Netanyahu can no longer lead Israel

One thing should be clear from the start: Israel’s brutal attackers are not “militants,” as some journalists persist in calling them. They are terrorists — as President Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Republican leaders such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul have rightly described them. Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists have taken old people, among them Holocaust survivors, and young children as hostages. They have wantonly and indiscriminately killed innocent men, women and children. They are war criminals. There is no justification for such acts. None.

But the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular have a lot of explaining to do. How could a wall to protect Israelis from Hamas attacks be so paper thin, when the wall dividing Israel and the West Bank is so formidable? How could a simple bulldozer break through the Gaza wall without being first destroyed by Israeli aircraft or drones, which are meant to be ubiquitous over the strip? Why was Israel unable to obtain proper warning of an attack that appears to have been planned for some time? And if, as has been reported, Israeli military officials warned the government of a possible Hamas operation, why did the government sit on its hands?

The buck must stop with a prime minister who, in his single-minded efforts to avoid criminal prosecution, bitterly divided his country and thereby weakened it in the eyes of its most implacable and bloodthirsty enemies.

Israel’s first order of business must of course be to root out all terrorists from its territory, which its forces now appear to have done, and repair and bolster the Gaza wall as quickly as it can. It must then stop at nothing to extract the hostages from the terrorists’ grip. And it must relentlessly pursue Hamas and Islamic Jihad leadership, while making every possible effort to avoid affecting civilians, in what in sterile military terms is called “collateral damage.”

But achieving those objectives is only part of what Israel must do now. It can no longer have a government that includes racist, neo-fascist ministers like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, whose pronouncements have only enflamed Palestinian — and not only Palestinian — hostility. As former Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has rightly put it, they must be ousted if Israel is to have a true unity government that can rally the country during its forthcoming very dark days.

Even that is not enough. Netanyahu can no longer lead the country. In the interests of unity, he could remain as a minister without portfolio, much as Menachem Begin, the archenemy of the Labor government, was during and after the 1967 Six Day War. But no longer should Netanyahu be the face of a nation that is in deep crisis. Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who recent polls show is far more popular than Netanyahu, should be Israel’s new prime minister.

Gantz should demonstrate to both the Palestinians and the Arab world, and indeed, the entire international community, that while on the one hand Israel will fight to defend itself and bring its people home, it no longer will pursue radical policies, such as those advocated by Ben Gvir and Smotrich, that would extinguish any hope that Palestinians might retain for a state of their own. In so doing he would help prevent the war from spreading more widely, as Iran in particular hopes for. He would perhaps as well sufficiently address Saudi concerns so as to enable what were previously promising discussions about normalization to continue, albeit at a slower pace.

Gantz should also withdraw the radical legislation to undermine the country’s Supreme Court, which has led to massive weekly demonstrations throughout Israel, and has both seriously shattered the country’s unity and given Hamas the opportunity it has long sought to wreak havoc inside Israel. He should respond to President Isaac Herzog’s many calls for a judicial compromise that will reassure all elements of Israeli society, including its Arab population.

As for the United States, apart from extreme anti-Semites around the country who would prefer to see not just Israel but the world rid of Jews, there is welcome bipartisan support for aiding Israel’s efforts to defend itself. A new Gantz government, committed to improving the lives of Palestinians, would strengthen that support, especially among Democrats.

In addition, the Biden administration should continue to make good on its promise to “have Israel’s back.” The welcome dispatch of a carrier task force is an important signal in that regard; the question is what more can or would the task force do other than to arrive on the scene. On the other hand, America can provide Israel whatever equipment it needs — offensive drones and missile defenses immediately come to mind — to pursue its military objectives. And it should do so without delay.

Israel is certain to prevail, but the cost of this war is already far too high. The list of dead and of hostages keeps rising, and is likely to rise some more before the shooting stops. But military operations are not enough. Israel has been wracked by civil strife unlike any in its 75-year history. And that can only end with urgent political change and the departure from the top of the man behind that strife, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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