NGOs “terrorist organisations” as part of Israel’s efforts to quash opposition to the occupation.

To its proponents, the occupation-management paradigm had numerous practical advantages. Maintaining the status quo lowered the risk of enraging the international community. Indefinite yet putatively temporary occupation also enabled Israel to keep the Palestinians disfranchised, whereas formal annexation would require Israel to decide whether to grant Palestinians in the annexed territories citizenship and, from Israel’s point of view, risk jeopardising the Jewish demographic majority.

Yet for Netanyahu and his allies, it was not enough simply to entrench the occupation; it was also necessary to guarantee that no unified Palestinian movement might arise. The way to do that, according to Netanyahu, was to strengthen the Islamist Hamas in Gaza at the expense of its rival, the Fatah-dominated PLO in the West Bank. To prop up the Hamas government in Gaza, at Israel’s request, the Qatari government transferred billions of dollars to the militant group. “Anyone who wants to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state needs to support strengthening Hamas,” said Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting in 2019. “This is part of our strategy, to divide the Palestinians between those in Gaza and those in Judea and Samaria.”

What Israelis call “the conceptzia” – this paradigm of occupation-management and divide-and-rule – had its counterpart in the realm of foreign policy. Until 2020, the only Arab states to sign treaties with Israel were Egypt and Jordan. That changed when the Trump administration underwrote the 2020 Abraham Accords, the series of normalisation agreements between Israel and the Gulf States of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Morocco and, later, Sudan. It is not a coincidence that Hamas launched its attack just as Israel and Saudi Arabia appeared to be getting closer to normalising relations. Even after the current devastating war, Israel and the Saudis may very well press on with this process, but it remains as clear as ever that long-term regional stability – and Israeli security – will depend on ending the occupation and realising Palestinian national aspirations.

Likud billboards in 2019 in Tel Aviv, showing Netanyahu greeting Trump and Putin. Photograph: Amir Levy/Getty Images

From the perspective of Israel’s right, regional integration also provided an alternative safety net as the US turned its focus away from the Middle East and toward Asia. As one Israeli politician, a member of Avigdor Liberman’s rightwing secularist Yisrael Beitenu party told me in the summer of 2022, “the declining stature” of the US in world affairs necessitated closer ties between Israel and other countries in the region. “People understand that they need to hang on to each other,” he said.

A Middle East where the US played a less active role had also long been a dream of Israeli hawks, who view Israeli reliance on the US as a constraint and strategic liability. In 1996, a group of neoconservative thinktankers lead by Richard Perle, who would later join the George W Bush administration, published a paper titled A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, which outlined steps for how Israel under Netanyahu could “forge a new basis for relations with the United States”. According to the authors, Israel could gain “greater freedom of action and remove a significant lever of pressure against it” if it was able to “cut itself free” from US support by “liberalising its economy”.

To a large extent, Netanyahu’s successive administrations followed this strategy. Aggressive privatisations of banks and utilities, tax cuts and sharp decreases on public spending, and anti-union measures did transform Israel from a middling, state-dominated economy into an affluent, military- and surveillance-tech exporting regional power, even as inequality within Israel deepened. Under Netanyahu – first as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, then during his second stint as prime minister – Israel reversed its longstanding trade deficit and began to accumulate vast foreign currency reserves. The stronger Israel became economically, the less it required direct economic grant aid from the US, which ceased in 2008. Even US military aid to Israel, though it still amounts to the enormous sum of $38bn, mostly comes in the form of a discount for Israeli purchases of US arms and missile-defence funding – essentially a subsidy to US arms manufactures.

In the 2010s, Netanyahu began to turn away from the US and its allies and cultivate relationships with proudly illiberal states such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Poland under the rule of outgoing leader Jarosław Kaczyński as a means of blocking potential measures against Israel by the European Union. He boasted of his good working relationship with Russia’s Vladmir Putin – 2019 Likud election campaign posters showed Netanyahu shaking hands with Putin –and throughout Russian’s war on Ukraine, Israel has refused to supply missile defence systems to Ukraine and has kept criticism of Russian conduct to a minimum. Ever wary of US decline, Israel has also developed closer ties with China. In 2021, as part of China’s belt and road initiative, Israel granted the state-owned Shanghai International Port Group a tender to operate the Haifa Bay Port shipping terminal, which manages roughly half of the country’s freight. Chinese companies have also worked on major Israeli infrastructure projects, such as the new Tel Aviv light rail system.

