Rallying Round the Flag, Not Netanyahu

The barbaric and atrocious attack perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, resulted in more than 1,200 Israelis dead and nearly 250 people kidnapped. The unthinkable raid largely targeted civilians, Israelis as well as foreign nationals, Jews, and non-Jews alike. The scope and nature of Hamas’ unprecedented violence which was largely directed at Jews has not been seen since the Holocaust and constitutes nothing less than a major collective trauma.

Scholars have long observed that during periods of major conflict or intensive crisis, it is common to see a significant rise in the short-run popularity of the country’s leadership. For example, President George W. Bush’s approval rating spiked to a record high following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 (from 51% between September 7-10 to 90% between September 21-22), surpassing his father George HW Bush’s approval rating with the liberation of Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War (from 54% in November 1990 to 89% in March 1991). President Barack Obama’s approval rating moderately increased after the killing of Osama bin Laden from 46% to 52% making the manifestation of what academics call rally ‘round the flag effect quite clear.

Interestingly, in the aftermath of the devastating October 7 attack, however, Israelis have been overwhelmingly rallying ‘round the flag but not around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his government. A poll conducted by researchers at Bar Ilan University found that less than 4% of Israeli Jews trust Netanyahu as a reliable source of information. In contrast, and despite the reputational blow it had sustained because of the strategic failure on October 7, nearly 74% of the respondents found the IDF spokesperson the most reliable source of information.

But it is not just about credibility, it is also about culpability. In early November, a poll conducted for Israel’s Channel 13 news found that 44% of the people polled considered Netanyahu to bear the most responsibility for the October 7 failure. Furthermore, it is about competence. The daily newspaper Maariv reported that when asked who is better qualified to serve as Prime Minister, 52% of those polled named Benny Gantz whereas only 26% named Netanyahu. These prevailing negative sentiments toward Netanyahu and his government are also translated into the Israeli public’s voting preferences. According to the same Maariv poll, if general elections had taken place now, the current opposition would win 77 seats whereas the coalition would win 43 seats.

It would seem the emerging consensus is that Netanyahu’s political career is effectively over and that his future is sealed but that would be a fatal mistake for three main reasons. First, it would be a foley to think that Netanyahu, the ultimate ‘comeback kid’, will leave Israel’s political scene willingly and without a fight. It is not only his political survivability and historical legacy that motivates him nowadays; Netanyahu needs to stay in power to stay away from jail after he was charged with fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in three separate cases that are still being heard in the Jerusalem District Courts. He will stop at nothing to achieve that goal, including collecting “incriminating” material that would shift the blame for October 7 towards the military, the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet), and the previous Bennet-Lapid government.

Second, Netanyahu’s coalition partners have no interest in deserting him either; the Ultra-Orthodox religious parties—Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ)—need Netanyahu’s support to prevent the conscription of students who are enrolled in religious higher education institutions (Yeshivas). UTJ Knesset members went as far as proposing during the summer to legislate a Basic Law to equate Torah studies with IDF service and Netanyahu seemed inclined to accommodate their demands.

The Religious Zionist Party finds Netanyahu attentive to and supportive of their efforts to foil the creation of a Palestinian State as well as to expand the construction of settlements in the West Bank. Contrary to the position of the Israeli defense establishment, for example, the Party’s leader Bezalel Smotrich, who serves as Israel’s Finance Minister, refused in late October to transfer funds collected by Israel to the Palestinian Authority arguing it is “a terror-supporting organization.”

Third, Netanyahu’s political base is gradually resuming its vocal support of his policies and government in the aftermath of the October 7 attack, and Likud members appear determined to shield and protect him at all costs. An IDI poll found that only 6% of those who voted for the current coalition government will consider voting for an opposition party in any upcoming general elections, and most respondents (55%) said they would support the same bloc of parties. Consequently, it is quite likely the circumstances will not be sufficient to oust Netanyahu politically.

Israeli society, both Jews and non-Jews alike, appears to be more connected to the State of Israel than ever before. An IDI poll found that 70% of Arabs, or Palestinian Citizens of Israel, feel a part of the State of Israel and its problems compared to 48% in June. Thus, the rally ‘round effect is taking place, but it is about the State of Israel and not the leadership of Netanyahu or his government.

It is not clear whether this incongruence will be translated into a political reality that does not include Netanyahu at the helm. Still, world leaders must be prepared for the possibility the ‘comeback kid’ will strike again and remain in power despite the trauma of October 7. That may have an impact on the current strategy they should pursue regarding the current conflict in Gaza and the question of the “day after”. Politics is the art of the impossible, and there has never been a greater Israeli political artist than Netanyahu.

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is the Director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.
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