Israel’s Netanyahu, fending off critics, says there’s ‘clear unity of purpose’ with defence chiefs

JERUSALEM, Oct 24 (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to dampen media pressure over the government’s conduct of the war against the Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza, issuing a statement insisting he was in full accord with his defence and army chiefs.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has seen his already falling approval ratings plunge following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which killed some 1,400 people in the deadliest day for Israel in its 75-year history.

On Monday, amid growing expectations of an imminent ground operation against Hamas in Gaza, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, published a stinging attack on the government, saying that a “crisis of confidence” had developed between Netanyahu and the army leadership.

“It has deeply impeded the need to focus on the war and on making decisions, including painful decisions. Israel now needs an effective, task-oriented leadership,” it said.

Making the comparison with the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which began with an attack by Egypt and Syria that caught Israeli forces unprepared, the newspaper said that the country’s leaders 50 years ago were able to restore confidence before Israel achieved final victory.

“Nowadays, Israel is managing, but it doesn’t have a functioning management,” it said.

Late on Monday, Netanyahu’s office, together with the defence minister and the army chief of staff, issued a statement saying they were working together in full cooperation and urging the media to avoid “false publications that only harm our unity and strength”.

“Between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff there is complete and mutual trust and a clear unity of purpose,” the statement said.

Israel has carried out an intense air and artillery bombardment of the Gaza Strip, killing more than 5,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, and has massed troops around the densely populated enclave.

On Tuesday, the army spokesperson said the military was ready to open the ground campaign against Gaza, whenever the political leadership gave it the green light.

However there has been growing pressure from the United States to hold off on an invasion.

Netanyahu has said the government will draw the necessary lessons from what happened on Oct. 7. But he has so far defied pressure to take responsibility for the security failures that allowed hundreds of Hamas gunmen to break through the barriers around Gaza and embark on an extended killing spree in communities in southern Israel.

The criticism of the government, echoed in other media, has also come from other quarters, including the country’s mayors who found themselves having to take on a heavy share of the immediate relief work in the wake of the attack.

“I understand that everyone was in shock at what happened. It took the military a day or two to recover. It took the local authorities a day or two to recover,” Haim Bibas, mayor of the city of Modiin and chairman of the federation of mayoralities, told Channel 12 television at the weekend.

“The government ministries have not, as of now, recovered.”

Netanyahu, who returned to power this year at the head of a hard-right nationalist-religious coalition, had already faced months of some of the biggest demonstrations in Israel’s history against his plans to overhaul the powers of the Supreme Court.

But the government’s unpopularity has plumbed new depths with ministers regularly abused by furious Israelis during encounters with the public.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 attack, Netanyahu invited former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who leads one of the centrist opposition parties, to join his war cabinet as part of an emergency unity government.

But his own personal standing, already clouded by a corruption trial on charges which he denies, has been badly damaged and a recent poll showed Gantz was now a far more popular choice as prime minister.

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