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What US government insiders and Israeli officials really think of Netanyahu

 (AP)
(AP)

As Netanyahu’s government prepares to send a pair of envoys to Washington, the Biden administration is quietly confident that it may be able to bring a halt to the nearly six-month war between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli delegation — briefly cancelled after a UN vote, then reorganized — will attempt to get American buy-in to a planned IDF ground operation in Rafah. Bidenworld has other ideas.

Netanyahu’s own country is not exactly thrilled with the way he has conducted recent relations with Israel’s most powerful ally. He has recently been accused in of being a self-interested “agent of destruction” for the country in Israeli media.

Tensions between Israel and Washington soared this week when Netanyahu cancelled the delegation in a fit of pique after the US allowed a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire to pass by abstaining from the vote. One US official called the retaliatory action “sudden” and “excessive”. White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby cautioned Netanyahu against trying to dictate American policy — a policy Kirby stressed had not changed, despite the UN Security Council action by the US.

“It’s very consistent with everything that we’ve been saying we want to get done here. And we get to decide what our policy is,” he said Monday while addressing reporters at a daily White House press briefing.

Kirby also suggested that Netanyahu’s actions were meant to “create a perception of daylight” between the Israel government and the Biden administration where none actually existed.

Netanyahu later reneged on his decision amid searing criticism. He claimed that his decision to temporarily cancel the delegation was a message aimed at Hamas — not the Biden administration. But the prime minister’s explanation isn’t holding water with insiders and experts.

One former US official who spoke with The Independent characterised Netanyahu’s claim to have cancelled his envoys’ meetings as a signal to the militant group as “complete and utter bulls**t”.

And a former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, said on X (formerly known as Twitter) that the prime minister’s “childish flip-flop...indicates that he’s losing it”.

Another current US official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, described the Israeli leader’s behaviour over the last few days as “inexplicable” and “incompetent”. They suggested that Netanyahu had tried using the meeting cancellation to make Biden look weak and give fodder to Republicans, including Trump.

“Obviously that failed miserably,” the official said.

The embattled premier has also faced a tidal wave of anger back home. The families of the remaining 134 hostages being held by Hamas militants since October 7 have repeatedly accused Netanyahu and his far-right government of putting their own interests ahead of the goal of bringing their loved ones home safely.

They have held a growing number of protests warning that pulling out of ceasefire negotiations and shunning the US is “dangerous”.  Gill Dickmann, whose 39-year-old cousin Carmel is currently being held hostage, told The Independent that “first and foremost before anything and everything else, [Netanyahu] should be getting the hostages back.”

“I know some of the government, and the prime minister, are focused on political issues. Before we can even argue whether we should have elections or not, all the other things should be put aside. First we must bring the hostages back,” Dickmann said. He added that families were particularly concerned about the safety and security of female hostages like his cousin after former captive Amit Soussana spoke to The New York Times this week about being sexually assaulted and tortured by militants. “I hope the prime minister has had the time to read [the Times article] and to hear this,” Dickmann added. “He should put everything else aside and get all the women, men and children back home.” 

The decision to so openly defy the US government has also been met with searing criticism from experts, veteran negotiators, and commentators in Israel, who have branded Netanyahu a “disaster for Israel”.

Gershon Baskin, a political activist who helped broker the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza in 2011, told The Independent the main issue was Netanyahu putting Netanyahu first: he is only interested in prolonging the war, he claimed.  

“It is linked to his political survival,” Baskin said, adding that it “doesn’t make sense for the Israeli prime minister to slap the face of US presidents in public.”

“There has never been a US president who has been more supportive of Israel than Joe Biden. Israel needs the US as its most important strategic asset, not only because of American support of weapons but because Washington provides Israel with political cover in the international community,” he said. “That is needed now more than ever because Israel is more isolated than ever.”

A former Israeli intelligence official, Avi Melamed, told The Independent on Wednesday that Netanyahu’s intransigence stems from the Israeli leader’s desire to salvage his image after the disaster of the October 7 attacks. The attacks, he said, scuttled years of Netanyahu reputation-building as the country’s indispensable defender.

