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Can Netanyahu Outlast This War?

A conversation with Yair Rosenberg about the prime minister’s failures and what might be next for the Israeli government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks away with a set of stairs in the background

Spencer Platt / Getty

January 24, 2024, 6:43 PM ET

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“It’s hard to remember at this point, but before the Hamas slaughter on October 7, Israel was embroiled in the worst civic unrest since its founding,” my colleague Yair Rosenberg wrote earlier this month. Most Israelis have since shifted their focus from that unrest, which was caused by the government’s attempt to subordinate Israel’s judiciary to its politicians.

At the same time, many Israeli citizens remain at odds with the government’s hard-right factions over the country’s future, and Gaza’s—and those tensions are only ramping up as the Israel-Hamas war continues. I talked with Yair about what could be next for the Israeli government, Netanyahu’s profound failure, and how to stay informed about the war while avoiding misinformation.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Democracy in Crisis

Isabel Fattal: You wrote a few weeks after the Hamas attack that “the disaster of October 7 was the overdetermined outcome of years of Netanyahu’s poor choices.” Can Netanyahu outlast this war?

Yair Rosenberg: Israelis rallied around the flag after the Hamas massacre, but they didn’t rally around Netanyahu. That has been very consistent. Netanyahu hasn’t improved his standing: His current coalition has 64 seats in Parliament, out of 120, but is polling at about 46 seats if elections were to be held today. That’s an extraordinary collapse. Most Israelis surveyed say that they prefer other contenders for prime minister and that they want Netanyahu to resign either now or after the war.

Isabel: Which factions in Israeli politics have gained and lost in the polls since October 7?

Yair: The main beneficiary in the polls has been an opposition party run by Benny Gantz, a former chief of the Israeli army. He is a centrist figure whose party is simply called the National Unity Party. Its whole idea is, Israeli politics has gotten corrupt and dirty; Netanyahu is on trial and in bed with all these extremists; and we will bring reasoned and sober judgment back to Israeli politics. It’s an affect more than a set of policies.

That’s one of several opposition parties that ran against Netanyahu in the most recent election. After October 7, it joined the government to create a consensus coalition to conduct the war effort and help ensure that decisions would not be dominated by far-right interests. Gantz and his party have since gained a lot in the polls, towering over the field.

But there’s no law on the books that Netanyahu has to go to elections. He can just wait a couple of years until he is officially required to hold them, if nobody else in his coalition breaks ranks and collapses it before then. When you fail as comprehensively as Netanyahu has failed—by his own standards, because he ran as the man who would secure Israel, and by the standards of the state of Israel, which was created to protect one of the most persecuted populations in the history of the world from things like the Hamas massacre—some politicians might resign. But Netanyahu has never shown any inclination to give up power and has always clung to it, no matter the cost. He’s going to try every trick in his book to remain prime minister.

Isabel: You’ve written: “While the reckoning over Israel’s judiciary has been postponed … the fundamental tensions that compelled the crisis remain.” How do you see these tensions within Israel playing out now that, as you’ve reported, the hard-right government factions are turning their focus from Israel’s judicial crisis to resettling Gaza?

Yair: Israel’s far right cannot fight a two-front war against the Israeli majority. Initially, it convulsed Israeli society with this plan to hollow out Israel’s Supreme Court, which caused the largest sustained protest movement in Israeli history. It looked like that was going to be the dominant story of Netanyahu’s government. And then October 7 happened, and a lot of Israelis reassessed. They decided that they’d been bickering over small things while their enemies capitalized on their disarray.

There’s no appetite for the judicial overhaul now—no appetite to fight over it, no appetite to revisit it. And the far right knows that. It’s now going to put all its energy into pressuring Netanyahu to permanently displace Palestinians from Gaza and resettle the area. (Israel pulled all its settlers and troops out of Gaza in 2005.) This is a long-standing dream of many activists in the settler movement and is being pushed by many people in the parties that Netanyahu depends on to stay in power.

Israel’s current governing coalition contains several far-right parties that exercise massively more influence than their numbers would suggest, because they can threaten to leave the coalition if they don’t get their way. As a result, Netanyahu constantly tries to placate them, even though their preferences often don’t align with the Israeli majority. For example, on resettling Gaza, polls show that Israelis oppose doing that almost two to one. But the third of Israelis who do want to resettle Gaza are overrepresented in Israel’s coalition and could force the issue.

