Netanyahu’s Bind: Compromising in Gaza or Holding On to Power at Home

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is fighting two parallel battles, one in Gaza and another at home — and neither is going according to plan.

In Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu is leading a military campaign to defeat Hamas and free the remaining Israeli hostages captured during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. At home, he is fighting to secure both his short-term political survival and his long-term legacy.

On both fronts, he is struggling.

In Gaza, more than 100 hostages remain captive despite months of war and protracted negotiations for their release. Hamas is battered but undefeated, and generals have privately said that the war, despite devastating Gaza and killing more than 26,000 people, according to officials there, is approaching a deadlock. In Israel, polls show the prime minister would easily lose an election if one were held tomorrow. And after Mr. Netanyahu presided over the defense failures on Oct. 7, the deadliest day in Israel’s history, his legacy has been ruined.

His efforts to resolve these crises are at odds with each other, analysts said.

To burnish his legacy, he is pushing for a landmark peace deal with Saudi Arabia, a long-term strategic goal for Israel. Saudi Arabia, however, will not normalize ties without an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution. And without greater cooperation from Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, it will become harder for Israel to wind down its war in Gaza and plan for the territory’s future.

But to retain power and preserve his right-wing coalition, he must reject the premise of a Palestinian state.

“We are reaching the end of the Netanyahu era, but he isn’t done yet,” said Mazal Mualem, a Netanyahu biographer.

“Netanyahu has proven, unrivaled skills in extricating himself from entanglements,” she added, “but this time he is so deep in over his head that he may have trouble climbing out.”

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is often described as a political magician able to alter his political fortunes even if it means adopting new positions that contradict old ones. Given his long history of political survival, both his allies and critics say it is too early to predict the premature collapse of his government before its tenure formally is completed in 2026, let alone the end of his political career.

As opposition leader in 1996, he trailed by 20 points in the polls and looked certain to lose a general election. Within five months, after he waged a campaign infused with skepticism about the Oslo peace accords, he was elected prime minister. Once in office, however, Mr. Netanyahu reluctantly went along with parts of the agreement and ceded some territory to the Palestinians.

In 2017, he was investigated on corruption charges and later put on trial, leading many to predict his political demise. The case is still ongoing, and despite losing many close allies and parts of his political base, he has still managed to win four of five subsequent elections. Even after effectively suspending a peace process with the Palestinians, he, nevertheless, sealed landmark diplomatic deals in 2020 with three Arab states that had shunned Israel over the Palestinian issue.

“Trust me, Bibi’s the champ,” said Yitzhak Goldknopf, a government minister who leads one of the parties in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, using a nickname for the prime minister. “Netanyahu will finish his term.”

Such a prediction was previously a safe bet, but the war in Gaza has complicated things for the prime minister. There is no obvious course that can end the war, satisfy Saudi Arabia and please the Israeli right.

In Gaza, Israeli generals fear that Mr. Netanyahu’s two main objectives are mutually incompatible. Routing Hamas would most likely cost the lives of many hostages being held within Hamas’s underground fortress. Alternatively, a diplomatic deal to free the hostages would most likely leave Hamas in control of at least part of Gaza.

On Tuesday, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partner, threatened to quit the government if Mr. Netanyahu negotiated a deal with Hamas in which the hostages were freed but the group retained power.

Should Mr. Netanyahu lose the support of the far-right, or willfully abandon it, he could partner with centrist leaders like the former army chief Benny Gantz — or the opposition leader Yair Lapid, who offered to support a hostage deal this week — and push ahead with hostage negotiations. An alliance with the center would also give him the political cover to allow a reconstituted Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to govern the parts of Gaza where Hamas has lost control.

That approach might stanch the growing global condemnation of Israel, amid accusations — strongly denied by Israel — that it is conducting a genocide in Gaza.

But, several allies and analysts said, such a move would anger his rightist base — much of which wants Jewish Israelis to resettle Gaza — and give right-wing rivals like Mr. Ben-Gvir a boost.

Since the Oct. 7 attack, popular support for a two-state solution has dwindled, according to polls. If an election is called, Mr. Netanyahu wants to center the campaign on the question of Palestinian statehood, the allies and analysts said.

According to Nadav Shtrauchler, Mr. Netanyahu’s former media strategist, the prime minister thinks he can recover some lost votes by presenting himself as the only leader with the conviction, experience and authority to withstand U.S. and Arab pressure to create a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Netanyahu’s narrative in the election will be: Where do we want to go next?” Mr. Shtrauchler said.

“He will say, ‘Do you want someone who has the backbone to stand up to the U.S. and who doesn’t want a two-state solution?’” Mr. Shtrauchler added. “‘Or do you want someone like Benny Gantz, who doesn’t really say what he thinks about a Palestinian state?’”

Mr. Netanyahu’s public rejection of Palestinian sovereignty is at odds with what his envoys are discussing with Saudi Arabia in back-channel conversations mediated by the United States.

Mr. Netanyahu thinks he can square the circle by persuading Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for a nominal plan for Palestinian statehood, according to a person involved in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. The plan, the person said, includes so many get-out clauses that it would never come to pass.

Mr. Netanyahu “tries to play a double game,” said Avigdor Liberman, a former key adviser to Mr. Netanyahu who now leads an opposition party.

“He says to his own constituency, ‘Don’t worry, I will never agree to a Palestinian state,’” said Mr. Liberman. “And he says to Saudi Arabia, ‘Don’t worry, we will find some solution.’”

Mr. Netanyahu declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, his office said he opposed full Palestinian sovereignty but believed a deal with Saudi Arabia was achievable, without explaining why.

“The prospects are good and P.M. intends to work for it,” the statement said about a deal with Saudi Arabia. “The United States wants it. Saudi Arabia wants it and Israel wants it. There’s a common desire for it.”

The statement said he had a clear strategy for Gaza and that it was possible to both defeat Hamas and rescue the hostages.

“The war is going better than many expected,” the statement said, adding that the Israeli military was proceeding faster than the U.S.-led coalition did in Mosul, Iraq, from 2016 to 2017.

“We pay a heavy price,” the statement added. “But we are absolutely committed to achieving total victory.”

Still, his critics say that the army’s progress has been hampered by his government’s failure to devise a postwar plan. The faster the war ends, the sooner Mr. Netanyahu must address difficult questions about Gaza’s governance, which could endanger his grip on power — questions some think he is trying to avoid.

In January, three commanders told The New York Times that without a long-term vision for Gaza, the army could not make short-term tactical decisions about how to capture the southernmost neighborhoods that border Egypt. Such an operation, the commanders said, would require greater cooperation from Egypt, but that government is unwilling to engage without guarantees from Israel about the postwar plan.

Mr. Netanyahu’s allies reject the claim, arguing that the prime minister has avoided putting soldiers in needless danger. If he seems indecisive, they say, it is because Israel has no easy options, not because his political motivations have clouded his judgment.

“He wouldn’t risk our soldiers for his own politics,” said Mr. Shtrauchler. “He works toward the goals of the country, as he sees them.”

But opinion polls since Oct. 7 show that the public has lost faith in Mr. Netanyahu. On Tuesday, Israel’s leading private television station, Channel 12, published a poll suggesting that less than a quarter of Israelis preferred him to Mr. Gantz, his main rival.

“But even though the polls say he has no chance, he knows his situation can improve,” said Ms. Mualem, his biographer. “It happened before, and it can happen again.”

“This is Bibi — he never gives up,” she added. “This feeling is stronger than him.”

Natan Odenheimer contributed reporting.