ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 63

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Analysis

Public trust in government scrapes bottom amid criticism for inadequate war response

Though Israel now has one of its largest cabinets ever, few of its 39 ministers are serving the country’s wartime needs, with most power centralized in Netanyahu

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Yahalom unit of the IDF's Combat Engineers, October 24, 2023 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Yahalom unit of the IDF's Combat Engineers, October 24, 2023 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Nineteen days into a war triggered by Hamas’s brutal October 7 terror attack on southern Israel, with the nation reeling from the horrific killings of some 1,400 people and abduction at least 224 more, and as the Israeli military prepares for a ground offensive in Gaza and potential escalation on the northern border, there is a new whisper of unity in Israeli society.

From coffeeshops to the front lines, many Israelis say they are unified on two things: they are convinced of the need to uproot Hamas, and they do not trust their own government to oversee the process.

That adds up to a deeply troubling, even terrifying scenario for the more than 350,000 reservists mobilized since the outbreak of war, the 150,000-180,000 standing army soldiers they are joining, and an Israeli society that will sacrifice to support them.

In media interviews, in (limited) demonstrations and in private conversations, many voice a crisis of faith citing the compound catastrophic failures of both government and security chiefs: first, in not preventing Hamas’s terrible attack in the first place; second, in the unbearably slow response of the security forces to the atrocities, which left unarmed civilians to fend for themselves in the face of marauding killers for long hours; third, in the slow and clumsy reservist call-up process that exposed shocking shortages in basic military equipment; and finally in the government’s sluggish civil response in support of those displaced by the fighting.

Such sentiments are backed up by numbers: New polling data shows that Israelis’ trust in government is at a 20-year low of 18%. Only 20.5% of Jewish Israelis and 7.5% of Arab Israelis polled by the Israel Democracy Institute in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack said they had trust in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. (In June, these populations polled at 28% and 18%, respectively.)

A photo hangs on a refrigerator next to bullet holes in a house at Kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel, October 21, 2023, after it was targeted in the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group’s deadly onslaught on October 7. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Faith in the security forces and in the media, by contrast, has increased, despite the military’s central role in the failure. Jewish Israelis’ trust in the Israel Defense Forces rose by 2.5% to 87% and Arab Israeli trust similarly increased, by 2% to 23%.

At least seven senior Israeli officials have publicly taken blame for the state’s failure to protect its citizens, including the IDF chief of staff, the defense minister, the head of the Shin Bet, and the head of the National Security Council. Former prime minister Naftali Bennett, who has been out of office for more than a year, has said he has a share of the blame. Notably missing is Netanyahu, who has also failed to interact with the public beyond videos, public appearances with visiting world leaders at which he does not take questions, and PR photo ops with the troops.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Yahalom unit of the IDF’s Combat Engineers, October 24, 2023 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

But blame-taking is not Israelis’ biggest gripe. Rather, to many, the government has exacerbated its October 7 failure by inadequately responding to the aftermath.

On Sunday, the mayor of the rocket-blasted city of Netivot, considered a traditional stronghold for Netanyahu’s Likud party, sent the prime minister a letter accusing the government of “abandoning” his municipality. It was the latest in a growing chorus of criticism that has cracked even Likud’s famously loyal base.

The remains of Kibbutz Be’eri, destroyed by Hamas attack on October 7, photographed on October 20, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

It took Netanyahu a week to first visit attacked communities, and eight days to meet with families of Hamas’s hostages. The process for negotiating their release remains opaque, even after four were released by Hamas in recent days, with the terror group citing “humanitarian” considerations. Israel’s involvement in those releases is reported to have been minimal.

At the same time, the coalition’s clumsy handling of hostages’ families has also received intense attention, with many relatives complaining they have had hardly any contact from government representatives.

In the first chaotic days following the disaster, civil society and private individuals stepped into the vacuum, organizing open-source and cellphone-based tracking of missing family members, with hopes of finding clues as to their current or last-known whereabouts.

With reports continuing to flow in about the Israel Defense Forces’ shortages of proper equipment to protect its reservists, Israelis and Diaspora Jews are filling the gap, pumping money, bulletproof vests and other needed supplies into the army units.

On the civil front, the government’s anemic response to the immediate needs of what has now grown to over 200,000 internally displaced Israelis has been stop-gapped by volunteers arranging clothing, food, and basic necessities.

Israelis load their belongings onto a bus as they evacuate from the southern Israeli town of Sderot, Oct. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Over 15,000 volunteers have gathered at a makeshift operations center in Tel Aviv, many of them organizing through the same civil society network that only weeks ago was directing its energies towards fighting the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul bid. With the outbreak of war, some of the loudest voices in that movement, such as the Brothers in Arms reservist protest, immediately shifted to organizing logistics for civil response.

Before the government decided in recent days to shutter its flagging Public Diplomacy Ministry, the public body only recently established to communicate Israel’s narrative abroad, the ministry had failed to release any explanatory materials, and its minister quit six days into the war.

