Benjamin Netanyahu: A champion of or detriment to Israel's security?

Netanyahu’s uncompromising approach to tackling both Iran and Hamas militants in Gaza hasn't won him many friends on the world stage. Meanwhile, Israelis at home blame him for 7 October.

Rob Carter

Benjamin Netanyahu: A champion of or detriment to Israel's security?

For a man who has always regarded himself more as a war leader than a mere politician, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu will see the Gaza conflict as the defining moment of his career.

Whether against Palestinian militants or Iran’s ayatollahs, the 74-year-old prime minister has always positioned himself as the best person to ensure Israel’s security.

Netanyahu’s obsession with placing Israel’s security concerns above all else—even at the expense of reaching a peaceful accommodation with Israel’s Arab neighbours—is said to stem from the deep personal tragedy he suffered following the death of his brother Yonatan in 1976 in a daring Israeli commando raid to free Israeli hostages taken captive by Palestinian and German militants in the Ugandan city of Entebbe.

Of the 106 hostages taken captive, 102 were rescued, although the mission resulted in Netanyahu being killed—the only Israeli soldier to perish in the operation.

The so-called Entebbe raid, which was carried out by Israel’s elite Sayeret Maktal special forces unit, has acquired iconic status in Israel for its daring execution. Most Israeli special forces operations are conducted closer home, and launching a successful rescue mission in a distant African country set a precedent for the Israelis to confront their enemies anywhere in the world.

Even though Bibi served in the same special forces unit as his brother, there has always been a lurking suspicion that the Israeli leader has always been living in the shadow of his heroic elder brother and that his uncompromising political agenda is his way of compensating for Yoni’s death.

The Entebbe experience has certainly been a driving motivation for Netanyahu ever since, and has undoubtedly shaped his response to key regional issues.

Netanyahu’s deep-seated antagonism towards both the Arab world and Iran has seen him adopt political policies that even some of his supporters regard as being extreme.

Rather than attempting to pursue a peace dialogue with the Palestinians, he has instead opted to actively support the activities of illegal Israeli settlers on the West Bank, whose numbers have increased dramatically during the three decades that Netanyahu has dominated Israel’s political stage.

After the collapse of the Oslo Accords, the peace treaty signed between former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993, successive Israeli governments headed by Netanyahu have made little effort to revive the peace process initiated by the Accords, which was ultimately aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state.

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Read more: 30 years later, Oslo's real objectives are clear

Likewise, Netanyahu’s long-running confrontation with Iran over its nuclear ambitions has seen him making constant threats to attack the Islamic Republic to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring a nuclear weapons arsenal.

Now, in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack Iranian-backed Hamas militants launched against Israel on 7 October, killing more than 1,200 Israelis and taking an estimated 250 more hostage, Netanyahu finds himself taking centre stage in one of the gravest moments in Israel’s history.

Not since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when a coalition of Arab states launched a surprise attack on the Jewish state, have the Israelis found themselves in such a perilous predicament.

Apart from battling Hamas militants in Gaza, where Netanyahu has vowed to wipe the militant organisation from the face of the earth, the Israelis also find themselves fighting on a variety of other fronts. Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed group, has launched a series of attacks against northern Israel, causing tens of thousands of Israelis to flee their homes and seek sanctuary further south.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which are also backed by Tehran, have declared their intention to disrupt shipping headed for Israel, with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard IRGC), which controls an expansive network of militant groups throughout the region, also being active in seeking to maintain the pressure against Israel.

Indeed, Israel attempted to disrupt the IRGC’s activities when it bombed Iran’s consulate in Damascus on 1 April, killing several senior IRGC commanders. It was in retaliation for this attack that Iran launched its unprecedented drone and missile attack against Israel on Saturday night, the first time the Islamic Republic had launched a direct attack against Israel since the 1979 revolution.