In Israel’s domestic sphere, Netanyahu developed a distinct mode of personalistic rule. He granted ministerial and government agency positions to Likud apparatchiks and yes-men, unknowns and incompetents whose only credential seemed to be their loyalty to him. In 2020, after he was indicted in several corruption cases, charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu’s political style became increasingly paranoid. In a pre-trial speech, he declared: “Elements in the police and the prosecution have joined forces with the leftist media – I call them the ‘anyone but Bibi’ gang – to manufacture baseless cases against me.” This marked the crystallisation of what some Israeli commentators named “Bibism” – a synthesis of bellicose nationalism, conspiracy theorising and, above all else, the denunciation of Netanyahu’s opponents as traitors.

As more of the electorate turned against him, Netanyahu maintained a governing coalition by elevating extremist settlers and messianic ethno-nationalists to positions of power within his government. These included figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir, now minister of national security, who has previously been convicted of incitement to racism and terrorism, who as a young far-right militant had been part of a group that assaulted Yitzhak Rabin’s motorcade, and who, until recently, hung on his living room wall a picture of Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Israeli settler who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. As part of coalition negotiations last winter, Netanyahu transferred authority over the military government in the West Bank to finance minister and hardline religious nationalist Bezalel Smotrich, who has called for the formal annexation of the West Bank and the expulsion of any Palestinians who resist.

Once invested with authority, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich began to push immediately for the annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, implementing land-grab measures and approving unbridled settlement expansion, which culminated, even before the current war, in making 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians since the second intifada. Between 1 January and 6 October, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recorded at least 199 Palestinian fatalities in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the highest figure since 2005.

* * *

Hamas’s incursion on the morning of 7 October demolished each of the prongs of Netanyahu’s project. The scale and cruelty of the assault demonstrated the impossibility of maintaining the occupation for ever without continuous, devastating loss of life. For most of the past two decades, it was the Palestinians who bore the vast majority of this human cost, and those years lulled Israel into a dangerous complacency and indifference toward the fates of their Palestinian neighbours. The Hamas leadership recognised this vulnerability and exploited it to murderous effect.

While it will take time to grasp fully the extent of the Israeli intelligence failure, what has emerged so far is that military officials ignored what should have been warning signs. According to Haaretz, Israel intelligence stopped listening to Hamas walkie-talkie chatter months before the attacks. On a recent TV interview, a 20-year-old soldier from the 7th armoured brigade said his unit had received reports of unusual activity at about 11pm the night of 6 October but were issued no follow-up command. At about 3am, Ronen Bar, director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, received a call in response to such reports. After hours of deliberation in the early morning hours, he sent only a small special forces team to the Gaza separation-fence area. Convinced that Hamas had been pacified, deterred and integrated into the Israeli apparatus of occupation-management, Israel’s generals did not take seriously that Hamas could carry out an attack of such magnitude.

The attacks also revealed with terrifying clarity the strategic risk posed by the ongoing settlement enterprise in the West Bank. One reason why Hamas gunmen managed to overwhelm Israeli defences, and why it took so long for Israeli forces to retake the towns and kibbutzim that had been overrun, was that much of Israel’s army had been sent to the West Bank. That weekend was the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah – under normal circumstances a time of joy and dancing, but in the occupied West Bank, a time of heightened settler violence. The Israeli army had even relocated forces away from the Gaza border to the West Bank, to guard Israeli settlers. In total, 32 IDF battalions had deployed to the occupied West Bank, while just two battalions deployed along the Gaza border. This left the kibbutzim and towns of the western Negev – the citizens of Israel proper – vulnerable, while West Bank settlers could terrorise the Palestinian population under IDF cover. Advocates of settlement-building have long claimed that their efforts bolstered Israel’s security. Reality has proven their argument wrong.

Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, inspects assault rifles as they are handed out to members of a volunteer security squad in Ashkelon, Israel, on 27 October 2023. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/EPA

Netanyahu’s failures in the realm of foreign relations are no less stark. Contrary to his long-held view, the question of Palestine will not simply go away. No real Israeli integration into the broader Middle East will be possible without a long-term agreement that ends the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of the Gaza Strip. The current war has frayed Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan, its two most crucial Arab allies. With the help of the US, the Israeli government has attempted to pressure the Egyptian government into taking Gazans into Egyptian territory, a move that reflects a reckless disregard for the stability of their south-west neighbour. Egyptian authorities have so far refused. Massive protests have broken out not only in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, but also in Turkey. The Abraham Accords, which Netanyahu took to be his epochal achievement, have also shown signs of strain. In early November, Bahrain recalled its ambassador from Israel and announced that it had suspended economic ties to show support for the Palestinian cause.

Above all, the ostensible “self-reliance” that Netanyahu achieved has proved to be a farce. Amid the threat of a broader regional war, Israel now appears more dependent than ever on its US sponsor, which has moved two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Middle East to deter regional escalation of the conflict. The US provides Israel with everything from small arms, such as automatic rifles, to key components of the Iron Dome system. It even sent three-star general James Glynn of the US Marines to advise the Israeli general staff on how to conduct urban counterinsurgency. In an unprecedented display of US involvement, secretary of state Antony Blinken and secretary of defense Lloyd Austin have both sat in on Israeli security cabinet planning meetings to counsel their Israeli counterparts.

Within Israel, the incompetent response to 7 October has exposed the toll Netanyahu’s long rule has taken on the state. For days, and in some cases weeks, after the attacks, some families reported that they had heard nothing from government officials about the whereabouts of their missing relatives; daytime TV anchors stepped in to create hotlines for those desperate for information. On the day of the attacks, when dozens of police were killed, Ben-Gvir, whose office oversees the police, was nowhere to be found; only later did he emerge, not to take responsibility for what had happened, but to stage photo-ops of himself distributing assault rifles to civilian defence units in Israeli cities. State efforts to relocate, feed and clothe the tens of thousands of Israelis evacuated from the northern and southern borders were so ineffectual that protest groups, which had formed during the demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan, stepped in to fill the void. Budget cuts to the ministry of health have created a shortage of state-funded social workers and psychologists to handle the thousands of people in need of treatment for trauma.

For his part, Netanyahu seems to be managing the crisis with his increasingly dim political future in mind. As ever, his concern is optics. He has not attended a single funeral for those killed on 7 October, presumably out of fear that attendees might accost him. He has favoured broadcast addresses and staged photo-ops with elite military units. When he finally met with representatives of the families of those taken hostage, a far-right activist with no known ties to any hostages, but with close ties to the Netanyahu family, just happened to suddenly appear at the meeting to praise him. Having already attempted to blame military and intelligence officials for the 7 October disaster, Netanyahu is now busy collecting evidence to exculpate himself when, after the war, he finally faces a reckoning.

* * *

Despite such efforts at image rehabilitation, Netanyahu is all but finished politically. The public’s anger towards him and his government is immense. In a recent survey conducted by Israel’s Channel 13 News, 76% of respondents said Netanyahu needs to resign – either at the end of the war (47%) or immediately (29%). During a recent interview with the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz, the former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, a man whose political views are to Netanyahu’s right, called the prime minister “an existential threat” to the country. Another poll found that less than 4% of Israelis believe Netanyahu is a reliable source of information about the current war.

What comes after Netanyahu? Before 7 October, his attempt to dismantle the country’s judiciary had sparked the largest protest movement in Israel’s history. For more than nine months, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in an attempt to stave off a reactionary constitutional revolution that would have made it almost impossible for the right to lose power. These protests revitalised Israeli civil society, which had shrivelled over the course of Netanyahu’s tenure. The perceived threat of an Orbán- or Erdoğan-style autocracy has re-politicised and, in some cases, even radicalised segments of Israel’s liberal, secular, educated middle classes. Any new political force that might not just challenge Netanyahu the man, but also break with his policies, will probably emerge out of this movement.

