‘Victory photo’: Will Beirut killings help embattled Netanyahu politically?

Netanyahu’s popularity is at an all-time low. The Beirut assassinations won’t fundamentally change that, analysts say.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 31, 2023 [Abir Sultan/Pool via Reuters]

It was a rocky start to 2024 for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Monday, January 1, the Supreme Court of Israel struck down a controversial law introduced by Netanyahu’s government in 2023, which curtailed certain powers of the top court and sparked widespread protests across the country.

Then, the following day, an attack on a Beirut apartment killed top Hamas officials. While Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack, analysts have said that it bears all the marks of a targeted Israeli strike. Will it help stall the fall in popularity of Israel’s long-serving leader?

Supreme Court ruling a ‘significant setback’

The block to the judicial overhaul plan is a “significant setback” for Netanyahu and the Israeli far right that had invested “significant political energy on the topic”, Nader Hashemi, associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at Georgetown University, told Al Jazeera.

For some Israelis, Hashemi said, Netanyahu’s longstanding insistence on the judicial changes had “divided Israeli society and made it weaker, allowing October 7th in the way it did”.

Recent opinion polls show that the vast majority of Israelis think Netanyahu should publicly accept responsibility for the failures that led to Hamas’s attack on southern Israel on October 7, in which nearly 1,200 people were killed, and more than 200 people were taken captive. Israeli bombs and artillery firing have killed more than 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza since then.

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People protest against Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce the powers of the Supreme Court, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on February 25, 2023 [Ilan Rosenberg/File photo/Reuters]

Nimrod Goren, a senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera that the Supreme Court ruling was seen as a “big win for Israeli democracy”.

After the ruling, Israel’s Minister of Justice Yariv Levin struck out at the court, saying the timing of its judgement was “the opposite of the unity required these days for the success of our fighters on the front”.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, however, warned Netanyahu’s government against ignoring the ruling, saying if they did, it would “show they didn’t learn anything from October 7”. Former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who is in Netanyahu’s war cabinet, also called for the ruling to be respected.

The scenes of political bickering after the ruling, Goren said – after months of relative unity following October 7 – served as a “reminder of what’s ahead for us [Israelis] after the war is over”.

He said that focusing on the proposed reforms, a divisive issue before the war, “instead of dealing with the important issues we need to face (now)” has only added to the criticism of Netanyahu within Israeli society.

Beirut killings a ‘victory photograph’ for the war cabinet

Yet, if the ruling by the Supreme Court was a blow to Netanyahu, the assassination of key Hamas leaders in Beirut presented a moment of triumph for him and his war cabinet, which includes Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant and Gantz, now a member of the opposition.

“I think these types of dramatic assassinations against Israel’s sworn enemies do help Netanyahu politically,” Hashemi said.

An article published in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated that the news from Beirut had been seen “positively” by Israeli society and provided the country’s leaders with a much-needed “victory photograph” as the war approached the three-month mark.

But, for the families of the more than 100 captives still being held in Gaza, the article stated, the news came as “a stab in the heart”.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu had met with the families, informing them that a possible deal with Hamas was taking form that could lead to the release of captives.

Immediately afterwards, information filtered through that senior Hamas leaders had been killed in Beirut, followed by news that progress on a potential deal for the release of captives had stalled.

Haaretz said the news extinguished a growing optimism among the families about the prospects of a deal, citing Eli Shtivi, father of 28-year-old Idan Shtivi, who was kidnapped from the Supernova music festival. Shtivi told Israeli TV that the assassinations “came at a time when we thought we were looking at a real possibility that more hostages would be coming home”.

It’s a sentiment that Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat was kidnapped by Hamas, does not share.

He said that politics ought to wait and that the main priority for the families of captives is to support whatever the government is doing to bring them back.

“After everything is over. We’ll have enough time to talk about politics, but I want my cousin Carmel to be here when we talk about it,” he told Al Jazeera.

Until then, he said, “We’ll be supporting every effort to get” the captives out. “I think the most important thing is the government knows that it has the support of most Israelis.”

Beirut assassination shows no desire for a ceasefire

Still, the killings have rankled with many Israelis who are vocally calling for a peaceful resolution to the war.

Standing Together, a Jewish-Arab movement for Peace, brought thousands of people on to the streets in recent weeks to call for a bilateral ceasefire and an end to the current military campaign in Gaza.

Alon-Lee Green, the co-director of Standing Together, told Al Jazeera that the assassination was a message from Netanyahu and his war cabinet that “we’re not here to negotiate”.

A military win, not a political win

The events in Beirut might be seen by many Israelis as a military achievement, but they do not necessarily translate into a political win for Netanyahu, say analysts.

Instead, Goren said it merely widens the gap between the “lack of trust in the current leadership of the government and a continued high level of trust in the areas of the security establishment despite all that happened on October 7”.

The fact that Gantz, an opposition leader, is also in the war cabinet, he said, shows that the goal of going after Hamas is shared by most political leaders, and therefore, military successes are not just attributed to Netanyahu.

Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow of the MENA programme at Chatham House, said that even if events such as the Beirut killings might offer a brief respite for Israel’s embattled leadership, they won’t change Netanyahu’s precarious political situation.

The prime minister is largely blamed for allowing October 7 to happen, so whenever there is a ceasefire, Mekelberg said, the opposition is likely to challenge his position and demand an election.

Source: Al Jazeera