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He obstructs a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, and by attempting to reduce the powers of the judiciary he scorns international law.

On Friday, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza, but stopped short of ordering the Israeli military to completely halt its offensive in the enclave. The ICJ also ordered Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, take effective measures to prevent and punish incitement to genocide, and submit a report to the court within a month on what action it has taken to comply with the order. The decision of the court was confined only to South Africa’s request for provisional measures to prevent further deaths of innocent civilians, not the merits of the genocide case itself, which may take years to determine. It remains unclear if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government will comply with the order, as the ICJ has no powers of enforcement. Many will remember that in 2022 Russia totally ignored the court’s order to halt its invasion of Ukraine.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet is already under scrutiny for the high death toll of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, which has now surpassed 26,000. But at least he is finally talking to US President Biden about the conflict. After four weeks of silence, the two spoke on the phone for some 30-40 minutes last week, their first conversation since 23 December last year. During the first weeks of the war the leaders spoke frequently, but the tempo of calls between Biden and Netanyahu, who have had a hot and cold relationship for over three decades, has slowed to a snail’s pace. Both Biden and Netanyahu are hemmed in by domestic political considerations.

There is a deep chasm between Joe Biden, a long standing centre-left Democrat, and Benjamin Netanyahu, a self-centred right-wing politician who leads the most conservative government in Israel’s history. Biden is under pressure at home to use America’s considerable leverage to press Israel to wind down a war that has already created so much devastation and cost so many lives, while Netanyahu faces growing impatience over the lack of progress in freeing the 132 people still held by the Islamic militants in Gaza.

Netanyahu refuses to dilute his twin-objectives of bringing home the hostages and defeating Hamas, but the direction of travel of the war, now approaching the end of its fourth month, makes it perfectly clear to everyone except a stubborn Netanyahu that he must choose one or the other. He cannot achieve both.

The fractured relationship between Biden and Netanyahu is causing deep concern around the world among those who want to see an end to the conflict. But upcoming political events are unlikely to help. “The more we see political considerations dominating the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu, which is likely to continue because of the upcoming presidential election in the US as well as the weakness of both leaders, the more we will see them pulling apart”, reflected one senior Israeli academic last week. Because of the strong Jewish lobby in America and his longstanding support for Israel, Biden has all but smothered Netanyahu with robust support, even in the face of global condemnation over the mounting civilian death toll and human suffering in Gaza. But the relationship has recently shown signs of severe strain as Netanyahu has repeatedly rebuffed Biden’s calls for Palestinian sovereignty, gumming up what the US president believes to be the key in unlocking a durable peace in the Middle East: the oft-cited and elusive Two-State Solution. At home, Prime Minister Netanyahu is being buffeted by contradictory demands over the direction of the war in Gaza, while desperately clinging to power. His war cabinet is urging a ceasefire deal to be struck with Hamas in order to secure the return of the Israeli Hostages, while lawmakers in his own Likud party and coalition, especially ultra-right members such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister for National Security, and Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s Finance Minister, are pushing in the opposite direction and pressing for military operations to remain unrelenting. Unable to square the circle, a weak Netanyahu appears to have given in to his extremist ministers, even though a groundswell of public opinion is building to put the military operations on hold and for a ceasefire to be reached with Hamas in exchange for the release of the hostages.

This groundswell burst into the open last weekend as thousands of Israelis took to the streets calling for the release of those held by Hamas to be prioritised over the military campaign. Twenty family members of hostages stormed a parliamentary meeting in the Knesset demanding that Netanyahu does more to return their loved ones. At least 27 hostages held in Gaza are believed to have died, including three men who were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers after escaping captivity, even though they were bare-chested and waved white flags while they approached their comrades begging for help.

The hostages are not the only ones suffering as a result of Israel’s operations. Of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, the majority are now penned into two towns close to the border with Egypt. Most are crammed into public buildings and vast camps of makeshift tents as hunger and disease stalk the trapped population. Many are struggling to stay alive as the humanitarian situation around them deteriorates to catastrophic levels. Nevertheless, Netanyahu insists that he will not order Israeli troops to stop fighting until Hamas is completely eradicated, a goal analysts say is unrealistic given the Group’s deep rooted presence in Gaza and elsewhere.

Although support for the war remains high among Israelis, there is lagging support for Netanyahu and his far-right coalition. His approval ratings have plummeted since the attack. Recent polling shows that 76 percent of Israelis want him out of office and that 44 percent hold him responsible for what happened on 7 October. There are growing calls for an election in order to remove the much-disliked prime minister. Warnings by the highly popular former chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces and now a war cabinet minister, Gadi Eisenkot, have not helped Netanyahu. In a recent television interview Eisenkot, whose 25-year-old son and 19-year-old nephew both died fighting in Gaza, warned that the only way to save hostages in the near term is through a deal, even if that comes with a high price. During the broadcast, Eisenkot appeared to criticise Netanyahu’s management of the war, suggesting that the Israeli leadership is not telling the truth about the conflict and that talk of destroying Hamas is overblown. “A complete victory is unrealistic”, he said: “whoever speaks of the absolute defeat of Hamas in Gaza and of it no longer having the will or the capability to harm Israel, is not speaking the truth. That is why we should not tell tales”. Eisenkot also proposed that elections should be held soon to restore public trust in the Israeli government. Netanyahu will avoid elections like the plague as his party would be decimated if he remained in charge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s biggest problem. He obstructs a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, and by attempting to reduce the powers of the judiciary he scorns international law. Many Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, blame him for ignoring repeated warnings leading up to the Hamas attack on 7 October and claim that, driven by hardliners, he is again miscalculating by preparing to take over control of Gaza’s security for “an indefinite period”. There are even warnings from some senior politicians of civil war if he stays in power. On the surface, a reckless, opportunistic Netanyahu doesn’t appear to care, but dig deeper and you will find the real reason why he is desperately clinging to power.

In 2019, Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelbli, filed criminal charges against Netanyahu following three investigations of fraud, breach of trust and corruption. The trial started in May 2020 and has been repeatedly delayed over defence and prosecution disputes, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the war in Gaza. Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty to all charges and, echoing Donald Trump, he insists he is the victim of a politically-orchestrated “witch-hunt” by the media and the left to remove him from office. Many believe that Netanyahu’s attempts to introduce judicial changes last year, over which there were huge street demonstrations for many months, were simply his way of evading convictions or even make the cases against him disappear altogether. These changes were struck down by Israel’s Supreme Court at the beginning of this year, welcomed by many as a “victory” for the citizens of Israel in the battle for democracy.

The corruption trial resumed at the beginning of December last year and if found guilty, Netanyahu could be removed from office and sentenced up to 10 years in jail. He would not be the first Israeli prime minister to be imprisoned. Ehud Olmert, Israel’s twelfth prime minister, was the first having been convicted of fraud and obstructing justice in 2016. Outgoing Israeli Premier Yair Lapid predicted in November 2022 that Benjamin Netanyahu would do everything to avoid going to prison. Addressing a conference in Jerusalem, Lapid forecast that Netanyahu would seek to carry out judicial reforms that would be favourable for his corruption cases. “But the bottom line”, he said, “is that Netanyahu will become the second prime minister in the country’s history to go to prison and there’s nothing he won’t do to prevent this”.
Some might say even by ignoring warnings to start a war.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.

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