Many voices called for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign in the days following October 7. Weeks later, some pundits still occasionally remind the public that Hamas was able to perpetrate the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust on his watch. As the head of government, they argue, he is responsible for the colossal failure of Israel’s intelligence and military establishment to foresee the assault and prevent it, despite detailed reports over the past years outlining blueprints similar to the October 7 onslaught, and Netanyahu’s own testimony during a State Control Committee hearing in 2017, which has now resurfaced.
Beyond this self-evident point (Democracy 101: massive security collapse under government X enables massive terror attack in which some 1,200 citizens are massacred and 240 abducted; head of government X must take responsibility and resign), much has been said and written on how Netanyahu, in his determination to ensure that the two-state solution would never come back to life, became Hamas’s enabler by encouraging Qatar to send Hamas millions of dollars every month for years – part of which was used by Hamas to build the tunnel infrastructure that reinforced its capabilities, and train and equip the terrorists who carried out the October 7 rampage – with the misguided belief that this would contain Hamas (“deter” was the word), and turn the group from a security threat into a governing body.
Since the start of the ground offensive in Gaza, the demands for Netanyahu’s resignation have quieted down. “After the war” has become the broadly accepted motto for putting off the hour of collective reckoning, including assessments of Netanyahu’s role. With national attention now focused on the fate of the remaining hostages and the continuation of the war, there has been no mass movement calling for Netanyahu’s dismissal so far (though a Channel 13 poll on December 8 still showed that 72 percent of Israelis want him gone – 41 percent at the end of the war and 31 percent immediately). Somehow, the idea that the leader most responsible for the worst catastrophe Israel has known should also be the leader in charge of the military response to it has not produced much more than a handful of op-ed pieces. The fear, expressed by critics, that Netanyahu may seek to prolong the war in order to hang on to power and postpone judgment day does not seem to have taken hold among a vast majority of the public.
That Netanyahu puts his political and personal fate above the interests of the nation is nevertheless a reality that Israel has lived with for years. Despite this record, or perhaps because of it, the initial outrage he stirred by refusing to take responsibility for the gigantic failure of October 7 while attempting to deflect the blame on Israel’s security and intelligence services also seems to have dissipated. The unsubtle survival campaign he swiftly launched, with the war in full gear, after appearing initially dazed – working to undermine Benny Gantz after he joined the emergency cabinet because his National Unity party is soaring in the polls while Netanyahu’s Likud is crashing, channeling massive coalition funds to his voters despite the pledge to concentrate solely on the war, alleging that the Oslo Accords produced as many victims in terror attacks as the October 7 onslaught (as if not engaging in the Oslo process would have stopped terror attacks), etc. – has been met with vastly blasé reactions on the part of the public.
Of course, Netanyahu will never resign, since this would require at least a measure of integrity. The prospect that he would somehow be booted out at the end of the war seemed like a foregone conclusion right after October 7 but is less obvious now. The various paths to his dismissal seem unlikelier with every day that passes. A constructive vote of no confidence that would put in place a successor government without an election would need an absolute majority support in the Knesset. A motion of no confidence calling for a new election would require at least five MKs from the current coalition to defect, and therefore to vote against their own interest. Massive protests to force Netanyahu out may still occur but would face an uphill battle. A commission of inquiry will take months or years and not necessarily prescribe his dismissal.
Yet even a narrow focus on some of Netanyahu’s actions since the beginning of the war justifies raising the harshest questions about the man’s moral compass. First, the issue of the hostages held in Gaza and the extraordinary mobilization of their families have clearly been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side – perhaps the most infuriating post-October 7 reminder of his government’s failure to ensure the safety of these Israeli citizens. He did eventually drag himself to a handful of meetings with carefully screened family members (some families have spent more time talking with U.S. President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan than with him), but initially the release of hostages was not a government priority among the war objectives. It became a declared goal only under the pressure of the families, and of the relentless campaign they have organized in Israel and abroad. Yet at no point did the thought emerge in the government that the hostages, utterly betrayed by the state on October 7, could not be betrayed a second time, even if that meant delaying the war. The rationale that was adopted instead, that only military pressure on Hamas could lead to their release, now appears dubious at best. Only one hostage was freed in a military operation, and only three hostages managed to escape their captors, before being mistakenly killed by IDF forces. The return of 121 other hostages was obtained through complex negotiations that required drastic concessions from Israel. It is unknown how many remaining hostages have been murdered by Hamas while additional deaths are announced almost daily. Those still alive may have become Yahya Sinwar’s personal body armor, and the Hamas leader’s current demand of a permanent cease-fire before negotiations can even begin makes it thoroughly unclear at present how the military operation should ensure more releases.
Yet Israel will never be the same country if it goes on to exist with the moral stain of not having attempted everything possible to rescue these hostages. Is there any significance to the fact that the affected families are, for the most part, not Netanyahu voters? Would Netanyahu’s approach to this disaster have been different if the hostages had been West Bank settlers allied with Bezalel Smotrich or Itamar Ben-Gvir?
Another morally suspect subject has been Netanyahu’s failure to set clear, achievable war aims (by what standard will the “elimination of Hamas” and Israel’s “victory” be measured?), or address post-war prospects for Gaza. Perhaps Netanyahu is reluctant to think about a future in which he senses he may no longer be a player. This would explain why, besides excluding the US option of control by a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority and maintaining the ambiguity on a permanent Israeli occupation, he is not expressing any vision for post-war Gaza and its relations with Israel, as if indeed he had internalized the fact that his political survival is tied to the continuation of the war.
