Has crunch time arrived for 'Bibi' Netanyahu?
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Has crunch time arrived for 'Bibi' Netanyahu?

It has not been a good week for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, chief decision-maker in the war in the Gaza Strip that has already cost at least 35,000 civilian deaths. (Some thousands of those 35,000 may have been Hamas fighters.)

The week began with the Israel Defence Force (IDF) launching its assault on Rafah, the last undestroyed city in the Strip -- but at the same time, Hamas fighters reappeared in Gaza City, the first city the IDF destroyed. This feels like Whack-a-Mole. Is something wrong with the IDF's game plan?

Then at the weekend Mr Netanyahu got two ultimatums from his allies. One came from Benny Gantz, an old political opponent of Mr Netanyahu but a member of his three-man "war cabinet".

Mr Gantz demanded that Bibi produce a credible plan by June 8 for ending the war, freeing the hostages and creating a multinational civilian administration for Gaza. "If you choose the path of fanatics and lead the entire nation to the abyss, we will be forced to quit the government," Mr Gantz said.

By "the abyss", Mr Gantz was referring to Mr Netanyahu's apparent preference for permanent Israeli military rule in Gaza, a prospect that also alarms the third member of the "war cabinet", Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. But the ultimatum that probably disturbed Bibi more came on Sunday from US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

The United States does not issue formal ultimatums to its allies. Mr Sullivan merely "urged" Mr Netanyahu to connect his war to a "political strategy" for who runs Gaza afterwards (something Bibi has steadfastly refused to do). But reading between the lines, it was a message from President Biden that he is running out of patience with Mr Netanyahu.

Then, it got worse for Bibi. On Monday, Karim Khan, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), requested arrest warrants for six named individuals associated with the Gaza War on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity: two Israelis and three leaders of Hamas. Mr Netanyahu led the Israeli list. The Israeli prime minister is no stranger to criminal charges. Indeed, he was on trial on corruption charges that could end with a jail sentence until the war paused that process. But he was outraged at being mentioned in the same breath as a bunch of "Palestinian terrorists".

Naturally, all the suspects were "outraged". Yahya Sinwar, accused of being responsible for murder, hostage-taking and rape, is not answering the phone, but a Hamas spokesman protested that the Court's decision "equates victim with executioner". (Rule No. 1: Claim victim status.)

Israel's finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, called the ICC move "a display of hypocrisy and Jew-hatred" that "we haven't seen since Nazi propaganda". (Rule No. 2: Claim victim status.) But the question remains: will any of this make a difference to the outcome?

Certainly not the IDF's little difficulties. The war is really over, in the sense that Hamas clearly cannot be eradicated, but it will continue so long as it serves Mr Netanyahu's purposes (and Hamas's, too). Is Benny Gantz's threat to leave the government real? Maybe, but it will not bring the government down so long as Mr Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist allies remain loyal.

Will Jake Sullivan's warning about Joe Biden's growing impatience work? Very unlikely because Mr Netanyahu thinks he's bluffing, and he's probably right.

The pattern is clear, from Israel's 1948 War of Independence to the nuclear plant in Dimona, the establishment of West Bank settlements, and Israeli operations in Gaza today. The United States pleads for moderation, Israel pretends to listen but does what it wants, and the US eventually accepts it.

The only thing that is likely to have a lasting effect, bizarrely, is the International Criminal Court's seemingly quixotic attempt to bring the leaders of both sides to justice.

It cannot actually put them in jail: 124 countries have ratified the ICC treaty, but most major military powers, including Israel and the US, shun it. However, having an arrest warrant in your name in 124 countries can be a major nuisance.

Karim Khan, the ICC's prosecutor, is not "one of the great anti-Semites in modern times", as Mr Netanyahu predictably said. He is a British lawyer who became a King's Counsel in London before going on to be an Assistant Secretary-General of the UN.

His first act in his current job was to revive a probe into the brutal actions of the Taliban and Islamic State. The second was an investigation into the Ukraine war that led to an ICC arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. For him, Bibi is just another day.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His latest book is 'Intervention Earth', an examination of the (terrifying) state of play in the climate game, and a proposal for how to proceed. Last year's book, 'The Shortest History of War', is still available.

Gwynne Dyer

Independent journalist

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His new book is 'Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)'.

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