IT’S hard to imagine Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, being under greater political pressure than he already is. But as I write and certainly by the time this is published, that will almost certainly be the case.

It was back on May 18 that centrist ­opposition leader and war cabinet ­minister, Benny Gantz, announced that his National Unity party would make good on its threat to leave Netanyahu’s coalition if the Israeli prime minister did not adopt six objectives.

“If you put the national over ­personal, you will find in us partners in the ­struggle,” Gantz at first conceded.

“But if you choose the path of fanatics and lead the entire nation to the abyss, we will be forced to quit the government,” Gantz then warned, making his party’s position clear to Netanyahu. In response at the time, Netanyahu dismissed Gantz’s comments as simply “washed up words”.

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At the top of Gantz’s list of objectives was the return of the hostages taken by Hamas during its October 7 attack on Israel. He also cited the demolishing of Hamas and demilitarising the Gaza Strip alongside the laying out of a plan for Gaza’s post-war governance.

But Gantz’s ultimatum didn’t just stop there. Adding to the list, he demanded the return of residents from Israel’s northern settlements to their homes by the start of September.

These residents are part of the 60,000 Israelis forced out by cross-border fire in clashes between Israel and the Lebanon-based Shia Islamist political party and militant group Hezbollah.

This part of Gantz’s demands clearly added to the pressure on Netanyahu to resolve the ­situation in the north, something ­Hezbollah has said would be possible were there to be a ceasefire in Gaza.

Among the remaining demands Gantz made were Israel promoting ­normalisation with Saudi Arabia, and last but not least, adopting an outline for standardised ­military service in which all Israelis serve the country, a move which, if implemented, would lead to an increase in the enlistment of Orthodox-Haredi -Jews.

This last demand to pass the ­national service law was always going to be one of the trickiest for Netanyahu. For while Orthodox-Haredi-Jews have long had a controversial and widely ­unpopular ­exemption from military service, it ­remains mandatory for all other Israeli Jews, and Druze men.

Anyone else can volunteer for service.

But should the law be changed, then the two ultra-orthodox far right ­parties on which Netanyahu’s government ­depends, will withdraw from the ­coalition and ­effectively topple the government.

For that reason alone – Gantz’s (below) other ­suggestions aside – Netanyahu was never likely to meet his demands.

Yesterday at the time of going to press, it was still unclear whether Gantz would make good on his party’s threat to quit the government, as a scheduled speech by him had still to take place last night.

According to the Israeli daily ­newspaper Haaretz, Gantz and ­Netanyahu talked briefly last week about the former’s ­intention to quit, but there have been no attempts at persuasion between the two and it “is believed the situation was ­hopeless anyway”.

Certainly Gantz has come under ­pressure from some to remain in the government, and without citing sources, Israel’s Kan public broadcasting service said that the US government had tried to convince him to delay his departure amid ongoing efforts to reach a ceasefire and hostage deal with Hamas in Gaza.

But even if Gantz did have a last minute change of mind and backed off from his ultimatum, the pressure on Netanyahu remains more intense than at any time since the war in Gaza began nine months ago.

Right now according to most Israeli media reports, Gantz is set to honour the ultimatum he made last month and ­follow through on his threat, piling yet more pressure on the politically beleaguered Netanyahu.

Seen purely in terms of number ­crunching, Gantz’s National Unity ­party makes up eight seats in Netanyahu’s 64-seat coalition (out of a total of 120 Knesset seats).

With its departure ­Netanyahu’s government can just about survive the party’s exit, but on every ­other conceivable level now internally and internationally Netanyahu is feeling the heat.

Gantz and two other members of his National Unity party have been credited with tempering the hold on Netanyahu of ultranationalist right-wingers such as ­National Security Minister Itamar Ben­-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel ­Smotrich.

The fear among some political analysts now is that the embattled prime ­minister could lean even more on his far right ­government allies for support. Shalom Lipner, a non-resident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council is one of them.

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Gantz’s resignation would “put ­Netanyahu at the complete mercy of his right-wing and religious fellow travellers who – in the absence of Gantz’s fig leaf – will try to steer policy in a direction that is anathema to the Biden administration and puts Israel’s essential ties with the United States at risk,” Lipner said, ­speaking to The Washington Post.

Alongside Gantz, his fellow ­National Unity member, Gadi Eisenkot, will ­almost certainly also go. Given that both are ­former chiefs of staff of the ­Israel ­Defence Forces (IDF), their crucial ­military ­experience will now be lost to ­Netanyahu’s coalition which is otherwise mostly made up of politicians devoid of such a background. The fact that both men both enjoy much more popularity that Netanyahu is also significant.

According to a survey published by the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv on Friday regarding the suitability for the role of prime minister the gap between Gantz and Netanyahu (below) is widening, with Gantz receiving 42% support compared to Netanyahu’s 34%.

(Image: PA)

Polling also showed that were an ­election to be held today Gantz’s ­National Unity party would win 27 seats and take the majority in Israel’s parliament the Knesset. Netanyahu’s Likud party ­meanwhile, would drop to 21 MKs from 32, while Yair Yesh Atid would become the third largest with 14 seats. ­Netanyahu’s group would end up on 51 seats with the current opposition and ­National Unity on 69.

