Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Photo/World Economic Forum-Jolanda Flubacher via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Photo/World Economic Forum-Jolanda Flubacher via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Netanyahu’s one job was to prevent this catastrophe. Instead, he destroyed Israel as we know it

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This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

JAFFA, Israel – Benjamin Netanyahu had one job.

He told us, incessantly, that his job was to keep Israel a place where mass killings of Jews would never happen. Could never happen.

He had one job. It was to keep us safe.

It’s been a little more than two months now since it became clear how abjectly our prime minister failed at that job. It’s a permanent twilight here now, between sleeplessness and not-quite-waking, between lucky to be alive and guilty for breath. Between feeling too much and going numb. Everyone has lost someone.

He had one job. It was to prevent this cataclysm.

Netanyahu has always been a desperate, haunted, dithering and often vicious man. His bedrock policies — bolstering Hamas by overseeing shipments of Qatari cash to Gaza to the tune of billions of dollars, fending off any talks toward a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace, and destroying Israeli unity and democracy for political gain — enabled and, in fact, invited the atrocities of Oct. 7.

“What happened today is unprecedented in Israel,” Netanyahu said on the evening of that horrible day. “And I will see to it that it does not happen again.”

Never again? Too late.

Netanyahu purposely ignored the repeated warnings of the Military Intelligence Directorate, the Shin Bet Security Service, and his own defense minister because he was consumed by holding on to his rotten coalition and his empty-suit position instead of protecting his country. As a direct result, hundreds of innocent children, elderly people, women and men who depended on him are dead, more than 100 continue to be held hostage, a quarter of a million Israelis cannot live in their homes, and some 360,000 civilians have been ordered to risk their lives in emergency and prolonged reserve military duty. And more 18,000 Gazans are estimated to have so far been killed, more than 60% of them civilians, including more than 7,000 children. Vast numbers of homes in Gaza are now dust, and nearly 2 million Gazans have been displaced around 80 percent of the strip’s population.

Netanyahu could have made choices that averted all this devastation before Oct. 7. And he could have made a different choice on Oct. 7: to face the nation, accept responsibility, and, along with international partners, craft and execute a combined diplomatic and military offensive which could undermine Hamas while minimizing harm to non-combatant Gazans.

Instead, he played into the hands of Hamas by reversing an 11-year effort to minimize civilian casualties in Israeli air strikes on Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces have intensified bombing of largely residential areas since Oct. 7, in some cases using heavy and unguided “dumb bombs” and deeply penetrating “bunker busters,” resulting in horrific casualty totals and miserable circumstances for Palestinian civilians on an inconceivable scale: too little food, much too little drinkable water, grossly inadequate shelter, next to no sanitation, the threat of epidemics.

It was Netanyahu’s job to keep his country strong and safe and respected — goals that the war has palpably undermined, instead isolating Israel diplomatically and threatening to inspire new generations of extremists. But Netanyahu has always been a bad combination of terrified and arrogant. So on that October evening, he did not promise to bring the hostages back, or to abide by international laws of war.

Instead, he spoke to his hard-line base, vowing forceful vengeance. “All of the places which Hamas is deployed, hiding and operating in, that wicked city, we will turn them into rubble,” he declared.

And rather than take responsibility and work toward unity in Israel, he and his supporters chose to sow deeper insecurity, and split the country further. Within hours of the Oct. 7 attack, wrote veteran military commentator Amos Harel, Netanyahu loyalists began spreading conspiracy theories that the military and leftist kibbutz members aided the terrorists by opening entrance gates for them — all a part of a supposed plot to bring disgrace on Netanyahu and unseat him.

Netanyahu supporters have used social media to launch attacks on and discredit the relatives of Israelis slain on Oct. 7, families of fallen soldiers and loved ones of hostages — anyone who questions the prime minister’s handling of the war, or asks him to take responsibility for the failure to prevent it.

We elected Netanyahu, over and over again, to be Mar Bitachon — “Mr. Security.” We knew that was his only appeal, because we knew that he neglected everything else: Holocaust survivors in dire need, a crisis in public education, a once-superior health-care system — in the end, even support for his own army. Instead of security, he has given us the worst attack on our own soil since Israel’s founding, and internal turmoil that is shaking our country’s very foundations.

Over the last two months, as I was compiling a collection of some 20 years of Haaretz columns into my bookThe End of Israel: Dispatches From a Path to Catastrophe,” what became shockingly clear to me was that Oct. 7 was a direct result of a long career of Netanyahu having actively sacrificed Israel and Israelis for the sake of what he saw as his one true job — remaining prime minister at all costs.

What was also clear was that it all could have been altogether different. Netanyahu himself could have been altogether different. It was a choice to bring Israel and Gaza to this awful brink. He made it, over and over again.

The result was the end of Israel as we know it. The nation’s foundational goals — of a society of equality, democracy and unity among its citizens, peaceful relations with its neighboring states, and a dependable safe haven for vulnerable Jews worldwide — were all sacrificed to the extreme demands of hard-line fundamentalist coalition partners. To agree to these demands, and ensure his own hold on power, Netanyahu needed to choose to undo all the best efforts toward progress of an entire country.

He chose. Israel lost. End of story.

Bradley Burston

Bradley Burston, a longtime columnist for Haaretz, is the author of "The End of Israel."