Huge protests across Israel are telling Netanyahu to leave, will it happen?

As ceasefire talks with Hamas drag on, thousands of Israelis are calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go.

Protesters in West Jerusalem.
Protesters in west Jerusalem demand Netanyahu to make a deal in order to release captives in Gaza [Al Jazeera]

Six months into Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being accused of dragging out the conflict to stay in power and for obstructing a deal with Hamas to bring Israeli captives back from Gaza.

Tens of thousands of protesters are calling for early elections as they and some Israeli officials lose patience with the prime minister’s performance, experts and critics told Al Jazeera. Israeli security forces have been using greater force to disperse protesters, as was seen on Wednesday outside the prime minister’s residence.

The growing demonstrations in Israel reflect the latest poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute, which suggested that 57 percent of the Israeli public rates Netanyahu’s performance since the start of the war as “poor” or “very poor”.

“There is a general public sentiment that Netanyahu is not fit to lead and he is being driven by his own political interests for survival,” said Mairav Zonszein, an expert on Israel and Palestine with International Crisis Group, a non-profit dedicated to resolving conflicts worldwide.

“Families of hostages – but also former security officials – all want the government to be replaced. They all want elections.”

‘Unrealistic Demands’

But while most people want Netanyahu gone, few support ending the war on Gaza, experts said.

Since an October 7 attack on Israeli communities and military outposts by Hamas’s Qassam Brigades, in which 1,139 people were killed and about 250 taken captive, most of the Israeli public has seen the group as an existential threat to Israel.

“I think Hamas is terrible, but that Netanyahu is also not doing the best he can to [finish] them,” said Natan Gershoni, a 74-year-old Israeli former army officer who fought in the 1967 war.

“Right now, I want the hostages back at any price, and then we can finish off the problem in Gaza.”

On March 15, Hamas proposed releasing the remaining Israeli captives in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, the return to northern Gaza of Palestinians displaced south by Israel, and a permanent ceasefire.

Netanyahu reportedly rejected the proposal and called the demands “unrealistic” – but Zonszein believes he is trying to avoid a ceasefire so he can remain in power for as long as the country is at war.

“The fundamental issue is for Netanyahu to make sure the focus stays on the war. The minute there is a ceasefire, then there is more room for prolonging it and for focusing on investigations and elections,” she told Al Jazeera.

Netanyahu may also be hobbled by his far-right coalition, particularly Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Ben Gvir, both of whom have reportedly threatened to pull out of Netanyah’s coalition if Israel strikes a deal with Hamas they deem unfavourable.

Smotrich has even said that recovering the hostages was “not the most important thing”, triggering a public backlash.

Israel’s war cabinet has more diverse views. Former military chief Gadi Eizenkot, whose son was killed fighting in Gaza, is advocating on behalf of Israeli captives and their families in the war cabinet. He stressed that freeing the Israeli captives through a deal should take priority over killing senior Hamas leaders.

But Eizenkot’s leverage is limited because neither he nor Benny Gantz, another former army chief who appears sympathetic to Israeli captives, hold a majority in parliament, they would not be able to force an election by pulling out of the war cabinet.

Only Smotrich or Gvir could do that by leaving Netanyahu’s coalition, which would require Israel to hold an election in three months, even as Netanyahu’s popularity remains abysmally low, according to recent polls.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in Jerusalem, January 11, 2023. [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/File]
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Smotrich in Jerusalem, January 11, 2023 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/File]

Despite that pressure, Netanyahu reportedly recently granted greater flexibility to his delegation negotiating with Hamas in Cairo, Egypt. Israeli officials are now open to allowing Palestinians in Gaza to return to the north of the enclave as part of a deal that would release the remaining Israeli captives.

But, ultimately, Netanyahu wants to continue the war on Gaza, Oren Ziv, an Israeli commentator and a journalist for progressive Israeli news outlet 972 Magazine, told Al Jazeera.

He added that Netanyahu has even claimed that calling for a swift deal to retrieve Israeli captives from Gaza undermines the “war effort”.

“Netanyahu’s [rhetoric] has pushed the vast majority of [captives’ families] to unite with the antigovernment protests,” Ziv said.

‘No choice’

While most still claim to support the fighting in Gaza, Israelis are fatigued from the war, according to Ori Goldberg, an Israeli political commentator.

He told Al Jazeera it remains politically and socially unacceptable to oppose the war in Israel, but that Israelis would accept a ceasefire if they could claim it was their “only choice” to retrieve the captives.

“Israel’s policies are presented to Israelis – or spoken to Israelis – as reflections of Israel’s existential lack of choice,” he said.

“They are generally for the war, but if they are told that they have no choice because the world twisted their arm or because the prime minister finally relented to return the hostages, then Israelis will be fine with that.”

Goldberg added that many Israelis breathed a collective “sigh of relief” during the last temporary ceasefire, which was brokered in November and led to the release of 105 Israeli captives and 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Families and supporters of Gaza captives hold a rally in Tel Aviv
A protest outside the Israeli Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv on December 15, 2023 – after the Israeli army said it shot dead three captives having ‘mistakenly’ identified them as a threat – calling for the release of the captives in exchange for Palestinian prisoners [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]

He believed many Israeli protesters would rationalise another ceasefire by claiming that they pressured Netanyahu to commit to a captive deal.

A deal could also prompt Benny Gantz – the main rival to Netanyahu – to exit the war cabinet once Israeli captives are returned and a ceasefire is in motion, triggering an early election, which he is favoured to win.

But Zonszein, from ICG, said a lot of Israeli protesters may demand an election sooner if they conclude that Netanyahu is unable – or unwilling – to bring the remaining captives home.

“I think a lot of Israelis just believe that Netanyahu won’t deliver on what they want. That’s why they just want elections to replace him because they believe Gantz will be able to clinch a hostage deal and de-escalate the situation on some level,” she told Al Jazeera.

“A large number of Israelis just want Netanyahu out.”

Source: Al Jazeera