Ceasefire puts Netanyahu on the defensive, but he likely won’t have to worry come January

In first poll after truce with Hamas, Likud-Beytenu is sliding while Labor gains. But can Yachimovich’s party, lacking in military credibility, turn public disappointment over Pillar of Defense into political gain?

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem on November 22, 2012. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem on November 22, 2012. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to widen the Gaza offensive has put the prime minister on the defensive, a stance he will likely have to maintain for the coming days, and maybe weeks.

The rockets have stopped and Hamas has been dealt a severe blow, but in Israel bitterness is growing over the decision to agree to a ceasefire before launching a ground operation, as many had wished, to ostensibly “clean up” Gaza’s terrorism once and for all.

Indeed, the first poll released after the end of the offensive shows the united Likud-Beytenu list, headed by Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, taking a serious hit, while second-placed Labor remains strong.

With two months to go, though, before January 22’s polling day, the downturn is likely temporary, brought on by disappointment over the purported fruitlessness of Operation Pillar of Defense. After Israel has voted, Netanyahu will likely find himself staying put in the Prime Minister’s Residence.

At the beginning of the Gaza offensive, it seemed Israel had learned lessons from previous military campaigns: the international community firmly supported Israel’s right to defend its citizens, the hasbara (public diplomacy) apparatus worked fine, the number of civilian casualties was kept low.

All large parties in the Knesset put their election campaigns on hold and supported the government’s resort to force. But as the days went by, the wind at the prime minister’s back died down. The right flank demanded the IDF put boots on the ground to wipe out Hamas with a thorough ground operation. The left wanted to see an immediate ceasefire.

Netanyahu opted for the ceasefire, deeply disappointing Israel’s security hawks who felt that if Hamas remained in power, it would be able to rearm soon enough and that Operation Pillar of Defense hadn’t achieved anything after all.

The prime minister is aware that many Israelis, and especially the pool of potential Likud voters, are frustrated, and that he now needs to justify his decision or see some supporters drift toward alternative parties, including those to the right of Likud.

“I know that there are citizens who expected an even-sharper response. We are prepared for this as well. Just as we did during this operation, we will decide when and how to act, and against whom,” Netanyahu said Thursday at the National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem. “This [ceasefire] is the right thing to do for the State of Israel at this time, but we are also prepared for the possibility that the ceasefire will not be upheld, and we will know how to act if need be.”

At about the same time as he spoke at the police station, approximately a dozen Israelis gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence to protest the fact that, as they saw it, Netanyahu had let Hamas off the hook.

A little earlier, a group of IDF soldiers, apparently frustrated about Netanyahu’s hesitance to send them into battle, lay on the ground for a rebellious photo shoot and arranged their bodies to spell out the Hebrew words “Bibi [is a] loser.”

Soldiers use their bodies to spell 'Bibi [is a] loser' Thursday (photo credit: screen capture/Facebook)
IDF soldiers using their bodies to spell ‘Bibi [is a] loser,’ November 22, 2012. (photo credit: screen capture/Facebook)
Before the ceasefire was even official, groups of demonstrators had gathered in several cities in the south, chanting, “The people demand quiet in the south.”

By taking the slogan of last year’s social protest movement — “The people demand social justice” — and turning it into a rallying cry for tougher military action in Gaza, were they reflecting a changing theme for the upcoming elections? The left wing had been looking forward to directing the national conversation toward the high cost of living, sharing the national burden and getting the ultra-Orthodox to enlist and to join the workforce, while Netanyahu wanted security considerations to take center stage.

And were elections held this week, security would indeed be the central issue, but it would not work in Netanyahu’s favor.

Before the offensive started, Netanyahu was leading comfortably in every opinion poll; it seemed a matter of course that he would head the next government. Did he shoot himself in the foot when he OK’d the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari and started the eight-day campaign?

The first poll published after the ceasefire went into effect seems to support that assessment: It predicted merely 33 seats for Likud-Beytenu, nine seats less than Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu parties had together in the outgoing Knesset. In three polls conducted while the operation was still ongoing, their joint list still had scored between 38 and 41 seats.

Labor, on the other hand, stayed strong in the polls. The surveys taken during the Gaza offensive predicted 21 or 22 seats, and Thursday’s poll, which was conducted for and broadcast by TV’s Knesset Channel, even gives the party 24 seats.

Common wisdom says that, in times of war, people lean to the right. To some extent, that is true now as well. Thursday’s poll sees the far-right Jewish Home and National Union parties, which are running on a united ticket under former Netanyahu aide Naftali Bennett, getting 13 seats. (In the outgoing Knesset, they had seven seats together.)

A new party, Power to Israel, headed by far-right-wingers Michael Ben-Ari and Aryeh Eldad, would win four seats, according to the Knesset Channel poll.

He might be called a “loser” now, but Netanyahu will most likely be reelected, nonetheless. Hawkish voters disappointed about the meager outcome of Operation Pillar of Defense will not flock to the left or even centrist parties. According to Thursday’s poll, overall, the right-wing bloc still triumphs handily over the center-left wing bloc, with 69 versus 51 seats.

Labor party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)
Labor party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

What about Labor? Some analysts predict that the center-left party and its chairwoman, Shelly Yachimovich — not Netanyahu — will be the big losers of Operation Pillar of Defense. Rocket alerts and terrorism returned to Tel Aviv, and having security issues on the agenda is bad news for a party not seen as particularly strong in these areas.

While Yachimovich enjoys considerable credibility on socioeconomic issues, her list of candidates for the 19th Knesset does not feature anyone with bona fide security credentials.

Uri Sagi, a former head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, had originally planned to run for a spot on Labor’s list, but he stepped out of the race after reports of allegations of sexual misconduct appeared. (Former defense minister and Labor MK Amir Peretz was received like a war hero in the south this week, due to his role in the creation of the Iron Dome missile defense system. He will probably do well in the party’s primaries on November 29, but his lack of senior military background and role in the 2006 Lebanon War debacle work against him.)

Yachimovich argues that security credentials are not everything. “Look what’s happening in politics today: You have two highly decorated generals, Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz, and both won’t cross the electoral threshold,” she said Thursday. “And then you have me, who was [merely] a first lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force. And the party I head has massive support that will get us more than 20 seats.”

Defense Minister Barak (Independence) and opposition leader Mofaz (Kadima) are both former IDF chiefs of staff heading parties that will barely make it into the Knesset — if at all — according to current polls.

Yachimovich has a point: Israelis don’t make their vote contingent only on a candidate’s army credentials. Yair Lapid, a former journalist, is also no general, but will likely end up with a healthy number of Knesset seats. Still, Labor’s security vacuum is sure to cost it support.

Operation Pillar of Defense will be dissected non-stop — hailed by some and condemned by others — during the next few weeks, as the campaign gets into gear again after the war-imposed eight-day hiatus. But it may not be a big game-changer.

It is natural that polls fluctuate during, and right after, a war. Surveys and anti-government demonstrations reflect the current mood of the people. But there are two months left before voters actually head to the polls. If the ceasefire with Hamas holds for that long, so will Netanyahu’s comfortable lead.

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