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The attacks by Hamas are a blow to Netanyahu's carefully cultivated strongman image


Back now to the day's main story, the conflict in Israel. The parliament there, the Knesset, has approved the power-sharing deal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck with his political rival, Benny Gantz. Gantz, a centrist, now has powers akin to Netanyahu, who had been governing as head of a far-right coalition. Ruth Margalit is a journalist based in Tel Aviv who's been covering the Netanyahu administration. She's written for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

RUTH MARGALIT: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Why establish a war cabinet, which, we should also say, includes the Israeli defense minister? What advantage does that have over the normal governing structure?

MARGALIT: Well, it was kind of part of the compromise struck between Netanyahu and Gantz because initially, the centrist party National Unity, headed by Gantz, said they will not enter a government with Netanyahu unless he got rid of his extremist ministers - you know, these far-right ministers belonging to two factions that have an alliance together called the Religious Zionist Party. So Netanyahu said that he didn't accept those terms. So then this compromise was struck where, you know, these ministers will stay on in the coalition, these far-right ministers, but there will be this kind of overarching wartime cabinet in which only Netanyahu, Gantz and the defense minister, who is relatively moderate, considering the others - so only these three will really have power.

RASCOE: Netanyahu has spent years cultivating this image of himself as a strong protector of Israel. With this Hamas attack, how is that affecting his image? It just happened under his watch.

MARGALIT: Right. And this is what's so striking - is that until now - you know, we're a week out from the beginning of the war, and he has taken no personal responsibility for what has happened. You did see - in the days following, you saw the IDF chief of staff take responsibility. You saw even the defense minister. You saw people starting to reckon with what has happened. And yet Netanyahu said nothing about his own role in this. And that's quite striking. Rationally, you would think that he is politically finished, that his career is over. Netanyahu - the way he's handled these last few days, you can see him sort of angling for the morning after and trying to reassess his coalition, trying to reassess his chances.

RASCOE: Have there been demonstrations? Have there been protests against him?

MARGALIT: So there have been these nine months of ongoing protests before this attack happened against this judicial overhaul that Netanyahu's government had introduced. Now the protests - ever since last week when this attack began, they have been suspended. So you don't have these Saturday protests anymore. But what you do see is these little gatherings of relatives of those people who are being held hostage and relatives of - you know, people who have lost their loved ones. There is clearly this sentiment against the government, against Netanyahu and asking them to take responsibility.

But what's interesting is that in the recent days, you have a new poll out for the first time since the war began asking, if elections were held today, who would you vote for? And for the first time in a long time, you see this flip where Gantz gets the most votes. He gets 48% of public support, and Netanyahu is down to 29%.

RASCOE: Netanyahu is also on trial for corruption. How has that affected Israelis' view of Netanyahu?

MARGALIT: In 2019, he was indicted on three charges of corruption. And they were kind of rolled into this one trial that began in 2020 and is still ongoing. And he is running the country in parallel with that. The consequences of that have been to really drive him further to the right. And we're seeing the consequences of that now, actually, because, you know, part of this attack by Hamas - it has been the result of a shifting of resources away from protecting Israel proper, away from protecting these southern communities. And instead, the government policy has been to shift these battalions, these IDF battalions, to the West Bank to protect Jewish settlers there. And the settlers are part of Netanyahu's large base. So this is all - you know, not to blame the attack on him but just to say that, you know, that this is sort of the background of what has been happening in Israel, the changing of priorities - not only of the government but effectively of the military, too.

RASCOE: That's Ruth Margalit, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARGALIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.