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Does the Gaza operation threaten Netanyahu’s political future?

- July 19, 2014

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv July 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Oded Balilty/Pool)
It has been rightly noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is risk-averse when it comes to decisions about the use of force. This fits with his broader outlook on politics, at least since his second term in office; he’s more of an opportunist than an ideologue. Part of the motivation for his caution derives from his perception of his role in Israeli politics. After the disaster of his first term (1996-1999), he was trounced in the 1999 direct election for prime minister by the Labor Party’s Ehud Barak 56 percent to 44 percent. Netanyahu’s Likud Party dropped from 32 seats after the 1996 poll to 19 in 1999 (though in part because of the split ticket voting of that election, which enabled Israelis to vote for a narrow sectarian party at the same time they voted for a prime minister from a large party). Since then, he has adopted a managerial style of leadership, avoiding bold decisions and dramatic policy changes – particularly when it comes to peace and war.
But is Netanyahu right to be worried? Does the Israeli public punish leaders who go to war, and therefore serve as a constraint on government policy? In U.S. elections, beyond a basic expectation of competence, foreign policy plays a miniscule role in voters’ consideration. Is this true in Israel, a place where citizens are considered to be highly politicized and avid consumers of news, and where external threats are a constant presence in everyday life? In a forthcoming co-authored book on Israeli politics, I explore these questions. The answers are predicated on the fact that Israeli elections are more complex than they seem, with more considerations at play than simply foreign affairs, including war, and including wars gone badly.
It is certainly true that Israeli voters, particularly the Jewish electorate, care about security matters. And the conditions in place during a given election matter, of course; in moments of war or large-scale violence, security and foreign policy concerns become predominant. They can also affect the outcome of elections: for example, the Hamas suicide bombing campaign in the mid-1990s gave Netanyahu the edge over his opponent, Shimon Peres, during the 1996 election. But according to data from the Israel National Election Studies (INES), the picture is less clear, in that social and economic issues – rather than security issues – are often at the forefront of citizens’ concerns.
Foreign policy and security concerns played a relatively minor role in Israeli elections from 1949 to 1977. In some years, certain foreign policy issues were part of the national debate. For example, in 1949 there was some debate over how close Israel should get to the Soviet Union. In the 1950s and 1960s, questions about relations with Germany were part of the public conversation. But because politics was structured by a “dominant party system,” in this case, the left-wing socialist Mapai (which became the Labor Party), these issues were never strong enough to change the balance of power. Indeed, the old quip goes that elections weren’t held to determine who would form the government, but rather who would form Mapai’s coalition partners.
It wasn’t until 1977 that Mapai/Labor fell from its dominant position and the system became a two-party competition, with Likud playing a more prominent role than Labor. But even this dramatic shift was not about foreign affairs. Certainly, the aftermath of the 1973 War – which traumatized Israelis and contributed to a decline in confidence in Labor – was important. But in a survey conducted that year, before the election, INES asked citizens (only Jewish Israelis) to identify the main problem that the government needed to address. The breakdown of responses was as follows: economy, 38.3 percent; security, 24.6 percent; social inequality, 13.3 percent; peace, 9.2 percent; and education, 4.6 percent.
By the mid-1980s the emphasis in elections did shift toward foreign/security policy. The late Asher Arian, one of the most respected analysts of Israeli electoral behavior, argued that since this period, elections have more or less been decided on debates over the “territories” – the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By that Arian meant that these territories’ ultimate disposition became the primary disagreement between the major parties. Later he was more specific: “The central, critical and engulfing issue dimension in Israeli politics is that of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict centred on ‘the territories.’ … The external dimension relates to the state’s borders and relations with the Palestinians, the Arabs and the rest of the world; the internal aspect concerns the nature of the Jewish state and society.”
The territories were further entrenched as the major electoral issue as a result of the First Intifada (1987-1993), the Oslo process (1993-2000), the Camp David negotiations (2000) and the Second Intifada (beginning in September 2000). Social and economic issues remained important, but could not compete with the direct impact these events had on the state’s security and on the lives of Israelis. On this basis Ariel Sharon formed the Kadima Party in 2005, out of Likud and Labor politicians, solely for the purpose of promoting withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. On that issue Kadima won the 2006 elections handily, taking 29 seats to Labor’s 19 and Likud’s 12 – the first time neither Labor nor Likud won an election — and formed the government. In 2009 Kadima won again, though by a much smaller margin – 28 seats to Likud’s 27 – and failed to win enough support in parliament to form the government.
Still, even in this era Israelis did not always vote on foreign affairs, including what had become a major topic of conversation at the time, the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Contrary to what many observers contend, Yitzhak Rabin and Labor did not win the 1992 election – which led directly to the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization – over Yitzhak Shamir and Likud because the latter had caused a major rift with the United States over settlements, but rather because of domestic political and economic reasons. Jonathan Mendilow has pointed out that a poll conducted just before the election found that “Of potential Likud defectors, 21.6 percent pointed to unemployment as the main reason for their vote, 18.9 percent to socioeconomic conditions, 16.2 to government corruption and inefficiency, and 13.5 percent to the appeal of Rabin as leader. Only 1.7 percent mentioned the settlement issue at all.”
