Benjamin Netanyahu won’t say sorry


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Israel’s military and security chiefs have queued up to take a share of the blame in the two weeks since Hamas militants from Gaza killed more than 1,400 people.

The head of military intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces said he bore “full responsibility”, the boss of Shin Bet admitted his security agency “failed to give warning” of the assault and the IDF chief of staff said the military “did not achieve” its responsibility to prevent the slaughter.

Yet one senior Israeli leader has conspicuously avoided shouldering responsibility, much less apologise for it: Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who has led the country for much of the past 15 years.

Netanyahu’s failure to say sorry for what many consider the worst calamity to befall the Jewish people since the Holocaust is baffling to outsiders, but less so to Israelis who have observed their long-serving leader up close for decades.

After the initial shock in the days after the Hamas attack, Netanyahu has rediscovered his political footing: issuing fiery speeches and being pictured in flattering images with Israeli troops. He also — more than a week after they were abducted — met relatives of some of the 203 people taken captive to Gaza.

Yet his actions have attracted controversy. The prime minister had to deny that friendly activists had been placed among the hostage families he met, and he was also caught on camera holding back the country’s president so he could be pictured first with the visiting Joe Biden this week.

Benjamin Netanyahu embracing a person during a meeting with families of those held hostage by Hamas
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets families of those held captive by Hamas on October 15 © Kobi Gideon/GPO/dpa

“Netanyahu’s totally shameless,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of a biography of the Israeli leader. “He’s fully aware this is the biggest tragedy in Israel’s history and his own political career. But in his mind apologising is the first step towards resigning, and he doesn’t intend to resign.”

A second person familiar with the Israeli leader’s thinking said: “I think Netanyahu believes that if he says ‘I’m responsible’, it will be translated as ‘I’m guilty’.” A spokesperson for Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment.

Israelis sympathetic to Netanyahu — and even many who are not — say that ascribing blame for the biggest security lapse in Israel’s history can wait until after the war, which his government says aims to “eliminate” the threat posed by Hamas in Gaza.

“There’s not a single person in Israel who has more of a weight of responsibility to ensure this never happens again, and that starts with taking out Hamas,” said George Birnbaum, a former chief of staff to Netanyahu. “I don’t think it’s good for Israel to be talking about accountability, apologies, explanations [now] but the time will come for that.”

Most analysts expect Netanyahu will look to pin the blame on his security chiefs. A person familiar with the thinking inside Israel’s military said the expectation was that many senior officers would resign — but only when the conflict was over.

Families of those who were kidnapped by Hamas hold signs and Israeli flags during a protest against the Netanyahu government
Families of those who were kidnapped by Hamas protest against the Netanyahu government in Tel Aviv on October 14 © Alexi J Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Netanyahu promised in a Knesset speech this week to “investigate everything thoroughly” and apply “immediate lessons”, while also insisting that the country’s focus was on “storming forward to victory”.

Yet nearly half the country ascribed primary blame for October 7 to his government, according to a poll conducted last week by Agam Research.

Avi Halfoun, who has often voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party, said he no longer believed the prime minister or trusted him to keep Israel safe. “I don’t believe [that he can] — not from Hamas, not from Iran, not from nothing,” said the 62-year-old.

Another poll in Israel’s Maariv daily showed that 80 per cent of Israelis think Netanyahu should publicly take responsibility, including more than two-thirds of Likud voters.

Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief last week drafted into Israel’s war cabinet, has overtaken Netanyahu in terms of suitability as prime minister as his National Unity party has surged ahead of the cratering Likud in the polls.

Some Israelis, however, believe it is too early to write off a politician nicknamed “the magician” for his ability to outmanoeuvre opponents, not least ahead of what many expect will be a long and unpredictable war.

Netanyahu was governing with a small majority since returning as prime minister in December at the helm of the most extremist government in Israel’s history. His hard-right administration has outlined plans to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and faced mass protests over its hugely contentious drive to overhaul the judicial system. He has also operated under the shadow of an ongoing corruption trial for several years.

Public criticism of Netanyahu and his coalition has recently expanded beyond his traditional critics on the left and centre of the political map — not only due to the events of October 7 but also what many Israelis see as the near absence of governmental support in the weeks since.

In one instance, his environment minister Idit Silman was chased away from a hospital by a doctor, who yelled: “You all have ruined this country, get out of here!”

For now, Jewish Israeli society has banded together in shared anguish over the Hamas attack, and concerns about a war that may only escalate. “This isn’t the time for politics,” one senior opposition official said when queried about the Netanyahu government.

But even in the midst of war, politics has gradually returned. Yet instead of the noise and anger of the past year, it has shifted to seething grief.

This week, a handful of protesters gathered outside the home of senior Likud official Yuli Edelstein stood vigil under the Israeli flag. One quietly read out the names of those who died in the Hamas attack into a megaphone. Flickering candles on the street nearby spelt out a single word in Hebrew: “Culpable”.

Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv


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