Analysis

Netanyahu is unpopular at home. But not for the reasons US lawmakers are turning on him

Most Israelis support their PM’s overarching goals in Gaza over Biden’s, but they don’t necessarily agree with the way he is pursuing victory, and some want early elections

File - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left), a New York Democrat, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Feb. 23, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/Israel Government Press Office)
File - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left), a New York Democrat, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Feb. 23, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/Israel Government Press Office)

JTA — In their escalating criticism of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, Democratic leaders have trained their fire on one man: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden said the way Netanyahu was conducting the war was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the standard-bearer for progressives in Washington, said on Tuesday that “the US should not provide another nickel for Netanyahu’s war machine.”

And last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, went even further, calling for new elections in Israel and saying explicitly that “the Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7.” He called Netanyahu an “obstacle to peace” who has “lost his way.”

In response, over and over, Netanyahu has insisted that when it comes to the war, he is pursuing policies supported by a substantial majority of Israelis.

“You can go into any cab, go into a shopping mall, walk on the street and talk to people, and the great majority will tell you that they support… the goals that the government has set,” he told the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) this week. “The description is you have an outlier prime minister with some extreme fringe groups and that’s what’s driving the policy. False.”

According to polls, he’s right. On the main points of contention between Biden and Netanyahu when it comes to the war, most Israelis support their prime minister’s policies over the US president’s.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on October 18, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

But most Israelis also agree with Schumer that there should be early elections in Israel. And just because Israelis back the overarching goals Netanyahu has set in Gaza doesn’t mean they back him: Netanyahu’s approval rating in Israel has plummeted and polls have consistently shown that if early elections were to be held, his party would lose seats in the Knesset and his coalition would be soundly defeated.

In addition, polls show that Israelis don’t necessarily agree with the way Netanyahu is pursuing victory in Gaza — or trust him to be a steward of the national interest.

“There’s a rally around the flag for the war effort but a deep resentment against the government,” Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst and a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said in an interview. “We have a lot of research showing very clearly that the majority of Israelis think that his considerations regarding the war, his decision making, is tainted by politics.”

In recent weeks, Biden and Netanyahu have clashed over two main issues. One is whether Israel should invade Rafah, the city in southern Gaza that is crowded with refugees, but that Netanyahu says Israel must enter in order to defeat Hamas. The other is over a long-standing divide between Netanyahu and Democratic presidents: whether Israel should agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

On both questions, Israelis agree with Netanyahu: A poll last month by the Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis say Israel should “expand its military operations into Rafah.” A separate February poll by IDI found, by the same token, that 55% of Israelis oppose Palestinian statehood, compared to 37% who support it.

Shira Efron, the senior director of policy research for the Israel Policy Forum, a US group that advocates for a two-state outcome, said outright advocacy for Palestinian statehood would not fly right now in Israel, where she is based.

“For Israelis, the talk about a two-state solution now sounds tone-deaf and a reward for terrorism,” Efron told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Activists chain themselves together as they block a road outside the Knesset in Jerusalem during a protest against the current Israeli government, March 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Schumer, a longtime pro-Israel stalwart who is the most senior Jewish elected official in US history, understands that his position in favor of two states is not where Israelis are. He said that perpetual Israeli control of the Palestinians “guarantees certain war forever” but acknowledges that there are Israelis who fear that a Palestinian state “might tolerate or be a harbor for further terrorism against a Jewish state.”

Schumer took heat in particular for his call for early Israeli elections — which many Jewish groups and Israeli figures, including Netanyahu rivals, saw as inappropriate meddling in the internal affairs of a democratic ally.

But according to surveys, that’s what Israelis want too. An IDI poll in January, echoing other surveys, found that 71% of Israelis want the vote to be moved up — split between those who would have them held during the war and those who want them held once the war ends.

Only 21% of respondents want the elections to be held when they are currently scheduled, in late 2026.

In a recent interview with Netanyahu, CNN anchor Dana Bash cited polls that show Israelis want elections “when the war winds down.” Netanyahu, usually in his element in TV interviews, appeared to be stumped and was silent for a few seconds.

“We’ll see when we win the war,” he said.

Netanyahu’s popularity was already flagging before the war due to his controversial effort to weaken Israel’s judiciary. Efron said the failure to prevent Hamas’ invasion on Oct. 7 compounded his unpopularity and eroded Israelis’ trust that he can keep them safe — one of the main messages throughout his career.

Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on September 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

“Oct. 7 is the most catastrophic event that Israel has faced since its creation and it was under Netanyahu’s watch,” she said. “Israel’s security doctrine failed on all levels — there was no deterrence, no alert/warning and no defense. The government, his government, fails to address the needs of those hurt most — victims of the Hamas pogrom, hostages and their families, and those tens of thousands evacuated from their homes.”

In addition, critics say his government has not sufficiently mounted a recovery effort after the attack, and a movement led by relatives of Israeli hostages has been staging protests against him, calling on him to make a greater effort to free their loved ones.

A January poll by Israel’s Channel 13 found that 55% of Israelis say Netanyahu’s decisions are driven primarily by personal interests, while 33% believe he prioritizes what is best for the country.

But Michael Makovsky, the president of the conservative Jewish Institute for the National Security of America, said taking on Netanyahu when he has more than two years left in his term — enough time to recover — was a bad bet, despite what polls say now. Netanyahu has served as prime minister longer than any other leader in Israel’s 75-year history.

At present, Makovsky noted, Netanyahu has a solid majority of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, backing him. For elections to be moved up, that would have to change.

“He’s the democratically elected prime minister, number one,” he said. “And number two, I don’t think a lot of people made a lot of money, or any money betting against Bibi Netanyahu politically. People have this idea that there’s going to be elections right after the war is over. I have no idea if that’s true.”

But given what surveys say now, Scheindlin said Schumer seemed to be leveraging Netanyahu’s dismal standing in order to pitch policies that Israelis are not yet on board with — such as moving toward a Palestinian state.

“It seems to me that he was doing what a good leader should do, which is read the surveys, understand them, but not be completely beholden to them,” she said.

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