Benjamin Netanyahu, the ever-present figure in Israeli politics for three decades is down and out.
“Bibi”, to give him his near-universal nickname, has been written off so many times, but now, the man they call “the magician” has run out of tricks and run out of road.
After four elections in just two years, 24 months of political stagnation, a new dawn has broken for Israeli politics. It heralds the beginning for a remarkable coalition and the end for an extraordinary political operator.
Trump before Trump
Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel‘s prime minister for the last 12 years: the longest serving leader in the country’s history. That wasn’t the start though. He was also prime minister between 1996 and 1999. In opposition before then and between those two stints, he was in the wings, plotting and driving his form of populist nationalist politics.
Bibi, the secular Jewish populist, cast himself as the defender of the nation against Iran, the defender of the Jewish State against the Palestinians, and most recently, as the saviour of the nation against coronavirus.
He is a politician who was channelling Trump while the former American president was still building casinos.
“He was Trump before Trump,” Netanyahu’s unofficial biographer, Anshel Pfeffer told me.
“He is a constant campaigner, he’s basically running for re-election the whole time. He doesn’t take a break between elections. So many of the populist politicians we talk about today – Orban in Hungary, Boris Johnson; Netanyahu was doing a lot of what they are doing now long before they were on the scene.
“Probably the only politician who was doing this in the television era before Netanyahu is Silvio Berlusconi in Italy,” Pfeffer said.
A survivor not a winner
Curiously Netanyahu was never actually a landslide politician. While often compared, as a savvy political operator, to Blair or Clinton, he only ever scraped in, but he did it consistently and that’s what mattered.
Israel is a country that functions on coalitions and Bibi was always the man who managed to form them. Critics, though, say he did it through exploitation rather than consensus.
Ehud Olmert was Netanyahu’s predecessor as prime minister. The two men were once in the same party, Likud. But as it tacked to the right, Olmert remained a centrist.
Mr Olmert told Sky News: “We never we were never friends. I never liked him. I never felt close to him. I never felt that he is a genuine human being [but] I thought it was a highly talented performer, the greatest that I’ve met in modern politics… He’s a genius. I mean, there there will be no one that can compete with him in on television. Laurence Olivier?”
He continued: “He’s a great performer, but when you look at the substance of things, the divisions within the Israeli society today are greater than ever before.”
Pfeffer agreed: “Netanyahu is the most divisive prime minister in history, he has exploited every divide in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, left and right.
“All these all these divides have been exploited and the communities have been played off against each other to keep him in power. That’s something that Israeli society will be paying the price for for years to come.”
Danny Danon has been a close confidant of Netanyahu for decades. He is a former Likud party politician and a nationalist who doesn’t believe in a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Until last year he was Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United Nations.
He told Sky News: “Many Israelis were born knowing only Netanyahu as the prime minister of Israel.
“He is one of the greatest leaders in Israel’s history and his dedication to our security, I think that the most important thing in his legacy.”
Under Netanyahu, Israel enjoyed the longest period of economic growth in its history; an achievement only damaged by the coronavirus pandemic which ‘the magician’ managed still to turn to his advantage. From the beginning he was the consummate communicator.
Describing his early political years, Pfeffer, author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life & Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “He had literally sat at home over weekends with a rented video camera and trained himself how to do sound bites, how to do have strong, strong interviews on television.
“And when he came along in the late 1980s, he literally blew everyone away and he’s kept that advantage ever since.”
Bibi the peacemaker?
Despite his persona as a tough-man, the former captain in the Israeli special forces actually presided over a period of relative calm, in Israeli terms.
He has been risk-averse while building up the nation’s defences and moulding a stalemate with the Palestinians precisely because it played to his advantage.
Pfeffer said: “He has this warmongering image which he which he builds up himself, but he never pushed the button and he never launched the big attack on Iran… He didn’t launch another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as his predecessors did. So all these things have been talked about, but never actually happened. He’s been risk averse and that is to his credit.”
But it was all to the detriment of the Palestinian people. Netanyahu’s politics, combined with splits and failures in the Palestinians’ own leadership, have stalled the peace process.
Olmert believes the impact of this failure on the reputation of the Jewish State is huge: “The lack of political solution for the Palestinian issue is the greatest threat to the status of the State of Israel. We need to separate from the Palestinians. We need to end the occupation. We can’t be seen in the international community as occupiers because this will destroy the image of Israel, the status of Israel.”
The latest round of fighting in Gaza hinted at a consequence of the stalemate. The Palestinian cause seemed more united than ever before, but it was a street-level unity. The politicians on all sides remain intransigent.
Hanan Ashrawi, a central figure over decades in the quest for Palestinian statehood has a scathing assessment of Netanyahu’s legacy.