Fears that a conflict that began with the Hamas attack on Gaza last October could develop into a major Middle East war have increased after Israel was widely reported to have responded to the Iranian bombardment by launching its own attack against the Iranian city of Isfahan, which is said to contain key elements of Iran’s nuclear programme.

While Israel rarely confirms its involvement in overseas military operations, Netanyahu has previously made it clear that Israel would respond to the Iranian attack. During talks with British Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, Netanyahu stressed that Israel reserved the right to “make its own decisions” in terms of responding to Iranian aggression and that his government would “do everything necessary to defend itself.”

Netanyahu’s uncompromising approach to tackling both Iran and Hamas militants in Gaza is unlikely to win him many friends on the world stage. Nor is his implacable opposition to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, which several Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, believe is the only way of resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue, likely to appeal to Israel’s allies.

But Netanyahu’s dedication to preserving Israel’s security, which has earned him the nickname “Mr Security” in Israeli political circles, will lead him to believe that he is simply fulfilling his destiny as the Israeli leader who was elected for the express purpose of keeping his people safe.

Netanyahu positions himself as 'Mr Security', but an inquiry into 7 October will surely probe his role in encouraging and facilitating the funding of Hamas.

Netanyahu certainly likes to see himself as a modern-day King David, Israel's warrior-poet who secured his people's place in the land of Israel, believing that he finds himself in the same, unenviable position of waging a battle for the survival of his nation.

Netanyahu's approach also draws parallels with other modern-day Israeli war leaders, such as Moshe Dayan, whose leadership during the 1967 War helped to secure a decisive victory for Israel, one that transformed the landscape of the modern Middle East.

Netanyahu's emergence as Israel's war leader certainly represents a major transformation in his political fortunes, which owe a great deal to his surprise comeback in Israel's last general election in 2022.

Before then, his political detractors, of whom there are many on both the right and left of Israeli politics, were quick to write his political obituary after he was forced from office over corruption allegations following his 12-year stint as prime minister.

Indeed, his critics still argue that the only reason Netanyahu returned to frontline Israeli politics was because he saw it as the best means of affording him immunity from prosecution.

In the wake of his surprise election victory, Netanyahu created government of national unity, claiming that he would represent all Israelis "without exception". Instead, he ended up forming one of the most right-wing governments in the country's history.

This has meant that, despite claims that Israel is fighting an existential struggle for survival, the Israeli government regularly finds itself the target of large-scale demonstrations with protesters calling for Netanyahu's removal from office.

Despite the vocal opposition he regularly encounters, "King Bibi", as he is known among his supporters, still maintains a dominant profile in Israel's political landscape. He remains the country's longest-serving leader, having won a record five elections to hold office six times—more than any other prime minister in the country's 74-year history. 

Much of Netanyahu's success derives from the fact that he has been able to convince the Israeli electorate that they have never been richer or safer and by carefully cultivating the image that he is the person best qualified to safeguard the security of the Israeli people. 

However, Hamas's attack on 7 October has shattered Netanyahu's security image. He has come under increased domestic scrutiny after reports emerged in Israeli media that he had ignored warnings of an imminent attack from Gazan territory.

People take part in a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, calling for him to resign.

According to polling, the overwhelming majority of Israelis blame him and his government for the security failures on that fateful day, saying the Israeli army's attention was more focused on policing the Occupied West Bank, leaving its security along the border with Gaza vulnerable.

Additionally, the New York Times reported that the Israeli army had no plans in place to deal with a surprise attack, which contributed to its sluggish response to the incursion on 7 October. Netanyahu has promised an inquiry into the security and intelligence failures after the war, leading to speculation that he could be dragging out the war to evade scrutiny and accountability over his role. It also will likely look into his role in encouraging and facilitating the funding of Hamas.

During his long political career, he has experienced his fair share of setbacks, such as losing power to Ariel Sharon, his long-standing rival for power in the right-wing Likud party.

But even when faced with significant obstacles, Netanyahu has always managed to find a way to overcome adversity, a quality that many of his supporters believe stems from the time he spent serving in his elite Israeli commando unit as a young man.

