By Oct. 6, 2023, Israel had already experienced a tumultuous 11 months following the Likud party's decisive, yet divisive, victory in the 2022 elections and the launch of its judicial reform. Despite a brief period of political quiet in late summer after the successful passage of part of its reform package as well as a government budget, optimism for political stability was again shattered on Oct. 7.
That morning, Israel was confronted with an invasion of its mainland, the first since 1948, which left 1,200 dead and thousands injured. The ensuing conflict further disrupted the perception that the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition could stably govern for a full four-year term.
Despite a record of risk-averse military actions, Netanyahu has built a reputation, especially among his voter base, as "King Bibi" with a robust defense posture. This is demonstrated through his ironclad opposition to any nuclear agreements between Iran and the U.S., the strengthening of the Palestinian Authority (PA) or any other tangible concession towards a Palestinian state. These consistent stances have placed Netanyahu at odds with the U.S. on more than one occasion.
Netanyahu's rhetoric culminated in his 2015 address to a Joint Session of Congress, seen as a direct swipe at President Obama at the height of the U.S. push for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. His address, taking place 12 days before an Israeli election, was seen as standing up to the U.S. president. Netanyahu won yet another election, and the JCPOA was signed in July 2015.
His strategy has frequently involved leveraging security concerns to strengthen his political position against his domestic rivals. By framing each policy question as existential for Israel's physical survival, he defined the debate around these political issues and reinforced his image as the guardian of Israel.
This approach has a dual purpose: It asserted Israeli foreign policy independence and himself as a bulwark against international pressure while branding his opponents, who often share many of his views on paper but lack his confrontationalism, as doormats for Washington.
But despite the strong-man persona, Netanyahu has proven war-avoidant. Israel under Netanyahu never directly attacked Iran's nuclear program and fought mostly limited air wars in Gaza in response to past rocket attacks.
With Hamas, Netanyahu has walked a tightrope, maintaining it as a counterbalance to PA control, preventing Palestinian unity, and the possible rise of concerted Palestinian diplomatic initiatives towards an independent state. Netanyahu's unwavering security-centered posture continues to resonate with his constituents, many of whom live in Israel's south and were deeply affected by the Oct. 7 attack.
Netanyahu underestimated Hamas's cunning and capabilities. He gambled on his ability to balance Israel's strong military capacity against those of Hamas, Hamas's existence against the PA, the constant threat of Palestinian terrorism against his political rivals and his strong domestic support against Washington's wishes, creating a web of tensions, on top of which he stood, to carry himself from one victory to the other.
On Oct. 7, the tensions finally exploded, and the entire system crashed. Hamas, originally a small radical Islamist group, transformed over the past two decades into a government force with offensive military capabilities that dwarfed anything the PLO was ever able to accomplish or perhaps even dream up.
Today, Israel is engaged in a total war in Gaza with the stated objective of removing Hamas from power. While Israel currently focuses on the ongoing military operations, the U.S. is already thinking of the day after. The Biden administration is pushing to allow the PA to take control of Gaza with arrangements that ultimately lead to a Palestinian state. This plan has led to a public clash between Washington and Netanyahu. At first glance, this might sound like a tight corner for him. However, this clash between allies may be the very strategic maneuver he needs to survive the erosion of his domestic political support caused by the Oct. 7 attacks.
Already, Netanyahu wasted no time in turning the diplomatic spat into a domestic opportunity as he shifted his rhetoric from wartime leadership to diplomatic sparring with the U.S. He opposed the possible return of the PA to Gaza and compared the Oslo Accords to the attack of Oct. 7.
This shift highlights a tactical pivot for Netanyahu, recognizing the erosion of his political support. With this shift, he seeks to redefine the political discourse from national security to sovereignty issues. His attack on the Oslo Accords and the bold rejection of PA governance in Gaza may be an attempt to reframe the domestic political debate from who is responsible for Oct. 7 to who will protect Israel's sovereignty from the specter of Oslo 2.0. — a domain where he feels he previously held the upper hand.
By positioning himself as the defender of Israeli security and sovereignty, Netanyahu seeks not only to rally his traditional base but also to navigate the tumultuous landscape of Israeli politics at a moment of unprecedented crisis, where his leadership is under extreme scrutiny.
Whatever sense of security Hamas wrestled from Netanyahu on Oct. 7, he is likely to try and compensate for it by displaying fortitude against strong international pressure. Given Netanyahu's long record and the current conditions in Israel, his gambit, counter-intuitive as it may sound, has a reasonable chance of short-term success, and he may survive Oct. 7, which otherwise would have been a career-shattering event.
Wondering whether Netanyahu's days are indeed numbered, one of the authors of this piece recently visited Sderot, a town in southern Israel devastated in the Oct. 7 attack, to talk to the residents, who are known to be loyal to the Likud and other coalition parties.
When asked about who was to blame for Oct. 7, some of the residents, standing next to charred bullet-ridden cars and damaged homes, quickly replied "Netanyahu." Then, without hesitation, they added, "But he will be the one to save us from the threat of a Palestinian state tomorrow."
Eitan Charnoff is CEO of Potomac Strategy, a consultancy advising governments, NGOs and the private sector primarily on MENA region geopolitics, security and cooperation. Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Washington-based analyst and writer specializing in Arab and Middle Eastern politics.