Op-ed: Day 237 of the war

503 Israelis give Netanyahu reason to believe he can retain power, despite October 7

For the first time in more than a year, Netanyahu is again voters’ preferred PM, according to a snap survey. You can be certain that he takes it seriously. Here’s why we all should

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on November 2, 2022, with his wife Sara at his side, as votes are counted in the general elections. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on November 2, 2022, with his wife Sara at his side, as votes are counted in the general elections. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

May 29, 2024, will go down as the day when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was first vindicated in his belief that he could extricate himself from the catastrophe of October 7, 2023, and retain power.

For the first time in a year, a snap survey by Channel 12 found that Netanyahu had overtaken Benny Gantz and was, once again, respondents’ preferred choice for prime minister.

In a survey in December by the same polling firm for the same TV channel, Gantz had been preferred to Netanyahu by a massive 45% to 27% of respondents. As recently as last month, though the gap had gradually been narrowing, Gantz was still ahead, by 35% to 29%. But on Wednesday night, Netanyahu overtook him, 36% to 30%.

The findings

Israelis don’t vote for a prime minister, but rather for a party, which they hope will become a dominant faction in the next governing coalition. Here too, however, Wednesday night’s survey was good news for Netanyahu. His Likud party, it showed, is gaining on Gantz’s National Unity, with 21 predicted seats to Gantz’s 25 were elections held today.

Again, the trend has been inexorable: In its December survey, Channel 12 noted, Gantz’s National Unity was trouncing Netanyahu’s Likud, by 37 seats to 18. That, in turn, meant that Gantz was blessed with a variety of options for fashioning a majority coalition. As of Wednesday night’s poll, this is no longer the case. (Likud, it is worth noting, has risen only slightly; National Unity has markedly declined, its fall exacerbated in Wednesday’s poll by the arrival of a new Labor party leader, Yair Golan.)

Netanyahu’s bloc, comprising the parties with which he formed his coalition after the November 2022 elections — Likud, the two Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the two far-right parties Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism — is polling at a combined 52 seats, far short of a Knesset majority. But the anti-Netanyahu parties who together hold the other 68 seats do not constitute a unified bloc.

For a start, Hadash-Ta’al, a majority-Arab party polling at 5 seats, would be unlikely to join any conceivable coalition. And while Ra’am, a second majority-Arab party, also polling at 5, did sit in the short-lived Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid 2021-2022 coalition, its presence would be unacceptable to at least one of the other anti-Netanyahu parties, Avigdor Liberman’s hardline Yisrael Beytenu, which is polling at 10 seats. One way or another, therefore, the ostensible 68-strong anti-Netanyahu parties could in practice likely muster a bloc of only 58.

So Netanyahu, as things stand, could not build a majority coalition, but neither could anybody else. There are many other shifts and surprises that could come into play, including the establishment of a new right-wing alliance with the likes of Bennett and the fairly unpopular ex-Likud journeyman Gideon Sa’ar. But, the momentum is with the incumbent.

The reasons

Channel 12’s reasonable assessment of its own snap poll was that Gantz’s decline is tied to the ultimatum he publicly delivered on May 18: Either Netanyahu starts putting the national interest ahead of his personal and political considerations, and starts defining strategic goals for the war, its aftermath and much more besides by June 8, or, Gantz vowed, his National Unity party will leave the emergency coalition it joined days after October 7.

Since Gantz’s rise in the polls was widely regarded as reflecting public support for his ostensible statesmanship in joining the government at a time of acute national crisis, his threat to abandon the partnership is now unsurprisingly costing him that support. If you’re no longer being selflessly statesmanlike, or if, as you yourself are saying, you are no longer able to influence the coalition, then why, some erstwhile Gantz backers are presumably asking, should we be supporting you?

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Ramat Gan, May 18, 2024, at which he delivered an ultimatum to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Apart from that, however, the specific horror of October 7 is now almost eight months in the past. Right now, today, minute by minute, Israel is deep in ongoing conflict with Hamas, trying to extricate 121 hostages held since October 7, facing acute dangers in the north, watching Iran close in on the bomb, and becoming a global pariah.