Having spent much of his youth in America, where his father worked as an academic and Zionist activist, Netanyahu returned to Israel at the age of 18 and spent five years serving in the Israeli army, rising to the rank of captain in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He was wounded in a raid on a Belgian airliner hijacked by Palestinian militants, which landed in Israel in 1972 and fought in the 1973 Middle East war.

Following his appointment in 1982 as Israel's deputy chief of mission in Washington, he became a familiar face on US television and an effective advocate for Israel. His ability to speak perfect English with a distinctive American accent made him a polished performer.

He eventually made his debut in Israeli politics in the 1990s during the fierce debates in Israel over the Oslo Accords peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who helped spearhead those efforts, led to an early election a year later that saw Netanyahu and his opposing ideology come to power.

Once in power, Netanyahu became one of the main critics of the Accords and consistently resisted pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist and author of a Netanyahu biography, "Bibi", has been highly critical of the Israeli leader's attitude towards the Palestinians.

"Netanyahu, who inherited the most favourable conditions for peace with the Palestinians, has never tried to grasp the opportunity," wrote Pfeffer. "The only peace he has been willing to consider is one where Israel bullies the Palestinians into submission."

Netanyahu's political fortunes also received a significant boost when Trump won the 2016 US presidential election contest, which brought about a closer alignment between US and Israeli government policies.


Read more: 7 things Saudi Arabia should keep in mind in talks with Israel

By far, the greatest political coup for Netanyahu during this period was Trump's decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—a move that confirmed  Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Netanyahu also forged an understanding with Trump on the problematic Iran issue, which resulted in the Trump administration's unilateral decision in 2018 to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the previous Obama administration and to reimpose sanctions. 

Netanyahu's good understanding with Trump helps to explain his often fractious relationship with President Biden since he replaced Trump in the White House, which has come to the fore since the 7 October attacks.

While the Biden Administration declared its total support for Israel in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it has often been critical of Netanyahu's handling of the Gaza conflict, claiming his tactics have been responsible for the high Palestinian death toll. 

The underlying tensions between Netanyahu and Biden have been very much in evidence in the wake of the Iranian attack against Israel. While the US, together with other Western allies such as the UK and France, helped to defend Israel from the Iranian attack, Biden tried to pressure Netanyahu's government not to retaliate, fearing that any direct Israeli action against Tehran would provoke a far greater escalation of the conflict.

In the event, the missile attack on Isfahan demonstrated that the Israeli leader was not prepared to take advice from any of his allies, not even the leader of a superpower like the US. So far as Netanyahu is concerned, he is the only leader who fully comprehends the security needs of the Israeli people.

Another factor in the difficult relationship between Netanyahu and Biden is the Israeli leader's good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During Netanyahu's previous spell in office, the Russian and Israeli leaders developed an accord on issues of mutual interest, such as Syria, where Russian forces kept their distance when Israel launched air strikes against Iranian positions deep within Syrian territory. This was despite Russia deploying state-of-the-art anti-aircraft missile systems in Syria, which were invariably switched off when Israeli forces conducted their operations.

Netanyahu will still be clinging to the hope that, despite Moscow's close alliance with Tehran, he can still persuade the Russian leader to scale down his alliance with Iran. This is asking a great deal of Putin, who is relying heavily on Iran to assist his war effort in Ukraine.

But with Israel pursuing a policy of neutrality in Ukraine—the Israelis have denied repeated requests from Kyiv to supply military equipment—there is a remote possibility that Netanyahu can persuade the Russian leader to adopt a different approach in his dealings with Iran.

For the moment, though, Netanyahu's overriding priority is to complete the military campaign he launched last year to destroy Hamas and ensure that the organisation is never again in a position to attack Israel. Safeguarding Israel's security, whether from Hamas militants or a hostile state like Iran, will always be Netanyahu's number one priority.

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