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Israelis question Netanyahu's future in office after Hamas' surprise incursion

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted for many years that he puts his country's security first. In an interview last year, he spoke of Palestinians and explained why Netanyahu is only willing to offer them something less than a fully empowered Palestinian state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: My formula is very simple. The only peace that will hold is one that we can defend, and the one that we can defend is one in which the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves but none of the powers to threaten our life.

INSKEEP: The surprise attack by Hamas a little over a week ago punctured that strategy. So let's talk through what it means for Netanyahu with Guy Ziv, who is associate director of American University's Center for Israel Studies. Good morning, sir.

GUY ZIV: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do people in Israel directly blame Netanyahu for allowing this attack, for not being sufficiently on alert?

ZIV: The short answer is yes. He - Netanyahu has long cultivated the self-image of Mr. Security, and that image has now been irreparably shattered. And a poll taken a couple of days ago shows that only 29% of the public now think he's qualified to be prime minister. And that includes many of his own voters. So he no longer has that image, and - nor will he ever gain that back.

INSKEEP: And if we looked at a poll from a month ago or a year ago or 10 years ago, it would be different?

ZIV: It would be different. And, you know, Israel has been in kind of gridlock for many, many years. And the one theme that came up time and time again that he brought up in each of his many campaigns for office and for reelection has been his focus on security and the idea that he, and only he, could be counted on to ensure Israeli security. And now, given the largest, the biggest, the most significant massacre of Jews since the Holocaust took place that happened under his watch, he can no longer, obviously, make that claim. And unfortunately for him, this is going to be his legacy.

INSKEEP: I want to come back to that word gridlock because as I have followed Netanyahu's career, it has seemed to me - I think that analysts have sometimes said that gridlock is part of his strategy. He does not believe or does not accept the idea that there could be a two-state solution that could really work. He doesn't necessarily trust any particular partner that he could negotiate with on the Palestinian side. And so it has seemed that muddling along, doing something less than a peace solution is the most secure choice. Does this result, at least in this particular moment, undermine that strategy?

ZIV: It does because one of the things we're seeing here is that his policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians have ultimately been proven to be failures. I mean, his idea was to kind of kick the can down the road on the two-state solution, and in doing so, he weakened Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and emboldened Hamas in Gaza. I mean, he undermined President Abbas at every turn while taking Hamas seriously and ignoring so much of what was happening in Gaza, thinking that he could just bypass the Palestinian issue altogether in his efforts to normalize agreements with the Arab countries. And so that ultimate deal with Saudi Arabia is now on hold indefinitely and certainly is not going to take place while this war is happening.

INSKEEP: Let's swing back to the more immediate crisis, though. According to the Israeli government, 1,300 Israelis have been killed. The Israeli government is in the middle of, perhaps in the early stages of, a dramatic response against Gaza. And the prime minister is - well, he's the only prime minister Israel has, and he has struck a power-sharing agreement with Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition. Does it appear that he has stabilized his political position and essentially has the country behind him, at least for the moment?

ZIV: Well, he's got the country behind him for the moment, but it's really less about him and more about a show of unity and less politics and more about a show of unity during this greatest crisis that Israel has ever faced. But that does not necessarily mean that he has anything to look forward to politically once this war is over.

INSKEEP: Is the United States being as supportive as it can, given that the United States has occasionally had some difficulties with Netanyahu, particularly Democratic presidents?

ZIV: Yes. Absolutely. President Biden has displayed tremendous leadership regarding this war. He's actually the leader that Israelis wished they have. And he's somebody who's not only spoken with kind of - the kind of moral clarity and empathy, but also has been very tough towards Israel's enemies and provided emergency military assistance to Israel, from ammunition and interceptors to replenish...

INSKEEP: Right.

ZIV: ...The Iron Dome to moving the Ford carrier striker group - strike group - excuse me...

INSKEEP: OK.

ZIV: ...To the Eastern Mediterranean, which will...

INSKEEP: Guy Ziv.

ZIV: ...Hopefully deter...

INSKEEP: Sorry. I got to stop you there. Guy Ziv of American University. 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.

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