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Israelis are losing faith in their prime minister. Can he stay in power?


Delusional - that's how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized Hamas's latest cease-fire proposal, which he rejected last Wednesday. It was the start of a dizzying few days in the conflict. On Thursday, in a candid moment before reporters, President Joe Biden called Israel's response in Gaza over the top. The following day, Netanyahu said he'd ordered the Israeli military to plan an evacuation of Rafah in southern Gaza, where nearly 1 1/2 million Palestinians are sheltering - this ahead of what's likely to be a major offensive in that city. While many Israelis support the war against Hamas, their frustration with Netanyahu's leadership is growing. To discuss the complexities surrounding Netanyahu's role, we reached out to Yossi Mekelberg. He's an associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank based in London. Welcome to the show.

YOSSI MEKELBERG: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: I want to ask you about the crisis facing Netanyahu in this moment. But first, for some context, I'm curious about how things were going for him prior to October 7.

MEKELBERG: I think things don't go the way Netanyahu would like to for years right now. He lost one election and spent some time in opposition, legitimized the far right, the ultranationalist, the religious messianic (ph) as well, mainly representing the settlers, with the help from the government, the most far-right government in the country's history. And it immediately began with assaulting the democratic system in Israel, especially attacking the judiciary. Bear in mind that he's facing corruption allegations and then indictment, and for him to stay in government is not only about power. It's also improve his chances not to end in jail. And as a result of the attack, especially on the Supreme Court, he faced nine months of protest against weakening the Supreme Court, basically allowing corruption to spread everywhere and for the government to govern almost with no accountability to the people.

ELLIOTT: So against that backdrop comes the Hamas attack. Why are Israelis losing faith in Prime Minister Netanyahu's response at this point?

MEKELBERG: I think in any country, if you wake up to a disaster, as was October 7 - and especially Netanyahu, that fashioned himself for so many years as Mr. Security, as the defender, the paradigm of how to deal with Hamas collapsed almost immediately. People are outraged by this. Then came the way that he conducted himself. In the first weeks, he didn't visit the places that were so badly damaged. He didn't visit them on the border with Gaza. He didn't visit patients in hospitals. All his reaction to this was one of someone that's in power maybe, but not in control.

ELLIOTT: So how has he managed to stay in power, given that you say he's really not in control?

MEKELBERG: Well, democracy is a great thing, but it's not perfect. And the reality is still a majority in the Knesset. Now, there is one version that says you don't replace a leader in the middle of a war. And my argument here that if the leader is the problem, then you do change leader. But he has a majority of 64 out of 120 in the Knesset. No one within the coalition would like to face new election because they know they're going to be crushed. Now, what's going to happen the day after the war? That's where the pressure will probably mount in the Knesset, but also probably in the street to call for fresh elections. This would be kind of an interesting moment.

ELLIOTT: I'm curious. How do you see all of this in terms of what it means for the future of Israel's democracy?

MEKELBERG: Israel democracy has always been a fragile one. My argument for many years that occupation in a democratic system don't work - you can't have two different systems in such close proximity - occupation and blockade on one side, and then a democratic system within Israel proper. I think this is something that erodes is a democratic system for many, many years. Then there are processes within and developments within Israel of groups within the society. For instance, the old Orthodox - they don't believe in liberal democracy. The same goes for the settlers. And as the world goes on and watch the objective of destroying Hamas doesn't seem to be achieved and in the meantime, the hostages are not returning - we hear every day that some of them are actually being killed, probably even killed by Israeli bombardment. One can only hope that when there is a cease-fire, and hopefully soon, there will be a real debate within Israeli society about the nature of the state, how it can be both Jewish and democratic.

ELLIOTT: I want to ask you about Netanyahu's political survival. Despite being unpopular before this, he seems to just have a resilient streak. How do you see his future politically?

MEKELBERG: He's definitely a survivor, but it's very hard for me and, you know, many other commentators that watch Israeli politics to see how he can survive October 7. I think there is a vast majority that won't forgive him. You had today's, you know, demonstration before the world. You had this the corruption trial, and it's still going on every day in court in Jerusalem. You know, every Houdini reaches his or her last lock.

ELLIOTT: That's Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow, Middle East and North African program at Chatham House. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

MEKELBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

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