Things were just starting to stabilize for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s crisis-ridden government. Failure, it is said, can sometimes be a relief. The pause to the judicial overhaul gave the prime minister some desperately needed breathing room to try to pass a state budget by its May deadline and rehabilitate his collapsing poll numbers.
It was a badly needed breather. And an exceedingly short one.
Over the past week, Israelis’ phones seemed to ping every few hours with notifications about a terror attack, rocket fire from Gaza, Lebanon, or even Syria, or, nearly as maddening, another government minister explaining that every failure and crisis was someone else’s fault.
Netanyahu tried desperately to project the control and competence that have so eluded him thus far in a coalition whose simple parliamentary math leaves him beholden to the most extreme edges of Israeli politics.
Photographs flooded into journalists’ inboxes of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant frowning grim-faced at the site of the terror attack at Hamra on Friday.
Security cabinet missives spoke of the government’s “determination” to restore Israel’s deterrence.
Meanwhile, security cabinet member Bezalel Smotrich, who is both finance minister and a “minister in the Defense Ministry,” was busy on Friday afternoon, shortly after one Palestinian terror attack and just before another, tweeting angrily at protesters trying to smuggle pizzas into hospitals in protest at the government’s Passover-kashrut law.
Like the Passover haggadah’s wicked son, Smotrich fumed, the pizza protesters “would not have been redeemed” in the Exodus.
"ואף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו "בעבור זה עשה השם לי" – לי ולא לו, אילו היה שם לא היה נגאל". https://t.co/X1HqHc2HuJ
— בצלאל סמוטריץ' (@bezalelsm) April 7, 2023
While Smotrich was busy with other things, Ben Gvir seemed to have gone missing altogether. One of Ben Gvir’s campaign posters from October vowed: “Only Ben Gvir will put an end to it! For every rocket, 50 terrorists killed in Gaza!”
Last year, after a terror attack in Hadera, Ben Gvir arrived on the scene — he’d made a habit of showing up at the scene of every terror attack — and screamed, “Failed minister, leftist!” at then-public security minister Omer Bar-Lev.
Ben Gvir, many have now noticed, seems to have broken that habit. Having replaced Bar-Lev in the post and facing a massive surge in violence, he is no longer quite as keen to visit the site of every attack.
Netanyahu sees the polls. Most Israelis, including half of Likud voters, think his government is failing them.
Fully 69 percent of Israelis and 52% of Likud voters gave the government a “bad” grade in the latest Channel 12 poll.
It isn’t just the government; Israelis think Netanyahu himself is failing them. The prime minister received a near-identical 67% “bad,” just two points fewer than his government. (Likud voters are more forgiving than others, giving Netanyahu 44% bad, 51% good, though such a high number of unfavorable respondents among one’s own voters is scarce consolation.)
It is hard to exaggerate the extent of public frustration. Netanyahu’s 30% favorable rating is identical to Ben Gvir’s, possibly a signal that his remaining support on the right, at least for the moment, is more about loyalty than a favorable judgment on his government.
The fallout from the judicial overhaul crisis, the thick haze of permanent campaigning that seems to surround this government, the failure to advance any of Likud’s major campaign promises — what should Netanyahu’s working-class base make of the disappearance of his fervent and repeated commitment to introduce free daycare for ages 0 to 3? — all tell a tale of collapsing public trust.
And those figures all predate the violence of the past few days.
In recent days, as Temple Mount tensions soared, terror attacks increased and rockets were fired at Israeli towns on three fronts, Netanyahu did his best to project expertise and resolution. But no matter how hard he tried, the domestic chaos that is seemingly intrinsic to this coalition kept getting in the way.
On Friday afternoon, a bitter complaint by Smotrich to his fellow ministers about the government’s mishandling of the security crisis leaked to the press. “The fact that the checkpoints around Nablus are open [despite the morning terror attack] is an unforgivable crime. We’ve been shouting about that for weeks,” he railed in an internal WhatsApp group.
Blame for that mishandling of the escalation lay not with government ministers. It lay, Smotrich explained, in the army. “The IDF is trapped in the crazy Oslo [peace process] concept,” he wrote. It was refusing to respond forcefully enough to the terror attacks.
And though he was “trying very hard to be loyal and not attack the government I’m a member of, it just can’t continue this way.”
A short time later, Ben Gvir, the minister in charge of Israel’s 32,000-strong police force, blamed the Knesset opposition for the terrorism and violence. The opposition, he declared, “encouraged our enemies…. Even when they’re not at the helm, they continue to cause harm.”
Ben Gvir, too, threatened the government, saying he had “considered a thousand times if it was right to resign from the government…and support it from the outside.”
An exasperated Netanyahu, always keenly aware of the polls, told top ministers on Friday that “we need to avoid unnecessary quarrels within the government,” and called on coalition leaders to project unity.
It didn’t seem to work. On Sunday afternoon, Otzma Yehudit’s Amichai Eliyahu, the country’s heritage minister, doubled down on the far-right’s new argument: “Senior officials in the defense establishment are acting as a rebellion,” he declared.
