Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked angry. He railed in a Jan. 18 press conference against Israel’s enemies, the media, and critics of his leadership of the war against Hamas. He was particularly defiant about reports that the international community, including Western and Arab countries, is advancing a comprehensive plan to end the war based on a long-term horizon for a Palestinian state and political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict is “not about the absence of a state, a Palestinian state,” he practically snarled, “but rather about the existence of a state, a Jewish state.”
Netanyahu sounded almost desperate. No matter what has happened on the ground since Hamas’ blood-drenched attack of October 7, the Israeli public has so far shown no indication of forgiving him.
Most countries tend to rally behind their leadership during wartime. But from the first Israeli polls in October to the present, attitudes towards Netanyahu have been abysmal.
Before October 7, Israelis were angry with the ultra-nationalist, right-wing government (elected not even one year earlier), for its plans to crush the independence of the Israeli judiciary. With colossal weekly demonstrations all year, strikes and massive public disruptions, poll after poll showed that the government had lost its parliamentary majority. By September, Netanyahu’s coalition was regularly getting just 52-54 seats in surveys, compared to 64 in the elections of late 2022 (out of 120 in Israel’s parliament).
After the Hamas attack, the bottom fell out. Most polls show the coalition scoring in the mid-40 seat range, including the regular tracking survey for Maariv newspaper published Jan. 19 , conducted by the pollster Menachem Lazar. In that survey, the original coalition got 44 seats and Likud, Netanyahu’s party just 16, half of the 32 it won in the last election. It’s the second week in a row that Likud has scored so low, but all surveys show the party with just 17-20 seats.
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But people aren’t punishing just the coalition or just Likud. Israelis are furious at Netanyahu personally. When asked which leader is more suitable to be prime minister, the long unrivalled polling king has slid to a distant second place. In mid-November, 41 percent chose Benny Gantz in a Maariv poll, a former military Chief of Staff who became an emergency partner in the war cabinet. The 25 percent for Netanyahu was his lowest rating to date. Recently Netanyahu has recovered slightly, to 31 percent– but 50 percent now view Gantz as more suitable to lead. In all polls, such as Israel’s Channel 13 in December or any others who ask the question, over 70 percent of Israelis want Netanyahu to resign – between one-quarter and 30 percent want him to go right now, even during the war.
Why? The Israeli public has reached the same conclusion as almost every political observer about the prime minister. From late October through to mid-January, weekly surveys among repeat respondents by the Agam Institute at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University show that a majority, about 56 percent of Jewish Israelis, think Netanyahu is bringing his personal political consideration into his conduct of the war. (If Arab citizens of Israel had been asked, the average would be higher.)
And in a striking finding, the Agam Institute found that the portion of people who hold Netanyahu solely responsible for the disaster of October 7th actually doubled, from 17 to 35 percent among Jewish Israelis. Combined with those who hold him largely responsible, nearly three-quarters see him as the culprit for Israel’s failures that day.
If the surveys prove out, Israel’s longest serving prime minister will exit office on his own petard. Historically, when Netanyahu feels under the gun, he seizes on the same themes Israel is under existential threat; Israel will be annihilated if opponents have their way (whether political competitors in elections, or the U. S. President seeking a two-state solution); and his favorite theme; that he alone can prevent the certain destruction
The Manichean threat has kept in power for the better part of 15 consecutive years. Politically eulogized more times than commentators can count (including here, by me), the man always pulls a political Houdini-escape act to get re-elected despite criminal indictments for corruption and any number of lesser scandals.
But the threat he warned that only he could prevent was realized, and on his watch. “This time,” say those who predict his downfall, “there’s October 7.” There’s also the aftermath. A traumatized public felt abandoned by a government unprepared for the emergency. In recent weeks, anti-government demonstrations have even returned to Tel Aviv, a growing sideshow to the larger protests demanding that the government do more to get Israel’s hostages released. Even Netanyahu’s emergency war cabinet minister, Gadi Eisenkot, a former chief of staff (and newly-bereaved father to a fallen soldier), criticized Netanyahu’s promises to release hostages through ongoing fighting as an illusion. Netanyahu seems to be losing the last remnants of his credibility.
And yet, elections are nowhere in sight. If they turn out to be a year or more away, today’s polls will be out of date. By then, October 7 may seem to Israelis less of a threat than the words “Palestinian state,” a phrase that, to some Israelis, carries the threat of another October 7, but worse. After his belligerent words, Netanyahu may have told Biden that he’s not foreclosing the idea of a Palestinian state entirely. But to Israelis, he will insist that preventing one is a matter of survival.
For the many Israelis who feel this way, “existential threat” is not just Netanyahu’s campaign posture; it’s simply how they view reality. If no one in Israel makes the opposite case – that the lack of Palestinian freedom, the boot of Israeli occupation on their neck for decades nurtures ongoing cycles of violence forever, Netanyahu might be more convincing than his opponents would like to believe.
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