We should watch this as any sort of election season heats up in Israel, because Netanyahu historically makes his most far-right promises when he’s running for reelection, to get the base back onside.

Isabel: You’ve been writing about the Israel-Hamas war itself, but also about how media outlets have covered it. In a recent article, for example, you demonstrated that several damning quotes from Israel’s war cabinet cited as evidence of genocidal intent by journalists and jurists are actually erroneous or mistranslations. Your reporting led to corrections in multiple major news outlets.

What advice would you give a layperson trying to keep track of news about the war without getting mired in misinformation?

Yair: Fundamentally, my job as a reporter is to tell readers what is true, as best I can determine it. In this environment, that can be challenging for professionals, let alone everyday readers. But in general, when people are sifting through information, they should be particularly suspicious of anything they see that too easily confirms what they already want to believe, whatever that may be. As human beings, we’re most likely to uncritically share things that affirm what we want to be true, without subjecting it to the same scrutiny as something that contradicts our views. The way I work as a writer and reporter is if I see something that too conveniently confirms my thesis, that’s the piece of evidence I look into with the most skeptical eye.

This may seem obvious, but people should not use social-media platforms as their primary source of information on complex geopolitical issues. With their character limits, lack of moderation, and problematic incentives that privilege inflammatory virality over accuracy, these sites were not designed for detailed discussion of difficult topics, whether that’s economic policy or global conflict. It’s also unhealthy for our civic discourse when we try to have these conversations in places that are simply not built for them.

And it’s very hard to distinguish what’s real or what’s not on these platforms without years of experience and training. Someone who has been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a decade or more will simply know much more about all the players involved, the biases of various sources, and what sorts of traps get laid by different groups of people doing propaganda for each side. If you’re new to all of it, you’re going to fall into every single pothole, because you don’t know they’re there. It’s not that longtime reporters with regional expertise are magically better at this; it’s that they’ve learned from the hard experience of driving through all the potholes for years.

Related:

Today’s News

  1. Ohio lawmakers banned gender-affirming care for minors after voting to override Governor Mike DeWine’s veto. The law will limit transgender-youth access to treatments such as hormone therapy, and it will also block trans girls from joining girls’ and women’s sports teams at schools.
  2. The Russian defense ministry claimed that a Russian military transport plane crashed in a border region near Ukraine, killing all 74 people on board, including 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war. Russia accused Ukraine of shooting down the plane with missiles; Ukraine has not confirmed or denied the allegations.
  3. The Supreme Court declined to halt the execution of an Alabama death-row inmate, Kenneth Smith, who objected to being the first person executed using the untested method of nitrogen gas.

Dispatches

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Evening Read

An image of a shrine to a computer mouseIllustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

We’ve Forgotten How to Use Computers

By Ian Bogost

Once upon a time, long before smartphones or even laptops were ubiquitous, the computer mouse was new, and it was thrilling. The 1984 Macintosh wasn’t the first machine to come with one, but it was the first to popularize the gizmo for ordinary people. Proper use of the mouse was not intuitive. Many people had a hard time moving and clicking at the same time, and “double-clicking” was a skill one had to learn. Still, anyone could put a hand on the thing, move it around on a table, and see the results on-screen: A little cursor moved along with you. “Pointing is a metaphor we all know,” Steve Jobs told Playboy in 1985. The mouse was central to the computer’s populist future, which wasn’t yet assured at the time.

But the Mousing Age that followed didn’t last for very long.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

An image of Greta Gerwig on the set of Barbie, looking at a laptop, surrounded by Barbie stars (including Margot Robbie)Jaap Buitendijk / Warner Bros. Pictures

Debate. Why didn’t Greta Gerwig get a Best Director nomination for the Oscars? David Sims investigates.

Read.The Marigold Sonnets,” a poem by Amy Gerstler:

“Today I’ll listen to whatever music Spotify has in mind. / Concerto for Black Holes and Slime Molds by the Panty Sniffers? / That algorithm knows me so well! I’ve pitched myself under / this magnolia tree, heart first, before I get lobbed anyplace / worse.”

Play our daily crossword.

Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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