A current U.S. official and a former U.S. official both confirmed that the administration believes Netanyahu has limited time left in office. The current official said the expectation internally was that the Israeli PM would likely last a matter of months, or at least until the early fighting phase of Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip was over, though all four officials noted the sheer unpredictability of Israeli politics.
“There’s going to have to be a reckoning within Israeli society about what happened,” said the official who, like others, was granted anonymity to detail private conversations. “Ultimately, the buck stops on the prime minister’s desk.”
The administration’s dimming view of Netanyahu’s political future comes as the president and his foreign policy team try to work with, and diplomatically steer, the Israeli leader as his country pursues a complicated and bloody confrontation with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza and attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
Biden’s trip to Tel Aviv last month was one largely of support, but privately he also urged Netanyahu to proceed cautiously and not widen the war, according to the two senior administration officials. The president pushed the prime minister to prioritize a two-state solution and be mindful of the steps beyond an effort to decapitate Hamas, including the challenges of any sort of future occupation of Gaza.
At one point during the trip, Biden advised Netanyahu to consider the scenario he was leaving for his successor — an implicit suggestion that Netanyahu might not be in power for the duration of what will likely be a lengthy conflict.
A separate White House official downplayed the idea that Netanyahu’s future was a topic of interest, saying that any chatter was just idle speculation and insisting that the administration’s focus was squarely on supporting Israel’s security. Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and his political obituary has been prematurely written before.
But the current U.S. official said that Netanyahu’s shaky hold on power is always “in the background” during internal Biden administration talks about the Middle East. And Biden aides already are engaging an array of other Israeli politicians — some in power, some not — on the war effort.
According to the two senior administration officials as well as the current and former U.S. official, those talks have also provided a way to gauge the thinking of various Israelis who might take the helm of the country.
Behind the administration’s view of Netanyahu is the belief that he has been significantly weakened by Israelis’ anger over the failure of their country’s security and intelligence sectors to prevent Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, which killed some 1,400 people. The growing international opposition to the current Israeli military campaign in Gaza — which has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians — has further shaken his standing.
U.S. officials have taken note of Netanyahu’s falling approval ratings. They also point to the wave of public reporting about the massive Israeli intelligence failures and predict that any forthcoming internal Israeli assessment — and one done by their American counterparts — will likely be even more damning, dealing more of a blow to Netanyahu.
While Biden administration officials have offered public declarations of solidarity with the Israeli government during the current crisis, aides are also trying to get ahead of what Netanyahu’s downfall could mean for the future Israeli-U.S. relationship. Among other things, the Biden administration is discussing “day after” scenarios for the Gaza Strip once the fighting ends, including the possibility of sending a multinational force — though not necessarily one with U.S. troops — to stabilize the territory.
Spokespeople for the State Department and the Israeli embassy in Washington declined to provide comment for this story.
Netanyahu hasn’t been a favorite of the Biden team. He was a loud supporter of former President Donald Trump, the Republican whom Biden defeated in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and may face again in 2024. And he was a sharp critic of the Iran nuclear deal the Obama-Biden administration helped craft.
His increasingly hardline positions over the years have upset Biden aides who still support creating a Palestinian state. Over the past year, he sparked public pushback from Biden over his desire to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, an effort many Israelis viewed as damaging to their democracy.
But Biden and Netanyahu also have known each other for decades and have managed to remain publicly friendly despite their differences. And in the wake of the Hamas attacks, Biden threw his full public support behind Netanyahu and Israel.
Behind the scenes, however, Biden has been unsparing in his assessment of what he believes are Netanyahu’s undemocratic tendencies that, in part, distracted his government from being ready for the Hamas attack.
“They know that this is who they have to work with right now, and no one has suddenly had a revelation about who they are dealing with,” said a person familiar with the administration’s thinking on Israel.
With an eye toward the future, U.S. officials are talking to Benny Gantz, a member of the current unity government; Naftali Bennett, a former prime minister; and Yair Lapid, an opposition leader and former prime minister, among other Israeli figures, the former official said.
The Biden administration has had limited luck convincing Netanyahu and his aides to take their military advice. In particular, American officials have been frustrated over an initial Israeli evacuation order issued for northern Gaza as well as Israel’s apparent cutting off of communications in Gaza ahead of the ground invasion.
The U.S. isn’t willing to back international calls for a cease-fire, but Israel also hasn’t agreed to American calls for a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting. An Israeli official told POLITICO on Wednesday morning that the country “is willing to discuss a humanitarian pause of a few hours.”
The Biden administration fears Netanyahu may be linking his own political future to the war and could at some point move to escalate the conflict, according to the two senior administration officials.
“Even the best case scenario for Israel in this war would not likely keep Netanyahu in power because the horror of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack will remain fresh, and because so many Israelis already directly attribute the lack of security to Netanyahu’s policies,” said Hagar Chemali, a former National Security Council and Treasury Department official in the Obama administration.
“Conversely, even if the war drags on or additional fronts open,” Chemali continued, “I still believe Netanyahu is on his way out because Israelis are already publicly questioning whether he is really the right person, not just to win this specific battle against Hamas, but the broader war for a peaceful and secure Israel.”