She told Sky News: “I think Netanyahu’s legacy has been one of the most, if not the most destructive legacy for Israel, for the whole region, and I think in many ways, by legitimising fascism and violence and manipulation and control as well as corruption, he has created a situation where the chances of peace have become all that more difficult, if not impossible.”
After 12 years in power, Netanyahu as been central in reminding western nations of what he sees as the malign behaviour of Iran. Yet in that time, Iran has come closer and closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon. Mr Danon doesn’t see this as a failure.
He told me: “I think the fact that he put Iran on the spotlight in the last decade and everybody today sees the real threat coming from Tehran… maybe some people see different ways to deal with the threat, but he exposed it and he mobilised our intelligence agencies to bring information. And today the Iranians cannot work quietly, continue with their ideas. All the spotlights on them.”
The last few years of his premiership have been dominated by his corruption trial – three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. The trial is ongoing.
Netanyahu presided over a prolonged period of peace within Israel, but even that was in doubt with recent sectarian violence between Arabs and Jews which he did nothing to calm.
He signed unprecedented and laudable diplomatic normalisation deals with Gulf Arab nations, but on that core issue which defines the land he’s ruled for so long, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, something which many Israelis seem oddly oblivious to, there are no solutions.
Netanyahu failed to bring about a lasting peace and chose instead the status quo which works for Israelis but does not for the Palestinians.
In his final interview before he died in 2016, former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres was asked if he still thought there was a chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
He said: “I don’t think there [is] another alternative. Neither for the Palestinians, nor for us. The only alternative is an ongoing war. But contrary to what people think, in war there are no victories, only victims. No war is ever finished unless its being replaced by peace.”
Netanyahu and his supporters will claim he achieved many victories. But he did not replace war with peace.
Israel-Hamas war: The truce has ended – why have negotiations stalled and what will Israel do now?
Within half an hour of the latest truce ending on Friday, Israeli fighter jets were bombing Gaza, and Hamas was firing salvos of rockets into Israel.
Although the Israel Defence Forces had been preparing for a resumption of their ground offensive if further truces could not be agreed, both sides are motivated to progress the release of hostages.
So why have the negotiations stalled and war resumed?
One of the IDF’s objectives is to liberate hostages, and the truces have proven an effective way to achieve this objective.
However, the IDF also wants to destroy Hamas, and is determined to resume military operations if the hostage negotiations stall.
Hamas knows it is no match militarily for the IDF, but is using the hostages as leverage to ensure its survival through extended ceasefires.
The initial focus was on releasing Israeli women and children, with three Palestinian prisoners released for every hostage liberated.
However, the next category of hostages will include young males and foreign nationals held, and Hamas will place a greater value on these hostages before considering their release.
The IDF soldiers will probably be the most prized hostages held by Hamas, and although Hamas might drip-feed their release, they only need a handful of IDF hostages – plus maybe a couple of foreign nationals – to maintain a credible negotiation capability.
Hamas once held an IDF soldier for five years and only agreed an exchange in return for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners – one of which was Yahya Sinwar, who is now the leader of Hamas in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Israel appears primarily focused on destroying Hamas, and although any truce will be welcome if it liberates hostages, the IDF will not tolerate any prevarication by Hamas.
Although Israel has resumed its combat operations, the military objectives will likely remain unchanged: destroying Hamas and liberating all hostages.
The second phase of its ground offensive appears to be focused on southern Gaza, where the population density is higher.
The IDF admits the casualties will be greater during Phase 2 – for both the IDF and the Palestinian civilians.
Israel claims to have killed 5,000 Hamas fighters in the first phase of the war, but in total more than 15,000 Palestinians have lost their lives since the start of the conflict – and that ignores those bodies yet to be discovered in the rubble.
If Israel’s military objective remains to destroy Hamas and they have killed 20% of the fighters to date, then by extrapolation the next phase of the conflict could result in another 60,000 Palestinian lives lost – not accounting for the increased risk due to the greater population density in the south of Gaza.
Any such dramatic increase in the levels of civilian casualties or escalation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will be of grave concern to the international community.
Even the US – Israel’s closest ally – is using increasingly cautionary language and urging restraint. It will be very difficult for Israel to maintain international support for a prolonged offensive in pursuit of its military objectives.
Regardless, Israel is clearly not prepared to let Hamas seize the initiative.
Israel supports an extension to the truce in exchange for hostages, leaving Hamas to choose between negotiation or war.
Qatari mediators are continuing their efforts to negotiate a fresh agreement, and we should expect periodic pauses in the hostilities as fresh agreements are reached and more hostages are released.
However, these are increasingly frustrating times for Israel who, despite overwhelming military superiority and securing the release of more than 100 hostages, are fast losing the initiative in this conflict.
