People protest against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's government and call for the release of hostages, in Tel Aviv. Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Houdini of Israeli politics and its longest serving prime minister, has been written off many times before.

But with families of the hostages in Gaza and thousands of protesters on the streets this week demanding he resign, and growing anger at his handling of the war in Gaza, many wonder how long the veteran political escapologist can survive.

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The usually bullish Netanyahu, 74, appears both physically and politically fragile. The war in Gaza is taking its toll on the man Israelis call Bibi.

Visibly frail and sallow, he was short-tempered during a television speech on Saturday which his former minister and Likud party colleague Limor Livnat called “catastrophic”.

Netanyahu was even more gaunt when he left hospital in Jerusalem Tuesday after a hernia operation only to have to face the ire of the international community after an Israeli strike killed seven aid workers for a US-based group in Gaza.

“It happens in war,” Netanyahu said with a tact which may not have been appreciated in the White House, which said it was “heartbroken” at the deaths.

Blamed for October 7 ‘disaster’

“Netanyahu has been buried politically many times before and bounced back,” said Emmanuel Navon, a former Likud member and political science professor.

“But this time is different,” he said. Netanyahu’s three-decade hold over Israeli politics was based on his claim that only he could keep the country safe, he said. October 7 shattered that.

“It’s over for Bibi.” he said.

“He is 74, doesn’t do any exercise, has a very hard job and he had a pacemaker put in six months ago.”

Families and supporters of hostages, kidnapped during the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas from Gaza, smear yellow paint, associated with the struggle for the return of hostages, on glass above the plenum as part of a demonstration at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, April 3, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

But Navon doubts Netanyahu will be forced out by the demonstrations, with a fifth consecutive night of protests planned Wednesday.

Many of the families of hostages have united with anti-government demonstrators who spent nine months on the streets last year trying to thwart controversial judicial reforms pushed by Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

The “disaster” of October 7 would have killed off any other politician. But Navon compared Netanyahu’s hold over the ruling Likud party to Donald Trump’s over US Republicans.

“Likud lawmakers are petrified to be penalised in the next primaries by the ‘Trio’ - Bibi, his wife and his son who decide everything,” said the professor at Tel Aviv University.

Divide and rule

“I don’t think he will be replaced” from within Likud, “at least not right now”, agreed Gideon Harat, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “For early elections you need an alternative government and I don’t think it will happen.”

Yet with his coalition reeling from crisis to crisis, enemies seem to be circling around the leader of Israel’s most right-wing government ever.

Prosecutors are pushing ahead with a corruption trial and protesters tried to break through police barriers to get to his home on Tuesday night for the second time in four days.

Even his defence minister, Likud stalwart Yoav Gallant, is defying him over the deeply divisive issue of ultra-Orthodox Jews escaping compulsory military service as the war in Gaza rages and the threat of another looms with Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Netanyahu has long relied on the support of religious parties to govern.

“Excusing a whole community when the military needs so much more manpower is unforgivable,” General Reuven Benkler told AFP at an anti-government rally this week.

The 65-year-old came out of retirement to serve in the north after the Hamas attack which resulted in 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 32,975 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Benkler said the “hostages will not come home while Bibi is still in power”, accusing Netanyahu of dragging out the war in Gaza to prolong his rule - a claim endlessly repeated at the protests.

It is true that “as long as the war continues Netanayahu can say you cannot have elections,” Harat conceded.

“He always looks for justifications to keep himself as a prime minister - so now he has one.”