“Now he is dealing with the issue of his legacy … I think that for him, the issue of the legacy, the way that he’s going to be remembered in history, is the most significant thing that currently drives him right now,” Melamed said.

But that legacy may no longer be in play for Netanyahu after nearly a half-year of war. Baskin, who is also Middle East Director of the International Communities Organisation, went as far as to say Netanyahu’s actions indicate that he is “no longer worthy to lead.”   “Netanyahu is a disaster for Israel. This is going off the rails,” he said.

Amos Harel, one of Israel’s leading experts on military and defence issues, said that Netanyahu was “keen to keep on fighting the Americans’” as he was “running for his life”. 

“Once you understand the main motive for Netanyahu is political survival, you understand a lot of things that are happening,” he added.

The Haaretz correspondent said the prime minister greenlighting a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner swap could cause the collapse of his extreme-right coalition. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s radical right-wing coalition partner and powerful national security advisor, has repeatedly threatened to quit if Israel accepts a ceasefire hostage deal that is “too generous” to the Palestinians. If Ben-Gvir did so, he would bring down the whole government with him.

This would happen at a time when Netanyahu’s popularity is tanking: an Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) poll in January found that only 15 percent of Israelis wanted him to remain in office after the war ended. Another  IDI poll this month showed that the majority of the country — nearly 60 percent — thinks his handling of the situation since October 7 has been “poor”.

An end to the war would trigger an investigation into how Hamas’s bloody attack on October 7 was allowed to happen. Netanyahu has so far refused to take responsibility publicly, instead blaming his intelligence agencies. And a permanent ceasefire would also see a renewed spotlight on the three trials Netanyahu is currently standing on graft charges: legal proceedings he has tried unsuccessfully to get delayed over the last few weeks.

“He is playing for time. War with no end prevents a massive political crisis in his coalition, and is apparently the best political and personal path for him even if that means fighting with the Americans,” Harel said.

He added that there was also a “huge gap” between what Netanyahu says publicly and what is “in actual reality his real intentions.”

“He keeps promising complete victory. First of all, it is impossible to win in the landscape against an organisation like Hamas. He doesn’t have the manpower. There are only four Israeli brigades now in the Gaza Strip. There were 27 or 28 brigades at the height [of the war],” Harel added. “A large number of reservists left, the regular units need to rest — others need to be deployed in the north, others in the West Bank.”

There is speculation that Netanyahu is waiting for the US election to pass to see if the “situation will improve” under a possibly re-elected President Trump, Harel added. But even that is a potentially costly move.

In an interview with Israel’s Hayom newspaper, which is known for being supportive of Netanyahu, the presumptive Republican nominee warned Israel “to be very careful.”

“You’re losing a lot of the world, you’re losing a lot of support, you have to finish up, you have to get the job done,” Trump said.

Elsewhere, left-wing paper Haaretz published an opinion piece accusing Netanyahu of dragging the country “to the brink of the abyss”. And even in the right-wing Jerusalem Post, Dr Liraz Margalit accused the prime minister of acting from a place of feeling “attacked and threatened”, which has, Margalit added, led to Netanyahu “firing in every possible direction”. Likewise, Nadav Eyal wrote in center-right Yedioth Ahronoth that Netanyahu has “squandered international legitimacy” and support since October 7.  “Netanyahu’s repeated declarations serve his political campaign but not the objective of eliminating Hamas”. 

On Thursday, the Palestinian Authority rolled out a new cabinet. This was a capitulation to US and European nations — who have demanded reform for years now — from longtime president Mahmoud Abbas. Most notably, Abbas appointed a US-educated adviser, Mohammad Mustafa, as the new prime minister for the West Bank-based government.

The Biden administration welcomed the news that an Israeli delegation will land on US soil next week. Kirby said that it is expected Netanyahu will hold off on the planned assault on Rafah, at the very least until after talks are concluded.