Enter the January 2013 election, in the wake of the 2011 social justice protests. The election was held soon after the November 2012 conflict with Hamas, and at a time when relations with the United States, the Iranian nuclear program and the peace process with the Palestinians were all issues on Israelis’ minds. Yet looking at the results, it is clear that social-economic issues dominated. (Polling data before the election had already given a hint of this.) Likud, which has by now become associated with a hard-line foreign policy, had formed an electoral alliance with the even harder-line Yisrael Beiteinu, and together won 31 seats. (Of those, Likud only won 20, a considerable drop from its 2009 showing.) A new party, Yesh Atid, came in second with 19 mandates, largely on the strength of its leader’s constant focus on economic issues, social equality and improving the lives of the middle class.
In third place was Labor, which won 15 seats, up from 13 in 2009. Labor’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, focused almost exclusively on social justice issues. That seems to have cost her three to five seats (maybe more), which went to parties that did focus on foreign policy/the peace process – Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and Meretz. And in fourth place was Bayit Yehudi, a predominantly religious Zionist party comprised of several different factions. But in addition to promoting religious nationalism among its base, the party ran a very popular campaign emphasizing greater social and economic equality, playing up both the need to draft the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population into the military and to ease the burden on the middle class. Indeed, despite being a religious Zionist party, which normally focuses on expanding the Jewish presence in the West Bank and on religion in public life, Bayit Yehudi did well in the large urban areas in Israel populated by middle-class and working-class Israelis and high-tech enterprises, including in Rishon LeZion, Petah Tikvah, Netanya, and Ra’anana. In total it won 12 seats, an increase of five from 2009 (when two of its constituent factions won seven seats in total).
Thus, three out of the top four vote-getters were parties that focused on socio-economic issues, at a time when war, foreign affairs and security concerns were also prominent issues in the public conversation.
Other factors also play a role in Israeli elections. On major security issues, the public has generally followed the government once it makes a decision and pursues it, even when the public expresses concern or opposition on decisions of war and peace. This indicates that Netanyahu has room to maneuver and explain his decisions both to go to war and to end the war.
The electorate itself has shifted rightward, meaning that the right-wing bloc parties including Likud have tended to do better overall than the left-wing bloc that includes parties such as Labor and Meretz. At the same time, Likud has remained the major party on the right, and no other party has posed a serious challenge to it. Netanyahu himself has been facing a simmering rebellion inside his own Likud party, but he has generally managed to fend off his rivals there, too, none of whom pose a serious threat because they lack his stature, power base and general acceptance by the public.
There is a consensus among observers that the next Israeli election will happen in about a year. A lot can happen in that time, and it’s not clear that social-economic issues will remain as critical in voters’ preferences. But the Gaza operation won’t last until then, either. It’s very likely the fighting will end with something close to a return to the status quo ante. In the meantime, Netanyahu is managing the war carefully and effectively, from the standpoint of Israeli casualties and Israeli security.
And Israelis recognize this. While rightist rivals were demanding a full-scale invasion and occupation of Gaza, Netanyahu authorized only airstrikes, testing Hamas’ interest in a cease-fire. He did not suffer any significant backlash in the media or in public debate, even while millions of Israelis were forced into bomb shelters. But pressure to do more was growing: on July 13, about four days before the actual incursion began, about 67 percent of Israelis supported a ground operation. By authorizing one, Netanyahu has given the public what it has demanded.
According to the latest poll, Netanyahu’s caution – restraint, then a limited operation only, backed by large-scale force – has paid off. His Likud party has gained four seats, from 20 to 24, while his former ally Avigdor Lieberman has dropped from 11 to eight seats.
More importantly, Netanyahu scores high when asked whether citizens are pleased with the conduct of Israel’s leaders. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz receives the highest percentage (75 percent pleased), but that’s normal for military leaders. Netanyahu comes in third place, at 53 percent pleased, after Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (59 percent pleased). His main rivals fall below a majority: Naftali Bennett is at 43 percent pleased and Lieberman at 38 percent. Israelis are also not happy about the public criticism right-wing rivals have leveled at Netanyahu while the Gaza crisis is ongoing. His left-wing competitors appear to be off the public radar for polling purposes.
Polls are only a snapshot of a given moment, and, again, much can happen while the ground operation continues. But if Netanyahu can manage the outcome of the current war with Hamas without provoking international opprobrium and without many Israeli casualties, he will likely be judged to have managed the fighting well enough, particularly given the destruction of much of Hamas’ rocket-launching capability. But even if there are significant Israeli casualties, the war will still conclude with a weakened Hamas, and time will facilitate the importance of the other factors mentioned above. In the end, barring a major catastrophe of some kind, the trajectories indicate that Netanyahu will likely be safe enough to make a run for a fourth term as prime minister. His credibility might even grow stronger, now that he has gone to war.
Brent E. Sasley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He tweets at @besasley.