Mar 31, 2024 - World

Netanyahu critics mobilize in Israel

Anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv yesterday. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated Saturday night in front of the military's headquarters in Tel Aviv, in the biggest protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the terrorist attack of Oct. 7.

  • During the demonstration, a group of roughly 20 hostage families called on Netanyahu to resign. They say that for his own political reasons, he isn't pushing hard enough for a deal with Hamas.

Why it matters: The protests, which many political observers thought would happen months ago, could signal a turning point for the Israeli public.

The big picture: Netanyahu and his government faced only limited protests at home over the past five months, compared to mass demonstrations before the war.

  • The vast majority of Israelis have felt political demonstrations weren't appropriate while hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers, many of them reservists, were fighting in Gaza or stationed on high alert along Israel's borders.

Saturday's eruption was driven by three key groups — all of whom think Netanyahu's decisions are driven mainly by political survival:

  1. Families of hostages in Gaza.
  2. The anti-Netanyahu protest movement, which was very active before the war and now is resurfacing.
  3. Many Israelis are angry at Netanyahu over attempts to bypass an Israeli Supreme Court ruling Thursday that ultra-orthodox men can no longer be exempt from military service.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu has rejected requests by the director of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, and other Israeli negotiators to give them more leeway so they can get a hostage deal with the Hamas captors.

  • Several members of the Israeli war cabinet also pushed Netanyahu to show more flexibility. But he accused them of being soft and not knowing how to negotiate with Hamas.
  • During a security cabinet meeting on Thursday, most of the ministers from Netanyahu's own party said there's a need to make more compromises to get a deal. Netanyahu rejected their proposals.

Between the lines: A development that helped turn the tide was a New York Times interview with a former hostage who was abducted from her home on Oct. 7, and was released last November.

  • Amit Soussana told The Times, in a story published Tuesday, that she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by a Hamas militant who was guarding her while she was in captivity in Gaza.
  • Two days later, another female hostage, Moran Stela Yanai, suggested in an interview with Israel's most-watched investigative television show, "Uvda," that she was molested by her male captors.
  • Yanai shocked many Israelis when she said that not even one minister in the government had visited her or called her after she was released.

State of play: Netanyahu and his government were highly unpopular even before Oct. 7. His judicial overhaul created an unprecedented political, economic and security crisis.

  • But the Hamas attack — the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust — eroded Netanyahu's political situation even more.
  • While a majority of Israelis support the war, recent polls show they also want Netanyahu to resign and call for new elections once the war winds down.   
  • Several polls in recent weeks showed that if elections were held today, Netanyahu's coalition — which has 64 seats today — would get only 45, with Netanyahu's Likud party losing around 15 seats.

Reality check: Although domestic political pressure on Netanyahu is growing, he isn't going anywhere, and his government isn't under imminent threat of collapsing.

  • Netanyahu's main political rival — Benny Gantz, who joined the emergency government a few days after Oct. 7 — doesn't seem to be leaving anytime soon.
  • Even if Gantz left, Netanyahu would still have 64 members of his Knesset coalition, including his ultra-Orthodox and radical right-wing partners. Even if public protest increases, there's no guarantee that would lead to the coalition's collapse.

What's next: On Sunday, hostage families and several civil society groups will hold a demonstration in front of the Knesset, and call for immediate elections.

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