Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The time has come for Israelis to negotiate – with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Frida Ghitis

Now that the war against Hamas has entered a new phase, with Israeli military officials announcing they will start withdrawing from Gaza several brigades in advance of lengthy, but apparently lower intensity, more targeted fighting, Israelis can turn their attention to the urgent matter of the prime minister who failed at his most important job: keeping the country safe.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, Israelis will have to make extraordinarily difficult decisions that will set the course of their country for years to come.

These decisions should be made under the guidance of a leader that enjoys widespread popular support, trust and legitimacy; someone who can bring the people together and inspire confidence. It goes without saying – and multiple polls forecast – that Netanyahu is not that person.

In his long political career, Netanyahu has been willing to put his own interests ahead of the country. He did it most harmfully in 2022, when the only way he could secure a majority and become prime minister was by bringing into his coalition far-right politicians who had been pariahs among the mainstream until then. With that coalition pushing for it, Netanyahu backed judicial-reform legislation that later threatened to tear apart the country. And that was before the October 7 calamity.

Now, it’s time for Bibi, as he is known, to step down for the sake of the country.

Maybe by voluntarily surrendering power, which undoubtedly would be painful for him, he can start scraping some of the thick tarnish off his legacy.

The terms of the negotiations would be straight forward. Netanyahu should resign in exchange for immunity over the criminal charges he faces for fraud, breach of trust and bribery - all accusations he vehemently denies.

Even before Hamas terrorists rampaged into Israel on October 7, massacring some 1,200 people – the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust – kidnapping more than 240, and launching what looked like a calculated campaign of rape, mutilation and sexual violence; even before what was unquestionably one of the worst days in Israeli history, Netanyahu had already created divisions in the country that were unprecedented since the founding of modern Israel.

His agreement with the extremist legislators in his coalition – Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – negotiated as a last-gasp effort to keep power and possibly stay out of jail, included a judicial overhaul proposal that would severely undermine the power of the courts, opening a path to all manner of changes to the country’s character.

In total, hundreds of thousands took to the streets, protesting week after week for eight months. The demonstrations ended only after Hamas attacked and attention turned to helping the families of hostages and the tens of thousands of Israelis evacuated from their homes.

The longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, Netanyahu could have walked away years ago with a respectable list of accomplishments. He had helped transformed tiny Israel’s economy into a powerhouse, setting the stage for its emergence as one of the world’s most resilient and innovating countries, a top incubator of new technologies. And he presided over the end of the country’s regional isolation, helping build ties between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors.

Israelis were rightly proud of their accomplishments, and many did credit Netanyahu for his part in them.

And yet, that was secondary. In Israel, arguably more than in any country on Earth, the absolute top priority is security. And there, Netanyahu failed catastrophically.

He has also failed since October 7 in refusing to take responsibility for the disaster, repeatedly affirming, “We’re going to answer all these questions,” about what went wrong. But now, “Let’s focus on victory.”

The fact that Netanyahu expects the reckoning to come after the war creates an incentive for him to prolong it. As Israel decides how to pursue the conflict with Hamas going forward, that’s a conflict of interest that is unacceptable and dangerous.

The Hamas attack has been a disaster for Netanyahu. A year-end poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found only 15% of Israelis want him to stay in office when the war ends. The favorite to take the job is Benny Ganz, the retired IDF general and a leading opposition figure before the Hamas assault, when he joined Netanyahu’s emergency war cabinet.

Netanyahu has no legitimacy to preside over the vital questions coming at Israel with relentless velocity.

How long will Israeli forces stay in Gaza, and in what capacity? Who’s going to govern the strip after the war ends? Will Israelis and Palestinians restart negotiations toward the creation of two states? Can Israel trust the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas – largely distrusted by Palestinians – to help govern Gaza?

What about Hezbollah in Lebanon? As the Iran-linked militia, far stronger than Hamas, continues firing into northern Israel, should Israel try to destroy the estimated 200,000 rockets Hezbollah has aimed at Israel, or is it better to avoid opening a second front? Netanyahu’s former strategy of allowing Hamas to stay in power proved disastrous; is that a lesson that should apply to Hezbollah?

Then there’s another crucial question about the character of Israel’s democracy, a question that was only paused by the Hamas onslaught.

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The proposed judicial overhaul prompted huge numbers of Israelis to protest because they believed it would ultimately destroy Israeli democracy. On January 1, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a key piece of that plan. The so-called “reasonableness” law, which banned the court from blocking legislation it viewed as too extreme, would have essentially given control of the two most powerful branches of government to the ruling parties.

Israel’s system, based on British common law, does not have a written constitution. It urgently needs one. The Court’s decision was 8 to 7. That’s a recipe for continuing constitutional crises in a country facing so many challenges.

I happen to believe that one of the reasons Hamas attacked when it did is because it saw the depth of Israel’s division.

Israelis came together after the horrors of October 7, but they are under no illusion that the problems that existed before have suddenly vanished. Some have been postponed, but many more have come to the fore.

Benjamin Netanyahu is the wrong man for the moment. He should walk away for the sake of Israel.