And: “The country cannot be held hostage to the ‘Oslo officers.’”
And: “[For] 30 years the citizens of Israel choose a right-wing government and don’t get what they want, because the government can’t carry out its policies — as everyone sees today.”
The chorus of blame grew too much even for many on the deep right.
“I’d be happy for a tweet from a leader (any of them) that says, ‘This is my responsibility,’ and not, ‘This is because of others,’” tweeted Yael Shevach on Friday. Shevach is a well-known settlements activist from Havat Gilad in the northern West Bank whose husband was murdered in a terror attack there on January 9, 2018.
It was a voice Smotrich couldn’t ignore. Shortly before the Sabbath — but not before his tweet about the pizza activists — he replied: “It’s my responsibility, Yael, and I don’t sleep at night, literally, to carry it out.”
In a fairly accurate reflection of the public mood about the finance minister (65% “bad,” 28% “good”), responses to this assurance on Twitter were decidedly unimpressed.
Public opinion seems clear on the nature of the problem and on Netanyahu’s role in fostering it.
A broad, mostly centrist, increasingly dismayed electorate has lost trust and patience with the government’s extremist wing and pervasive dysfunction
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, still awaiting his long-promised firing over his call for a pause to the judicial overhaul on security grounds — concerns that now seem prophetic — wins comparatively enthusiastic plaudits from the public (56% “good,” 33% “bad”), as does the opposition’s National Union leader Benny Gantz (54% “good,” 37% “bad”).
That relatively good showing for Gallant and Gantz does not signal a rallying of rightist voters to the opposition. Opposition leader Yair Lapid got just 37% as a favorable response.
It tells a simpler story: A broad, mostly centrist, increasingly dismayed electorate that has lost trust and patience with the government’s extremist wing and pervasive dysfunction, an electorate the right cannot afford to alienate.
And that shift, again, was before the weekend’s violence.
Netanyahu has always made two basic arguments for his leadership: That he was a responsible steward of the economy, and that he was a responsible and restrained policy hand when it came to national security.
He tried to make that argument again over the weekend.
As the fighting escalated, Netanyahu’s office started issuing statements intended to instill public trust, but which seemed to do the very opposite.
The security cabinet met on Friday to decide on the country’s response to the rocket fire, the Prime Minister’s Office announced, and in the very announcement gave journalists the chance to note that it had not met in months, largely because Netanyahu doesn’t trust his coalition partners’ judgment on matters of national security.
In announcing strikes in Gaza and Lebanon on Friday night, one cabinet statement included the sentence, “All the [cabinet’s] decisions were based on the recommendations of the IDF and the security services,” an assurance that spoke volumes about the public’s own disquiet over the judgment of cabinet members like Smotrich and Ben Gvir. This wasn’t more of the same grandstanding, the message went; this was a professional and serious decision.
Then on Sunday morning, an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office did it again. “Our enemies made a mistake when they concluded that the citizens of Israel aren’t united behind the IDF,” Netanyahu was quoted as telling mayors from rocket-battered border towns.
It is not clear which of Israel’s enemies might have concluded Israelis no longer have faith in the IDF. The loss of faith seems to be concentrated elsewhere.
Turning on the army
Netanyahu leads a government beholden to the extremes of Israeli politics — economic and cultural extremes in the Haredi parties and national-security extremes in Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit.
He has so far handled this dependence by giving them nearly everything they have demanded, apparently in the hope that this would buy his government some stability and political quiet. Not unexpectedly, it isn’t working.
Netanyahu’s vast concessions on economic and social issues, his grim stubbornness in advancing the judicial overhaul at lightning speed and with proposals even many in Likud view as extreme, have driven even many former supporters to start to question his ability to manage the government and the economy responsibly.
Over the past week, the premier’s attempt to steer his usual restrained line on security — but standing alongside a defense minister who he made more popular than himself when he fired him — showed that this loss of faith had begun to extend into the security realm.
As public trust plummets and the security situation worsens, Israelis have begun to notice Netanyahu’s aversion to convening the security cabinet, his dragged-out squabble with his defense minister, his formal outsourcing of security policy to his extreme-right flank, and then informal attempts to claw it back. In the end, many are concluding, he is performing on national security almost exactly as he’s performed on every domestic issue this government has touched in its 100-plus days of existence.
And into that vacuum of governance, the far-right, startled at finding itself suddenly responsible for its policies and actions, has begun to set its sights firmly on the IDF.
It is not hard to understand why. It is an irresistibly easy and simple solution: a little more pressure on Palestinians, a few more air strikes in Gaza or Syria, will yet deliver the long-absent triumph, or so runs the argument. And until that happens, blame can be shunted aside to someone else.
If Smotrich and Ben Gvir have their way, the next theater in the Netanyahu government’s never-ending political wars will be the army.
If that is indeed the plan, as far-right rhetoric increasingly seems to suggest, then they’d better get to it quickly. As that security cabinet missive inadvertently reminded everyone, the army remains by far the most trusted institution in Israeli public life, while this government is shedding that trust at lightning speed.
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