Netanyahu Finds Himself at War in Gaza and at Home

The social media post went up online at 1:10 a.m. Sunday, while most Israelis were sleeping.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a message: His military and security chiefs, he said, had failed to provide him with any warning of the surprise Hamas assault on Oct. 7. He appeared to be placing all the blame on them for the colossal lapses — even as Israeli forces were broadening a risky ground war in Gaza.

The country awoke to a furious response, including from within Mr. Netanyahu’s own war cabinet. The post on X, formerly Twitter, was deleted, and the Israeli leader apologized in a new one. “I was wrong,” he said.

But the damage was done.

For many Israelis, the episode confirmed suspicions of rifts and disarray at the top during one of the worst crises in the country’s 75-year history and reinforced qualms about Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership.

“He’s in survival mode,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, an expert in political communications at Reichman University in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

“He’s been in difficult circumstances before, and he still believes he can come out of this and continue to be prime minister when this is all done,” Professor Wolfsfeld said, adding, “The only thing driving him is staying in power.”

Among the first to call out Mr. Netanyahu’s middle-of-the night comments was Benny Gantz, the centrist former defense minister and military chief who, for the sake of national unity, left the ranks of the parliamentary opposition to join Mr. Netanyahu’s emergency war cabinet in the days after themassacre by Hamas. At least 1,400 people were killed in those attacks — it was the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust — and at least 239were taken as hostages to Gaza.

Israeli artillery near the border with Gaza on Sunday.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

In a sharp post of his own, Mr. Gantz expressed his full support for the military and Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, which is playing a key role in the war, and urged Mr. Netanyahu to retract his statement.

“When we are at war,” he wrote, “leadership means displaying responsibility, deciding to do the right things and strengthening the forces so that they will be able to carry out what we are demanding of them.”

Although many senior officials — including military and security chiefs and the defense minister, Yoav Gallant — have already accepted some responsibility for Israel’s having been caught off-guard, Mr. Netanyahu has declined to follow suit. He has instead said several times, most recently at a news conference on Saturday evening, that tough questions will be asked of everybody, including himself, after the war.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has been in power for 14 of the past 16 years, came into this war at a low point in his political career, battling corruption charges in court even as he and his ultranationalist and religiously conservative government tried to curb the powers of the judiciary, setting off huge protests and months of nationwide civil unrest.

Though thousands of volunteers who make up the military’s reserves had threatened to quit in response to the move against the judges, since the Hamas atrocities, the army says it has had more than a robust response to its mass call-up.

Mr. Netanyahu said Saturday that his judicial overhaul plan was no longer on the agenda. But his refusal to accept any blame publicly for the Hamas debacle has further shaken confidence in his leadership. Opinion surveys since Oct. 7 have indicated overwhelming public trust in the military and plummeting faith in government officials.

The Israeli defense minister, Yoav Gallant, left, and a cabinet minister, Benny Gantz, at the news conference.Credit…Pool photo by Abir Sultan.

Many Israelis have an intimate connection with the military, a so-called people’s army made up of conscripts and reservists, many of whom volunteer into middle age. It has an ethos of commanders’ going first into battle, taking on all the burdens and risks of leadership.

Major wars and security failures have brought down Israeli prime ministers in the past, among them Golda Meir, who resigned months after the 1973 war, and Ehud Olmert, whose fate was sealed by a devastating monthlong 2006 conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

And Mr. Netanyahu was in trouble even before Hamas crossed the border. Israeli society was in upheaval — and he was at its center.

“He started out in overdraft, with no credit to spare,” said Mazal Mualem, an Israeli political commentator for Al-Monitor, a Middle East news site, and the author of a recent biography of the Israeli leader, “Cracking the Netanyahu Code.”

Ms. Mualem said that she had no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu was fit to run the war but that in the end, “the rage will turn toward him, however much he says, ‘They didn’t tell me’ and so on.”

That may be why he rushed to fix his social media misstep, she said.

In the new post late Sunday morning, showing an unusual level of contrition, Mr. Netanyahu emphasized his support for the heads of the security branches, the military chief of staff and the commanders and soldiers at the front. “Things I said following the news conference should not have been said, and I apologize for that,” he wrote.

The barb and the apology that followed came hours after Mr. Netanyahu tried to address mounting public criticism of his seeming lack of empathy, and inaccessibility, by inviting hostages’ relatives who were holding a vigil outside his Tel Aviv office in for a meeting. He then held the televised news conference at which he answered questions from reporters for the first time since Oct. 7.

A funeral on Sunday for Mani and Ayelet Godard, who were killed in the Be’eri kibbutz by Hamas. Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

In an attempt by the government to show unity at a time of national trauma and jeopardy, Mr. Netanyahu appeared alongside his defense minister, Mr. Gallant, and Mr. Gantz.

The bad blood among them is no secret.

In March, Mr. Netanyahu briefly fired Mr. Gallant after he openly warned of the danger to national security posed by the move to weaken the judiciary and the uproar it was causing. Mr. Gallant was reinstated weeks later under intense public pressure. Mr. Gantz was until recently a bitter political rival of Mr. Netanyahu, who reneged on a power-sharing agreement with him in 2020.

Many of the questions at the news conference focused on responsibility for the failure to foresee the Hamas attack. Hours afterward, Mr. Netanyahu took to social media to try to deflect blame.

“Under no circumstances and at no stage was Prime Minister Netanyahu warned of war intentions on the part of Hamas,” hispost read. “On the contrary, the assessment of the entire security echelon, including the head of military intelligence and the head of Shin Bet, was that Hamas was deterred and was seeking an arrangement.”

“This was the assessment presented time and again to the prime minister and the cabinet by all the security echelon and the intelligence community, including right up until the outbreak of the war,” the post read.

Though deleted, the post is unlikely to be forgotten, and someanalysts see that as a good thing.

“I think it clarifies very well what Netanyahu is concerned about these days,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He wants to distance himself from the Oct. 7 massacre.”

People in Tel Aviv on Sunday at an installation showing a Sabbath table set for those taken hostage in the Oct. 7 attacks. Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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