Even still focusing solely on the conduct of the war, the list of Netanyahu’s other moral failings is far longer, but mercy on the reader will prevail. A few last touches should be enough to document the moral hollowness of the War Leader: his reenergized use of tired, facile slogans (“we will fight till the end,” “no Hamastan or Fatahstan in Gaza,”) his sudden interest in renaming the war while soldiers fall daily and the hostages are, at best, wasting away in captivity, his eagerness to visit military bases while staying away from funerals (except in the case of Gadi Eisenkot’s son, killed in Gaza while Netanyahu was arranging a diplomatic passport for his own son, still in Florida).
The breadth of Netanyahu’s moral responsibility for the October 7 massacre and for its cascading consequences should not, however, recede from public view. In the event that he remains in power through the end of his term in 2026, a written trace of the detailed harm he has caused the country will become essential. A list, which could never be exhaustive, of what he must be held morally responsible for, a sort of moral ktav ishum – indictment – would read as follows:
- The deaths of some 1,200 women, men and children slaughtered or burned to death on October 7, 2023.
- The deaths of some 21 hostages to date murdered in captivity by Hamas, and all possible future deaths of hostages whose release Israel will not have done everything possible to obtain.
- The deaths of over 150 IDF soldiers in the ground operation in Gaza and 8 in Hezbollah strikes in northern Israel to date, and all future deaths of soldiers on both fronts through the rest of the war.
- The deaths of civilians killed by rocket strikes since October 7, and all potential such deaths through the rest of the war.
- The thousands of wounded in the October 7 attack and in war, in particular those maimed and disabled for life, and all those who will be wounded through the rest of the war.
- The rapes, sexual violence and sexual mutilation inflicted by Hamas terrorists on an unknown number of women and girls, most of them subsequently murdered on October 7.
- The sexual abuse and rape of hostages in captivity, the reality of which has begun to emerge from testimonies of freed hostages.
- The ongoing ordeal the 129 remaining hostages, presumed alive, are enduring in captivity, potentially including from IDF strikes.
- The staggering unpreparedness of IDF forces on October 7.
- The expansion of the conflict to Israel’s northern border by Hezbollah.
- The grief and trauma of bereaved families – orphans, parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and other relatives – whose dear ones were murdered, sometimes in front of them, in a single day on October 7, or killed fighting to defend the country in the subsequent war, and the life-long, transgenerational post-traumatic aftermath these families will endure.
- The grief and trauma of survivors from the Reim rave and the life-long, transgenerational post-traumatic aftermath they will endure.
- The missing generation of children the young dead, civilians and soldiers, will never have, and the grandchildren their parents will never have.
- The destruction of hundreds of homes by terrorists on October 7 and by rocket strikes on that day and since, in the south and in the north of Israel.
- The displacement in the south and the north of Israel of some 200,000 people whose lives have been upended, many of whom will have no home to return to in the foreseeable future.
- The potential death of all future victims of the terror attacks some of the Palestinian prisoners released last month or in the future by Israel in return for hostages may carry out – even if releasing these prisoners is morally right.
- The collective, transgenerational trauma of an entire nation, born 75 years ago as the only safe haven for Jews in the world, and the stain that October 7, 2023, will leave in the history of Israel.
- The collective, transgenerational trauma of Jews around the world, and the tsunami of antisemitism they have faced since October 7.
This list and article focus on Israel, Israelis and Jews, but Netanyahu’s moral responsibility also includes the destruction and deaths visited on civilians in Gaza, and the spike of violence and killings inflicted on innocent Palestinians in the West Bank by the IDF and settler vigilantes since the beginning of the war.
These are hard, ugly truths that not every Israeli will be willing to contemplate. To those arguing that Hamas, not Netanyahu, is the responsible party, political philosophy – my field of research and teaching – has plenty to say in response. Machiavelli himself, in whose writings it may be thought Netanyahu finds some of his inspiration, defined the preservation of the state and of its citizens as the paramount ethical obligation of the ruler. The state’s duty to ensure the physical protection of citizens is also central to most versions of the social contract, starting with Thomas Hobbes and leading over 250 years later to Max Weber’s definition of the state as the human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force.
The existence of evil in the world, such as embodied by Hamas, is an immutable fact. A state’s foundational obligation to its citizens is to protect them against such evil. None of what happened on October 7 was inevitable, none of it had to happen. Had the state fulfilled its fundamental obligation to the citizens of the western Negev and the Reim ravers, these horrors and their tragic ripple effects could have been prevented. The failure is of course collective, spreading across multiple defense and intelligence decision-making circles. But as the figure embodying the supreme political authority of the state, Netanyahu bears the highest level of moral responsibility. In discussing ethical leadership, Weber distinguished between leaders who follow their convictions regardless of the consequences their policies may have in the real world, and leaders who put responsibility above all else and understand that they will have to answer for the consequences of their actions, including unintended ones.
It is clear in which category Netanyahu belongs. Israel is paying a very heavy price, both nationally and internationally, because lucid Israelis have acquiesced in his nearly continuous reign for almost 14 years.
Netanyahu has been very good for Hamas, very bad for Israel and for the Jews.