Ending the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and pursuing a larger vision of peace require regime change in at least three places. Hamas cannot continue to control Gaza from where it terrorizes both Israel and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority must cast off Mahmoud Abbas’s sclerotic and corrupt regime to find credible leadership. And Israel must also undergo its own “regime change” — a repudiation of not only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but also his far-right government. Netanyahu and his government presided over what nearly became a civil war over democracy, left the country vulnerable to the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, propounded racist rhetoric that gave Israel’s enemies a toehold to accuse it of genocide in the International Criminal Court, failed to perform basic social services and lost the confidence of the country in management of the war.
A poll taken in January showed “the Likud Party would drop to an unprecedented low of only 16 seats if elections were held today,” the Jerusalem Post reported. Since then, protests against Netanyahu and the government have only increased.
As the Times of Israel reported, “Speeches at the weekly Tel Aviv rally demanding the return of hostages held in Gaza took a more strongly political tone than ever before on Saturday night, with speakers accusing the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being indifferent to the hostages’ fate and Netanyahu of being guided by personal considerations and stalling to avoid investigations and elections.” Ronen Manelis, a reserves brigadier general and former Israel Defense Forces spokesperson, was quoted as saying, “The discourse taking place in recent days, the leaks, the manipulations, the lack of leadership, the inability to make difficult decisions, is leading to some difficult questions about the loss of commitment by the state to its citizens; [about whether] considerations outside this commitment are influencing the decision-making, or the absence thereof.”
Ousting Netanyahu and his even-more-extreme coalition partners (who have taken to condemning President Biden, who remains popular with Israelis for his self-described pro-Zionism outlook and support during the war) is no easy matter. As long as Netanyahu’s coalition sticks together, he will remain in power. The notion that he would step down voluntarily after Oct. 7 has faded. Even the harsh judgment of a postwar investigatory commission might not dislodge him.
Aside from a vote of no confidence, there are only a handful of mechanisms that would eject him from government. His corruption trial might result in a criminal verdict or a plea bargain that requires him to step down. The entire military and intelligence community leadership could resign, leaving him as the sole person responsible for Oct. 7 still in power. Alternatively, intensified public protests culminating in a general strike might finally force him to step down.
There are serious limitations with each. None is likely to happen immediately, certainly not while the war is ongoing. Moreover, there is no guarantee that Netanyahu would leave voluntarily or that his coalition would crumble even if everyone else in the national security apparatus steps down and a general strike proceeds. And the progress of the much-delayed criminal trial remains uncertain.
The question then remains whether the United States can hasten Netanyahu’s removal. The U.S. record of ousting hostile regimes by military power or secret coup is atrocious, but the Biden administration and Congress can assist domestic forces in Israel to accelerate Netanyahu’s departure.
Cutting off aid to Israel is a poor tool to obtain this result. Such action would allow Netanyahu to play the victim and seek refuge with his far-right allies. However, slowing aid delivery could make clear that Netanyahu’s presence harms Israel’s essential relationship with the United States. NBC News recently reported, “After weeks of private administration requests produced fewer results than the White House wants … the U.S. is considering slowing or pausing the deliveries in the hope that doing so will prod the Israelis to take action, such as opening humanitarian corridors to provide more aid to Palestinian civilians.”
The report continued, “The effort comes after weeks of President Joe Biden and his national security team failing to convince Netanyahu and other Israeli officials to dramatically change tactics in Gaza and to take more steps to minimize civilian casualties, officials said. It marks a potential shift in Biden’s approach by going beyond rhetorical pressure, largely behind the scenes, and to making tangible policy changes aimed at getting Israel to act.” Making clear that Netanyahu’s policies necessitate this might sharpen the divide between him and military commanders.
The Biden administration also could increase consultation with and lift up the voices of opposition figures, hostage families and protesters (engaging in publicly announced meetings with them, for instance) to emphasize that the United States stands foursquare behind efforts to bring fighting to an end, obtain return of the hostages, prevent Israeli “resettlement” of Gaza and support regional peace efforts by Israel’s neighbors. And, conversely, the administration could step up criticism of the racist rhetoric from Netanyahu’s coalition partners and decline to block any Security Council resolutions condemning such remarks.
To be clear, Israel is a democratic country. Ultimately, the Israeli people select their leaders. But when the Israeli people overwhelmingly express desire for change, Biden should leave no doubt that we stand with them. He should be clear: The United States believes the future security of Israel and peace in the region hinge on deactivating Hamas (and constraining its patrons in Tehran), finding an alternative to the corrupt Palestinian Authority government and, yes, regime change in Israel. Israel and the region benefit from a pro-democracy, flexible and realistic Israeli government that understands that perpetual war is unacceptable.