Despite mounting a determined and aggressive ground offensive into Gaza, Israel has not destroyed Hamas, has yet to free all hostages, and is facing increasing calls to end the war.
Despite the devastation, the conflict has done little to resolve the underlying issues that polarise opinions in the region.
However, from the horrors of war, the opportunities for a lasting peace emerge, but only with international commitment and leadership will lasting progress be made.
The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is over, and now Gazans have to flee once more for safety
Plumes of smoke rise once again into the clear skies over Gaza.
Artillery boomed and jets screamed through the skies above us as the skyline to the north of the strip filled with smoke as buildings and Hamas targets were pounded by the Israeli military.
Loudspeakers blared out warnings of incoming Hamas rockets.
We hit the ground as Iron Dome interceptors halted their path – explosions reverberated around the near-deserted streets of the Israeli town of Sderot.
The war has started again. It was always a matter of when not if.
Israel says the ceasefire was broken by Hamas firing the first rockets, while Hamas says Israel kept saying no to the offers they were making during negotiations to extend the ceasefire.
Either way, the war has resumed. And for civilians caught up in it, who started it again is probably of little consequence.
53-year-old Gaza resident Yousif Ligi thought the truce would hold. And then woke up to the bombs in his neighbourhood.
“There is no safe place, we do not know where to go. Wherever we go they bomb it. How long will this bombing continue? Find us a solution with whatever means,” he said, looking dazed.
Sky News teams filming in the north and south of the Gaza Strip sent messages saying the intensity of the bombing is as bad as it’s ever been.
Soon they began to send us pictures from inside Gaza.
It’s a familiar scene now.
Streets filled with smoke and dust as bombs begin to fall, people rushing to search for loved ones and neighbours trapped in the rubble, desperately scrabbling by hand.
Houses and apartment blocks smashed to pieces.
The bodies of the dead, shrouded in white, laid together.
In one scene a woman gently strokes the body of a relative, watched on by a little girl.
We don’t know who they are.
Inside the hospitals the staff struggle to deal with a new influx of injured from the bombardment. Gurney after gurney rushed into the emergency rooms.
The medical centres in Gaza are already stretched to breaking point.
With negotiations around extending the ceasefire deadlocked, in many ways it was inevitable hostilities would resume.
The question now though is what happens to the hundreds of thousands of people in the south.
This is the greatest concern for the international community.
Already there is a mass exodus further to the south.
Our team in Gaza filmed as people left the city of Khan Younis, many of them had already been forced from their homes by the fighting in the north at the start of the war.
Some left by horse and cart, others in cars packed full carrying entire families – and any possessions that can cram on board.
Others reduced to escaping by foot.
One displaced Gaza resident, Sana Abdulkarim, walking with her sons and daughters, told us they feel “lost”, and don’t know where to find safety.
“We are scared that what they have done in the north, they will do in the south as well,” she said.
The family plans to go to Rafah, on the border with Egypt.
“We can’t find shelter anywhere else, where shall we go? We don’t know where to go. We will go to the first school, we don’t have to be inside, we can sit in the playground, what else can we do? What else can we do?”
In conflicts like this, the importance of schools as safe zones is inestimable.
The IDF has been dropping leaflets with a QR code that links to an interactive map that has Gaza divided into block numbers.
They say the map will help residents navigate the war zone and evacuate safely.
But thousands remain in the north.
And at one school in the Jabalia refugee camp near Gaza City, our cameras filmed a fire caused by an Israeli airstrike.
It was next to classrooms now full of people seeking shelter and is far from the relative safety of the south.
As the fighting intensifies, it’s hard to imagine how people like this could possibly even move.
Israel accuses Hamas of violating truce deal – military operations set to resume
Israel’s military has resumed combat in Gaza after accusing Hamas of violating the seven-day truce.
A spokesperson for Israel Defence Forces said: “Hamas violated the operational pause and in addition fired toward Israeli territory.”
Around 30 minutes after the ceasefire was due to end, the Israeli military said its fighter jets were striking Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
Images on social media showed large plumes of dark smoke rising over the densely built-up Jabalia refugee camp.
IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said multiple rockets had been launched from Gaza towards Israel.
The ceasefire was due to expire at 7am local time (5am UK) on Friday – with the IDF claiming it was “ready” and willing to continue military operations.
A total of 79 Israeli hostages have been released by Hamas over seven consecutive days, with hundreds of Palestinians freed from prisons in exchange.
About 140 hostages remain in Gaza.
Reaching agreements on hostage releases appeared to be getting harder as most women and children had already been released.
International mediators – including diplomats from Qatar, Egypt and the US – had been working to extend the temporary truce.
This breaking news story is being updated and more details will be published shortly.
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