Much of the public is highly critical of Netanyahu’s handling of these critical challenges. But his biggest vulnerability was the fact of his presiding over the unprecedented catastrophe of October 7 and the Hamas-funding policies and other actions that failed to prevent it. With that catastrophe’s current, continued dire repercussions at the very top of the national mindset, the simple passage of time has been gradually working to Netanyahu’s advantage.

Moreover, the events of October 7 and since are highly unlikely to have sent large numbers of Israeli voters careening from right to left on the national political spectrum:

Belief in the viability of a partnership with the Palestinian Authority is probably at an all-time low. The dangers of relinquishing territory in the ostensible cause of peace have been underlined as never before by the Hamas invasion — from a Gaza Strip that Israel had left in 2005 and where it had no military or civilian presence and, it wanted to believe, no territorial dispute. Likewise, Hezbollah took control of the security zone that Israel evacuated in southern Lebanon to international approval in 2000, and now 60,000 people are internally displaced from homes under incessant Hezbollah attack on and near that border.

IDF soldiers work on armored military vehicles along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, November 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

What’s more, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been fighting in Gaza for almost eight months — members of the standing army and of the reserves. For combat troops, potential death lurks at every corner; every footstep could be their last. It’s a case of kill the Hamas enemy or the Hamas enemy is going to kill you. How does that warrior’s necessary kill-or-be-killed mindset impact these soldiers’ political thinking and orientation? What proportion of them and their loved ones are becoming more dovish? Almost certainly a smaller proportion than are emerging more hawkish.

There are many Israelis risking their lives fighting in Gaza who know that Hamas must be dismantled, the hostages freed, Hezbollah deterred and basic national security restored, but who are deeply alienated from the government that is sending them into battle. They and their loved ones recognize that the coalition features far-right betrayers of Zionism who seek to destroy Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature, to permanently reoccupy Gaza and the entire biblical Judea and Samaria, too. But, again, one suspects that this large and anguished sector of the populace is not attracting significant new adherents from the right — as Wednesday’s poll would seem to confirm.

The Netanyahu-led coalition not only failed to read the writing on the wall ahead of October 7, but has proved staggeringly dysfunctional in the eight months since. As Gantz and Likud Defense Minister Yoav Gallant have publicly charged, Netanyahu has resisted making vital strategic decisions, including on postwar governance of Gaza, because he dares not defy the would-be Gaza-occupying Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir on whom his governing majority depends.

Israel’s citizens on the southern and northern borders, and its vast contingent of reservists, have been failed by many of the ministerial offices whose job it is to look after them. Miri Regev’s strategic, cynical and documented abuse of the Transportation Ministry as a tool for her personal career advancement is only the most extreme alleged example of ministerial abandonment of the basic responsibility to serve the needs of the public.

Against all this, Netanyahu is bolstered by a powerhouse media and social media operation that besmirches and incites against any and all potential opponents and rivals, and that has been sinking to still lower lows in just the past few days — with the prime minister’s son Yair disseminating a mutiny call against the defense establishment, and his pet TV station Channel 14 on Wednesday producing repugnant “research” to assert that being left-wing made you ten times more likely to be slaughtered or abducted on October 7. (“We, within our midst, risk destroying Israel,” responded a despairing Haim Jelin, a former local council head and ex-Yesh Atid MK from Kibbutz Be’eri, where Hamas killed 103 people. “I thought that [Hamas] came to murder Jews, Israelis, in the State of Israel, in our homes… but apparently there are those who think we should divide the people into small pieces.”)

Channel 12’s poll was carried out in the course of Wednesday by phone and by internet, among just 503 representative voters, with a 4.4% margin of error. As such, it is no more credible than any of the other polls carried out by the same firm, Midgam, for the same channel in recent months, which used the same methods and voter samples, with the same margins of error, or any of the other such snap polls carried out for numerous Israeli media outlets over the years. It could prove an outlier, its findings never replicated.

But polls do reflect momentum, they do impact the electorate, and they affect the climate in which politicians make their decisions.

Netanyahu’s opponents, first and foremost Benny Gantz, will recognize that their hopes, even expectations, of ousting him just took a significant hit.

And the prime minister, who has never acknowledged his paramount personal responsibility for October 7, will see Wednesday’s survey, on Israel’s most-watched nightly news broadcast, as indicating he is now well on the way to winning back enough of the public to keep his job.

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