Many observers believe that with any departure of Gantz and Eisenkot then defence minister Yoav Gallant, himself a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, may follow. Last month, Gallant in a television address targeted Netanyahu with biting criticism accusing the prime minister of mismanaging the war in Gaza.

Like Gantz and Eisenkot, he fears that the war is moving into a protracted and costly action and that Netanyahu is allowing far-right, hawkish members Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to call the shots. Both these ultranationalists are pushing hard for ­Israel in future to rule over Gaza and the return of Israeli settlements to the Strip.

Without former IDF generals, Gantz, Eisenkot and Gallant, the fear in some quarters is that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich would have a free hand and further put at risk Israel’s relationship with its allies.

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All this intense internal political ­pressure on Netanyahu’s coalition comes too as fighting rages in Gaza and ­clashes escalate in the north between ­Israel and Hezbollah along the border with ­Lebanon. Both sides have kept up a ­low-intensity conflict since October, when the ­Lebanese group started firing rockets in support of Hamas in Gaza.

Over recent weeks, however, that ­conflict has escalated and with every day that passes talk of all-out war between ­Israel and Hezbollah is growing. Not only are the number of Hezbollah attacks ­increasing but the group is also striking further into Israel.

For his part Netanyahu says Israel is “prepared for a very intense operation” along its border with Lebanon.

“We are prepared for a very intense ­operation in the north. One way or ­another, we will restore security to the north,” ­Netanyahu said during a visit to the ­border area. His far-right coalition members Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have both called in recent days for immediate action.

“They burn us here, all Hezbollah strongholds should also burn and be ­destroyed. WAR!” Ben Gvir said last week in a social media post. Smotrich likewise called for action.

“We must move the security strip from inside Israeli territory in the Galilee to southern Lebanon, including a ground invasion, occupation of the ­territory and distancing Hezbollah terrorists and ­hundreds of thousands of Lebanese among whom Hezbollah hides to the other side of the Litani River,” nearly 20 miles north of the border.

According to Karim Bitar, an associate research fellow with the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, the risk of an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah “has considerably increased”.

“Even though it is in nobody’s interest to see a wider escalation, it appears that many actors are no longer rational,” he told Al Jazeera. “Emotions are running extremely high, and any miscalculation could lead to a wider conflagration.”

In an all-out attack on Hezbollah, ­Israel would be taking on a vastly more ­powerful organisation than Hamas, with a ­fearsome array of rockets and ­missiles and a large, experienced ground force. This too before any reaction it might draw from ­Hezbollah’s powerful backer, Iran.

That said, Netanyahu is acutely aware that there are many voices in Israel ­demanding their government go on the offensive. Such people have no faith in Hezbollah’s claim that it will stop attacking Israel if a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

The question now is if such calls for ­action will be heeded by Netanyahu, who must also know that in doing so he will further alienate Israel’s US and other international allies.

US President Joe Biden Who previously said his country will ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself

Should Netanyahu order an attack it could make for a very different kind of reception when he is scheduled to address a joint meeting of the US Congress on July 24.

All these issues facing ­Netanyahu come at a time of daily mass protests in Israel, with many ­demonstrators calling for immediate ­elections and the hostages’ release.

This Monday that pressure will take another turn when the Knesset is due to vote on the bill that would exempt the ultra-orthodox Jews from the draft. ­

According to media reports, protesters are planning demonstrations in front of the Knesset and are expected to escalate significantly in mid-June.

For the moment though it will be the future of Netanyahu’s coalition that will preoccupy his thinking amidst the many other pressure bearing down on the Israeli leader.

As the daily newspaper Haaretz sees it, the departure of Gantz and his National Unity party would put in train a fundamental change to the political ­reality that the country has known the past eight months.

“The government will lose the flak ­jacket that has protected it from the ­international community. It will lose the kosher certificate that helped it look ­responsible and balanced, and less ­extreme, messianic and racist,” wrote the Israeli journalist Yossi Verter in an ­analysis piece on Friday as the deadline for Gantz’s threatened departure loomed.

“Time and again Netanyahu violated the terms of the coalition agreement he had with the National Unity party while humiliating, insulting and ­sometimes even inciting against it. With its ­departure, the last remnants of his public legitimacy in sane Israel will evaporate into the hot summer air,” Verter added, pulling few punches.

But time and again too, analysts and commentators have proclaimed ­Netanyahu finished only for him to pull through to fight another day.

At every turn now however the longest serving ­Israeli prime minister faces challenges that even with Netanyahu’s reputation for political survival makes his future look decidedly dicey.

Yesterday’s welcome news that four ­Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music festival during the group’s 7 October attacks have been rescued in central Gaza in what the IDF described as a joint “complex” daytime operation, will provide some respite from the criticism Netanyahu faces.

But that respite will be brief, for the problems he faces remain enormous and only the most blinkered and deluded among his supporters could fail to see the writing on the wall proclaiming his demise.