A growing list of Israeli officials have accepted responsibility for failing to prevent Hamas’ brutal attack on Israeli communities during the Oct. 7 incursion that triggered the current Israel-Hamas war. Conspicuously absent from that roll call is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Following the horrific assault, which saw the deadliest day for Israelis since the country was established 75 years ago, Netanyahu has repeatedly sidestepped accountability. He has instead blamed others, in what critics say shows a leader thinking more about his own political survival than soothing and steering a traumatized nation.
“Netanyahu is fighting a personal battle of survival and that takes precedence over fighting Israel’s war against Hamas,” said Netanyahu biographer and journalist Anshel Pfeffer. “As part of that battle, he’s prepared to malign those who are now commanding Israel’s army and intelligence services.”
When hundreds of Hamas militants broke down Israel’s seemingly impenetrable security systems and stormed through its communities, Israel’s vaunted security forces were caught off guard. Some 1,400 people were killed and it took hours for soldiers to arrive. The war has killed more than 9,000 Palestinians, according to Palestinian health officials, and ravaged many parts of the Gaza Strip.
The attack also shattered a widely-held belief among Israeli military, intelligence and political leaders that Hamas was uninterested in a new conflict and that Israel’s military power served as a deterrent.
Israel’s top security brass, including the military chief of staff, the defense minister and the head of the domestic security agency Shin Bet, came forward and accepted responsibility for the blunder in the days after the attack.
Netanyahu, however, has not taken outright responsibility for the missteps that led up the horrific attack, despite serving as prime minister for 13 of the past 14 years. He says there will be time for investigations — after the war.
“This debacle will be investigated. Everyone will have to give answers, including me,” Netanyahu said, two and half weeks after the attack. But he has brushed off criticism and rejected suggestions that he should resign.
“The only thing that I intend to have resign is Hamas. We’re going to resign them to the dustbin of history,” he told reporters last weekend. “That’s my responsibility.”
Netanyahu, a polarizing figure in Israel, has also faced criticism over his response to the crisis.
He has been accused of failing to unite the nation with any resounding, uplifting speech or act. Many Israelis have pointed to U.S. President Joe Biden, who visited Israel in the days after the attack, as having better fulfilled that role.
Netanyahu was criticized for waiting many days to visit with the families of the more than 240 people believed kidnapped by Hamas who mainly came from liberal-leaning communal farms that tend not to vote for Netanyahu. The economy is spiraling, and Israelis bemoan the slow government response to address the urgent needs of 250,000 displaced Israelis.
But the biggest uproar came over the weekend, when in a late night tweet, Netanyahu pointedly blamed his security chiefs for the debacle, saying he never received any warning from them about Hamas’ intentions and that, on the contrary, he was guided by their advice that Hamas was deterred.
Netanyahu’s new wartime governing partner slammed it. “During war, leadership must act responsibly,” Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff, posted on X, formerly Twitter, calling on Netanyahu to take back his words.
Netanyahu deleted the tweet and later apologized, saying it “should not have been said.”
But critics say the damage has been done. Idit Shafran Gittleman, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the tweet came at a time when faith in Israel’s security services is at a nadir.
“There is harm to the security brass but also harm to the faith of soldiers on the ground,” who see their prime minister focused on things other than winning the war.
Clashes between Netanyahu and his security chiefs aren’t new. Shafran Gittleman pointed to his apparent refusal this year to accept their warnings that a planned overhaul of the country’s judiciary threatened state security. Scores of senior reservists and fighter pilots, key pillars of the military, had threatened to stop serving if the overhaul continued, though they have rushed back to duty since Oct. 7.
Netanyahu’s allies and the core of his nationalist base say the Israeli leader is facing unfair and poorly timed criticism by the same figures in the media and in the public who have long opposed him.
“Either we wait until a public inquiry that will determine who is to blame and for now we focus on victory over Hamas, or already now everyone blames everyone and Netanyahu also has the right to respond,” Shimon Riklin, a journalist close to Netanyahu, posted on X.
The attack and its aftermath have undeniably posed the biggest challenge to Netanyahu’s lengthy tenure and will likely forever stain his legacy. It has shattered his carefully manicured image as a strong leader with burnished security credentials who has worked tirelessly to protect Israel from its myriad threats.
Opinion polls show support for Netanyahu’s Likud Party has tanked, the public views him as significantly less fit to rule than his main political opponent, Gantz, and his current coalition has nowhere near the support needed to govern were elections held today.
This is also not the first time Netanyahu has shirked blame for a crisis on his watch. He has dismissed a corruption trial as part of a media-orchestrated witch-hunt against him.
And last year, while testifying before an inquiry into the deaths of 45 people at a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site, Netanyahu said he was unaware of the issues that may have led to the trampling. “You can’t take responsibility for what you don’t know,” he said.
Noam Tibon, a former military general who was outspoken against the judicial overhaul and rescued his son and his family from the Hamas attack, said the country needed unity to win the war but that Netanyahu was sowing division.
“Every Israeli needs to ask, ‘Do I believe that Netanyahu can lead Israel to victory in this war?’”