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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Jerusalem, on Feb. 18.RONEN ZVULUN/Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden has been struggling in recent days to back away from a terrible miscalculation he made in October. That mistake, made by other Western leaders and organizations, was to confuse support for Israel with support for its head of government, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The very understandable and necessary desire to provide security to the 10 million people of Israel after this century’s most grievous massacre of Jewish civilians led Mr. Biden to give succour, material support and political legitimacy to the not-very-legitimate leader of those 10 million people – a man who 86 per cent of Israelis hold responsible for the Oct. 7 massacre.

In other conflicts, the distinction between a country and its leader would be irrelevant. But as of Oct. 6, 2023, Mr. Netanyahu, and the coalition of extremist fringe parties he had assembled into a government, was Israel’s biggest problem. He is, as prominent Israelis have repeatedly warned, the worst possible person to be called on to respond to an atrocity.

“In the years leading up to the attack, the country was fractured by Netanyahu’s effort to undermine its democratic institutions and turn it into a theocratic, nationalist autocracy,” Aluf Benn, editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writes in an essay this week.

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Not only is Mr. Netanyahu not at all representative of Israel or its people (his party has rarely received more than 25 per cent of votes, and governs with even less popular parties), but he has used his office to undermine any prospects for long-term peace and security.

As a consequence of those politics, Mr. Netanyahu has pursued a military response without apparent strategy or end game, one that has shown no concern for the excessive deaths of civilian families and aid workers or the prospect of further popularizing Hamas and other extremist groups. Mr. Netanyahu has “promised to ‘destroy Hamas,’ but beyond military force, he has no strategy for eliminating the group and no clear plan for what would replace it,” Mr. Benn writes. “He has refused to lay out a postwar vision or order.”

Before Oct. 7, Mr. Netanyahu not only ignored and played down security threats at the Gaza border, but actively cultivated the violent religious-extremist movement Hamas in an effort to sideline the Palestinian Authority, which recognizes Israel.

For years, Israelis have read news reports of Qatari cash being delivered with the help of Israeli agents to Hamas leaders at Mr. Netanyahu’s behest, a practice the Prime Minister defended in a 2019 address to his party’s parliamentary caucus: “Whoever opposes a Palestinian state must support delivery of funds to [Hamas] because maintaining separation between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Mr. Biden made the same mistake as activists and movements calling for justice and statehood for Palestinians. Well-meaning activists, including Jewish groups, attribute the grotesque military excesses not to Mr. Netanyahu’s government, but to a generalized “Israel” – a position that has limited the influence of their otherwise popular human-rights message, in part by failing to differentiate their sensible positions from the small but disturbing minority who opposes Israel’s existence or hates Jews. That message is reaching a generation that has grown up knowing only Mr. Netanyahu as the embodiment of Israel, with dangerous consequences.

That miscalculation has also been a disservice and even an offence to Israeli voters – including the hundreds of thousands who’ve hit the streets in recent days to oppose Mr. Netanyahu’s strategies.

Other Western governments realized more quickly that Mr. Netanyahu is pursuing a path that is deeply dangerous to the Israeli people, the lives of Palestinian innocents and the security of the world. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who as prime minister had tolerated Mr. Netanyahu’s excesses, has condemned excessive civilian casualties and “settler violence” since November. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for a stop to the “killing of women, of children, of babies” on Nov. 15. Most otherwise pro-Israeli Western leaders have backed away from the Israeli PM and his actions.

But only the U.S. has the material and political clout to impose strict limits on military action, and even to require political change, as aid conditions. “Biden has put Netanyahu on probation,” veteran Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told The New York Times this week. He appears to have realized that he miscalculated – but he will need to make the distinction far clearer.

Israelis do need support and assistance in this dangerous moment – but they, like other peoples imprisoned beneath extreme and unrepresentative regimes, also need our support in restoring humane and representative government within their borders.

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