Gaza Hostage Deaths Weaken Netanyahu’s Grip on Power

In the face of increasing pressure from the United States, Britain and Germany, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has doubled down on his opposition to what these allies see as the future of Gaza: an interim government overseen by the Palestinian Authority and an eventual Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

Speaking only hours after the army admitted to shooting three Israeli hostages as they held up a white flag in Gaza, fueling consternation and anger among Israelis, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to be trying to change the subject, boasting that he had prevented the creation of a Palestinian state in the past and would continue to do so.

“I’m proud that I prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state because today everybody understands what that Palestine state could have been,” he said at a news conference Saturday night. “Now that we’ve seen the little Palestinian state in Gaza, everyone understands what would have happened if we had capitulated to international pressures and enabled a state like that” on the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu is hoping to hold on to power after the war, despite popular fury that Hamas built itself into a military power and invaded Israel on his watch. To do that, he is trying to appeal to Israelis, including his Likud party and its far-right coalition partners, who mistrust the Palestinians now more than ever and argue that a two-state solution is a dangerous fantasy.

But as the war continues without resolution, the deaths mount, many of the hostages remain in custody in Gaza and Israel’s main Western allies are sharpening their criticism of him — and even looking beyond him — Mr. Netanyahu’s grip on power seems shakier than ever.

Now, the actions of the Israeli soldiers who killed hostages, rather than rescue them, may give even more impetus to those who argue that the intense military campaign, with its bombing and street fighting, is endangering those still held captive, as well as bringing Israel into disrepute.

“I begged the cabinet, and we all warned that the fighting would likely harm the hostages,” Raz Ben-Ami, a former Israeli hostage released by Hamas during a recent truce between the two sides, told demonstrators in Tel Aviv Saturday night.

“Unfortunately, I was right,” said Ms. Ben-Ami, whose husband, Ohad, is still being held in Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu has tried to push back against growing calls from the families of hostages for another effort at a cease-fire in Gaza to allow negotiations for the release of the 130 or so people still held by Hamas and its allies.

“The military pressure is essential to bringing home the hostages but also to achieving a victory,” Mr. Netanyahu insisted at his news conference. “Without military pressure, we wouldn’t have been able to create a framework that led to the release of 110 hostages, and only via continued military pressure will we get the release of all our hostages.”

But despite his speech, he is being widely criticized in Israel for waiting to express regret for the deaths of the three Israeli hostages. The army chief of staff and the defense minister were quick to apologize and take responsibility, but even they are not thought to have gone far enough.

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s most respected commentators, wrote that the deaths were not just a tragedy, but “a war crime,” since “international law is very clear on the issue.” Israelis must be harder on themselves, he said. “We’re at war now, and our hearts — all of ours, including mine — are with the soldiers. But nothing good can come of blind love.”

Mr. Barnea praised the army for its quick transparency, a contrast to its usual response, which is to say only that allegations of crimes are under investigation. And he called for the soldiers and commander responsible to be disciplined.

Since Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, killing roughly 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages, Israeli forces have killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to Gaza health officials.

Akram Attaallah, a columnist for Al-Ayyam, a Palestinian newspaper in the West Bank, said that he was not surprised Israeli forces had shot the three men and that Israel would not have had to disclose what happened to them had they been unarmed Palestinians.

“Israel kills even those who surrender and raise the white flag,” said Mr. Attaallah, who is from Gaza. “The narrative is a condemnation of the Israeli army.”

Yagil Levy, an Israeli military expert at the Open University of Israel, spoke of “a real gap between the formal rules of engagement and the practice on the battlefield.” Given fear and fatigue, he said, “I’m almost sure these rules of engagement are not honored or implemented by the forces on the ground.”

Mr. Levy said he also saw parallels between the deaths of the three hostages and Israel’s operations in Gaza in general. He believes that the disregard for the formal rules of engagement revealed by the army’s investigation into the deaths will become still more evident after the war, when further investigations are done.

Already President Biden has criticized Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, which the Israelis deny. John Kirby, a White House spokesman, attempted to downplay those comments as simply reflecting Mr. Biden’s thinking “about the need for reducing civilian harm and being as precise and careful and deliberate as possible.”

Those concerns were echoed on Sunday in a joint opinion article written by the foreign ministers of Britain and Germany, David Cameron and Annalena Baerbock, in which they combined support for Israel’s right to battle Hamas with pleas for the Israelis to “do more to discriminate sufficiently between terrorists and civilians, ensuring its campaign targets Hamas leaders and operatives.” The French foreign minister, visiting Israel on Sunday, called for a truce.

Mr. Cameron and Ms. Baerbock urged Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians toward a two-state solution, lining up two more of Israel’s closest allies in the world with the American plan for a postwar Gaza — precisely what Mr. Netanyahu is trying to forestall. He will have more opportunity to try in the next few days, when Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. secretary of defense, arrives in Israel for talks.

Mr. Netanyahu also faces criticism for playing politics so openly in the midst of a war, said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who just returned from Israel.

“Netanyahu has some real substantive differences with Biden, but he’s playing rampant politics in the midst of intensive fighting, and it’s shameless,” Mr. Sachs said. Mr. Netanyahu, he said, is already campaigning against his main rival, Benny Gantz, whom he brought into the emergency war cabinet as a show of national unity, and who is regarded as being more open to talks with the Palestinians about postwar Gaza.

Even Mr. Netanyahu knows that some sort of future must include the secular strand of Palestinian politics, which the Palestinian Authority, however flawed, still represents, Mr. Sachs said.

The killings of the hostages adds pressure on the Israeli government for fresh negotiations to free others, he said. The demonstrations by the families are increasing, and there is a general sense that time is running out for the hostages, with more reports of them having died or been killed in captivity.

Yonatan Hadari, who attended the demonstration in Tel Aviv, said he had lost faith not in the army but in Mr. Netanyahu. The army, he said, “is doing a good job, but the leadership is terrible, and you can see it is having a huge negative impact. You see a prime minister who isn’t taking responsibility, who isn’t visiting the hostage families or the bereaved families.”

While Hamas insists publicly that there will be no more negotiations about hostages until Israel stops its war in Gaza, talks are continuing with the aid of Qatar and Egypt, with hopes for a larger deal that would free many more hostages in return for Israel releasing more high-profile Palestinian prisoners, including some who have been convicted of murdering Israelis.

The killings made the risks to the remaining hostages “very concrete,” said Mr. Levy, the military expert. This, he said, “gave a boost to the prisoner exchange movement, and could bring Netanyahu and other ministers to consider paying a higher price for prisoner exchange.”

Adam Sella contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.