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plan, March 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Still, what remains of Israel’s left finds itself in a difficult place. The last few years of repeated elections – there have been five since 2019 – devastated the Labor Zionist parties that once dominated Israeli political life. The Labor party itself has been reduced to just four parliamentary seats. Meretz, the civil libertarian, social-democratic party that long represented the country’s peace camp has no seats. Since 7 October, Yair Golan, a 61-year-old former IDF general and erstwhile Meretz chairman has become something of a national celebrity after he donned his uniform and rescued civilians under Hamas attack; for the time being, he is the Israeli centre-left’s last, best hope to bring a negotiated compromise with the Palestinians back to the Israeli mainstream – but it is an extremely remote possibility.

Israel’s public discourse has lurched much further to the right. TV news amplifies the calls for revenge and the use of disproportionate force, even as the death toll in Gaza rises into the tens of thousands. Each day, another Likud politician or government minister emerges to call unashamedly for war crimes. Agriculture minister Avi Dichter appeared on television last week to urge on the “Gaza Nakba”, as he described Israel’s current ground operation. Deputy speaker of the Knesset, Nissim Vaturi, tweeted that Israel should “Burn Gaza now, nothing less!” Earlier this month, the minister of heritage, Amihai Eliyahu suggested Israel could drop drop a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip. Some Israeli pop stars have begun to sing of conquering and rebuilding Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. Though the political leaders of the settler right, such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, have been discredited, the veteran pollster Dudi Hasid recently observed that there might be space even further to their right awaiting to be filled. Netanyahu and his government have said that the aim of the war is to topple Hamas; Israel’s almost inevitable failure to fully meet this goal could, in fact, generate an increased ethno-nationalist backlash.

The most likely possibility, however, is that the Netanyahu project persists in the absence of the man himself. The most probable successor to Netanyahu is his closest rival of several years, Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief and leader of the centre-right National Unity party, whose ratings have skyrocketed in the past six weeks. The tall, blue-eyed Gantz presents an image of martial rectitude compared to Netanyahu’s mafioso-populism. Yet Gantz is less an ideological alternative to Netanyahu than a cosmetic one. A loyal soldier for his entire life, he has known nothing other than the occupation-management paradigm, and would probably maintain it. Polling just behind Gantz, former prime minister Naftali Bennett also appears poised for a bid at power. Bennett – who once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff – would also probably stick to the Netanyahu playbook.

For years, Netanyahu has imagined himself as the Middle East’s Winston Churchill. The Israeli journalist Ari Shavit has observed that Netanyahu sees himself not simply as battling threats to Israel’s existence, but as a frontline defender of the west against its mortal enemies. Since the start of the current war, Netanyahu’s grandiose illusions have been on display. “We are sons of light, they are sons of darkness,” he recently declared. Yet it is, at least in part, this very pessimism – the worldview in which it is always 1933 – that has doomed Israel under Netanyahu to endless wars – seven since he assumed power in 2009 – and condemned the Palestinians in Gaza to repeated bombardment.

Any break with the Netanyahu paradigm will require moving beyond the mentality according to which Israel’s existence hangs ever in the balance – a task that, after the massacres of 7 October, will be much more difficult. But as Israeli security officials will freely acknowledge, this ghastly war, even with its threat of turning into multi-front conflagration, is not an existential war for Israel. If there is to be any hope of undoing the Netanyahu legacy, it will come from an Israeli leader, perhaps one whose name is not yet known, with the courage to acknowledge frankly Israel’s strength and use it as a basis for a renewed push for peace.

For now, however, there are no such candidates. Netanyahu has reshaped the country in his image; he has led the country for longer than David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding father. Even after Netanyahu the man is gone, his legacy discredited, the mould he set will prove difficult to shatter.

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