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Schumer says Netanyahu ‘lost his way.’ Would a new leader change course on Gaza?

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JERUSALEM — In the United States, even Israel’s closest friends have begun to say out loud that Benjamin Netanyahu stands as an obstacle to peace.

The Israeli prime minister has pushed back on pressure from the White House and congressional Democrats, insisting that his government’s prosecution of the war in Gaza has mainstream backing in Israel — and there is polling to suggest he’s right.

“The majority of Israelis support the policies of my government,” Netanyahu told CNN on Sunday. That does not mean they support the man himself.

The popularity of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is at a historic low among Israeli voters. But the reasons are mostly tied to domestic politics and have less to do with how Israel’s military is waging war in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, bolstered by ultranationalists and extremist settlers. But the idea in Washington — expressed most clearly last week by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — that new elections, and Netanyahu’s possible ouster, would dramatically shift Israel’s approach to Gaza and the Palestinians may be wishful thinking.

International alarm over the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza has mounted sharply this year, as the civilian death toll surges and Israeli restrictions on aid push the northern part of the enclave to the brink of famine. Polling carried out over the same time period has shown overwhelming and consistent support for the war among Jewish Israelis.

For years, the Israeli center has been moving right — a trend accelerated by the brutality of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

Like Netanyahu, the Israeli public has little respect for the 88-year-old Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, which oversees a portion of the occupied West Bank.

With the authority widely seen as corrupt and hostile, Israelis are dubious about the Biden administration’s idea that Palestinian officials and their demoralized security forces can be “revitalized” to help stabilize postwar Gaza.

Nor do most Israelis support Washington’s long-held dream of a “two-state solution,” pushed for decades by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute, said two recent polls done by her group found that about 80 percent of Jewish Israelis believe “Israel should not take into consideration the suffering of the Palestinians as long as hostages are held in Gaza.”

The public still expresses “massive support” for the war, Hermann said, and most Israelis don’t want to consider what comes next for the Palestinians until the hostages are returned.

On the heavy bombardment of the Strip, the leveled homes and high-rises, the warnings of starvation, and the more than 30,000 killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry — which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says a majority of the dead are women and children — the Israeli public has been largely silent.

Scenes of devastation on the nightly news in Israel are muted. No major Israeli political figure has spoken out against the war. Netanyahu and military officials say that enough aid is arriving in Gaza but that it is just being diverted and stolen.

“Israelis are oblivious and indifferent to what’s going on in Gaza in terms of the civilian deaths and the destruction,” said Alon Pinkas, a former diplomat and columnist for Haaretz newspaper.

But he added, “They also instinctively understand that the war hasn’t achieved much.”

It is unclear when new elections might be held in Israel — in weeks, months or years. Netanyahu’s war cabinet has remained publicly united.

The government could be dissolved by the Israeli parliament, but those actions are not likely to be influenced by outsiders. Netanyahu has bristled at criticism, saying that Israel is no “banana republic” and that calls for new elections by American leaders were “outrageous.”

But the prime minister already appears to be in campaign mode, analysts say, itching for a confrontation with President Biden that could re-energize his base.

Interestingly, Hermann said, her institute’s recent polling indicates that more than two-thirds of Israelis now say their lives have returned to “normal” — or as they were before Hamas militants attacked border communities and a rave concert, killing 1,200 civilians and soldiers and dragging more than 250 people back with them to Gaza.

Many Israelis want to see new elections, but not in the middle of a war. Analysts caution that this growing “return to normal” could insulate Netanyahu.

Last week, Schumer warned that Israel risked becoming an international “pariah” under Netanyahu’s leadership.

“We should not be forced into a position of unequivocally supporting the actions of an Israeli government that includes bigots who reject the idea of a Palestinian state,” said Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the United States and a staunch ally of Israel.

Biden called it “a good speech.”

Three of Netanyahu’s political rivals — Benny Gantz, Yoav Gallant and Gadi Eisenkot — are members of his war cabinet. They are all military men, either active or retired generals. None are natural politicians.

The three have backed the war as it is being waged — though they have begun to break with Netanyahu by advocating for a clearer postwar plan.

Former prime ministers Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are also possible challengers.

Israeli political analysts say that replacing Netanyahu would change things — but they are not sure how. A new leader would clearly offer up a new face to represent Israel on the world stage.

Yonatan Freeman, a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the Israel Defense Forces would be fighting the same war “no matter who the prime minister is.”

“When it comes to these sort of operations, a war is usually tactic-wise and policy-wise enacted in the field. It is what the IDF wants and what the IDF feels is necessary,” he said.

Others imagine that a new leader of a new government could offer real change — not in the next month or two of war, but through a gradual shift in the status quo.

“I don’t expect any of them to be major peaceniks,” Pinkas said of Netanyahu’s possible replacement, as “no one in their right mind in Israel right now is talking about a Palestinian state.”

But he added: “I would expect them to begin with a cease-fire and a hostage deal, then an international force for law and order in Gaza, followed by a process, under the auspices of the Americans, for a demilitarized, provisional, semi-independent Palestinian state over 10 years.”

In its annual report on global threats from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the American intelligence community concluded that Israel “remains focused on destroying Hamas, which its population broadly supports.”

But the assessment also found that “distrust of Netanyahu’s ability to rule has deepened and broadened. … We expect large protests demanding his resignation and new elections. A different, more moderate government is a possibility.”

Before Oct. 7, Israel was paralyzed for months by mass demonstrations against Netanyahu’s attempt to dilute the power of Israel’s judges and courts. Netanyahu faces criminal charges of fraud, breach of trust and receiving bribes.

Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said other politicians not facing criminal investigation would not be subject to “the blackmail power of the extreme Israeli right coalition members,” allowing them to be “much more flexible and pragmatic in the way they behave.”

Gallant spoke recently about the three options facing Israel in Gaza: that Hamas retains power, that Israel maintains full control, or that a third party, such as the Palestinian Authority, returns to Gaza.

The third was the best course, Gallant said, all things considered.

“At present, Netanyahu is not doing anything,” said Ilana Shpaizman, a political science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. “He is not talking about the day after, and so the end result is that we are in a situation of no decision, a vacuum. Anyone who replaces Netanyahu, something will happen.”

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