Israeli Public Sours on Bibi After Gaza

Netanyahu Faces Volatile Electorate as Vote Looms in January

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By Nathan Jeffay

Published November 30, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
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When Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari on November 14, its citizens were in awe of the achievement. It was widely suggested that impact of the killing was the equivalent of Barack Obama’s Osama bin Laden assassination for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that it would aid his smooth return to office.

But the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, a week later, brought a different mood. Some 70% of Israelis opposed the cease-fire, according to a Channel 2 poll conducted shortly before it went into effect.

Such strength of feeling often fades once citizens start enjoying the calm of a cease-fire. But even the next day, when residents of southern Israel were free from rocket fire, some 49% of respondents in another poll, this one for Ma’ariv and Makor Rishon, thought Israel should have continued its campaign. Only 31% thought it should have accepted the cease-fire.

This hard line with regard to security issues was also reflected in primaries for the Likud, which took place November 25 and 26. Veteran moderate lawmakers like Michael Eitan and Dan Meridor lost their places, while firebrand Danny Danon won fifth, and far-rightist Moshe Feiglin, who has never yet made it to Knesset, won 14th.

For Netanyahu, this demand on the part of the public for firm results and a political hard line might create difficulties, since by his own admission the cease-fire was based on a “possibility.”

“I realize that there are citizens who expect a harsher military action, and we may very well need to do that,” Netanyahu said when he announced the halt in combat. “But at present, the right thing for the State of Israel is to exhaust this possibility of reaching a long-term cease-fire.“

Itai Olenik, the pollster who conducted the survey just before the cease-fire took effect, said that public attitudes were influenced by the fact that “there was a lot of preparation of public opinion [by politicians] that we’re going to achieve some sort of definitive win. And what happened is that they shot a lot of missiles, we shot a lot at them, and it seems that we gave in, as we didn’t use all the tools we have.”

The question that has confused analysts is what Israelis actually wanted from Operation Pillar of Defense. Despite the strong feeling against a cease-fire, a few days before it was negotiated, a Haaretz poll found that just 30% of Israelis supported a ground operation. But military commanders saw such a ground operation as the only effective way to advance the campaign.

“People had self-contradicting points of view,” commented Meir Elran, head of the homeland security program at the Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Elran said, “They want quiet, they want the other side to be weakened, and they want Hamas to be humiliated to an extent, but beyond that, it’s not really clear to people what should happen [regarding Gaza].”

In the thick of the military campaign, polls showed Netanyahu’s election roster hitting its highest mark since his decision to run the Likud party, which he heads, on a joint list with the right-wing faction Yisrael Beiteinu. The joint list won 41 of the Knesset’s 120 seats at that time, according to the polls. But that has since dropped. It now stands at about 37 to 39 seats, a score similar to that prior to Operation Pillar of Defense.

Pollsters say that the impact of the war on the election will only become clear only when Israelis have had a chance to consider whether they deem the military operation a success or a failure. Hamas “claims they won because they didn’t cave in and they shot on Tel Aviv. For us, winning is only judgeable over time,” said Olenik, a statistician at Shiluv Millward Brown. “Only a month or half a year from now if no rockets fall can Israel say this was a success.”

Camil Fuchs, director of the Dialog polling company, told the Forward that if the quiet in southern Israel continues, the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list could well expect to be rewarded electorally. It will have a “positive effect on Likud by it not going in to an election with rockets falling in the South,” he said.

But analysts have also suggested that quiet on Israel’s borders could be a double-edged sword for the new joint list. “Now, we are talking about security; this is the only agenda,” said Yitzchak Katz, CEO of the Maagar Mochot survey group, referring to the hope in the center and on the left that the election would address socioeconomic issues, a hope that appears to have evaporated since the Gaza operation. Yet if the calm continues, it could give the center and left a chance to revive these issues.

As the military operation appears to have inoculated Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu against challenges from the left, the right-wing makeup of Likud’s newly elected list seems to have staved off any attempts by hard-line right-wing parties to poach potential supporters.

Jewish Home, a religious party to Likud’s right, headed by Netanyahu’s onetime chief of staff Naftali Bennett, was polling nine or more seats shortly before the Likud primary. In a Dialog poll, published by Haaretz on November 28, the new, more rightist Likud had stolen some of Jewish Home’s thunder, leaving it with eight seats.

The poll, the first since Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced his retirement and former Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni announced her return to politics and the formation of a new party, indicated that these developments wouldn’t affect Likud-Beiteinu’s electoral performance.

This is because Livni’s gains are within the so-called center-left bloc. Her new party, The Movement, polled at seven seats, which came at the expense of Kadima, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Labor. For example, Kadima, the largest Knesset party after the last election, was projected to receive just two seats. Likewise, voters who were previously backing Barak’s Independence Party, which now looks set to fold, appeared to transfer their support within the center-left bloc, providing small gains to each of the center-left parties.

With Labor coming in at 18, Yesh Atid at eight, The Movement at seven and Kadima at two, the center-left bloc looks set to win only 35 seats. Further left, Meretz is projected to win six seats, and the predominantly Arab parties 11. Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu alliance is, according to Dialog, set to win 39 seats, and overall the right-religious bloc is set to win 69.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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