Civil society again moved to plug the hole, with ad hoc operations rooms being formed to handle Israeli public relations and create content.

A government that wasn’t built to function

The cabinet’s poor wartime response is a reflection of the fact that this government was built last December out of necessity, not desire, say coalition politicians behind closed doors. Determined to return to power, and having burned his centrist and moderate right-wing political alliances during the five election cycles Israel held within four years, Netanyahu allied his right-wing Likud party to two far-right and two ultra-Orthodox partners.

Likud and its partners have called themselves natural allies, and have spoken about their union as an ideologically “full-on right-wing government.” But it was the most hardline coalition Netanyahu has ever led in his 16 years in Israel’s top job, and to manage it, he situated himself as a decision-making gatekeeper on top of committees and appointments.

Netanyahu aimed to oversee Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s second appointment as an independent minister in the Defense Ministry, to supervise Jewish supremacist Avi Maoz’s controversial role overseeing Jewish national identity, and to chair a new socioeconomic task force — a role he only relinquished to Smotrich after it was rebranded last week as a wartime economic force.

Furthermore, Netanyahu broke apart and redistributed various departments of ministries and authorities, creating overlapping and illogical ministerial hierarchies and responsibilities. At the time of the government’s formation, a Likud adviser privately described it as a strategy that ultimately referred vast power back to the prime minister.

Redistributing power

Nearly a week into the war, Netanyahu accepted an offer from centrist opposition figure Benny Gantz to bring his National Unity party into an emergency government. This move created a small war cabinet on which Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister, now sits with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

This shifted influence away from Netanyahu’s broader security cabinet, a body that he has barely relied upon — reportedly, among other reasons, because he cannot trust far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to not leak details of its discussions.

The security cabinet, by law, must include Israel’s finance and national security ministers, positions that Netanyahu awarded to far-right party heads Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

Bringing Gantz into the government and creating the war cabinet further devolved power away from the broader, now 39-minister government and placed it in a small number of hands, among them Netanyahu’s.

It also diluted the influence of far-right parties in the broader cabinet, by adding five new, portfolio-less ministers from Gantz’s National Unity who will be a counterweight to the six far-right ministers’ votes.

Minister Benny Gantz seen during a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

However, even this cabinet is firmly under Netanyahu’s control, with Gantz reportedly prevented from holding independent meetings with military brass without Netanyahu’s approval.

The situation echoes a previous, peacetime arrangement, whereby all cabinet members were told to hold off on traveling to the US to meet their counterparts until the White House thawed its cold shoulder and acquiesced to a summit between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden. This eventually happened on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Even within their spheres of interest, ministers are barely operating.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, has been largely silent in foreign media, and is not known to have made any trips abroad to solicit international support for Israel since war broke out until he appeared at the United Nations Security Council on Monday, day 18 of the war.

In two months, Energy Minister Israel Katz is scheduled to rotate into this sensitive position, based on an arrangement designed to appease him when Israel’s 37th government was finalized last December.

Ben Gvir has worked to arm civilian frontline defense organizations, but has also invested energy in politicking, demanding the broadening of the narrow war council created precisely to exclude his influence.

Most cabinet members have been noticeably absent from the war effort, apart from taking intermittent trips to visit evacuated families, attend funerals, and tour the destruction of Israel’s south.

National Security Itamar Ben Gvir during visit to southern Tel Aviv, September 3, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Monday, Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that three unidentified members of Netanyahu’s cabinet were considering resigning in response to the government and security establishment’s failure to prevent October 7, as well as its handling of the aftermath. Likud advisers dismissed the reports when queried by The Times of Israel.

As finance minister, Smotrich is the most active minister outside the war cabinet, working on a plan to keep Israel’s economy moving during hostilities. He has, however, faced considerable criticism for not supplying solutions that will actually prop up the economy and its most vulnerable workers.

On Monday, Economy Minister Nir Barkat told the Knesset committee debating Smotrich’s emergency plan that he had already warned Smotrich during a previous cabinet meeting that his plan was not good.

“The Finance Ministry’s budget department time and time again thinks in a treasurer’s way and not in a business way,” Barkat told the Knesset’s Economic Committee. “The experience that the business sector has is greater than the experience of budget department personnel, who don’t even know how to issue an invoice,” Barkat quipped, saying that the plan does not answer business needs.

The finance minister has also promised to reevaluate the budget in light of the war. However, an open question remains as to whether Smotrich will ultimately redistribute billions of shekels in frozen coalition funds to the war effort, diverting them away from mainly ultra-Orthodox special interests.

Rather than directing money away from funding political promises, Hebrew media has reported, ministries might face another across-the-board shave in order to cover wartime priorities.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 20, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Miri Regev has at least liaised with Israeli airlines in order to increase flight frequency and to make evacuation flights from Turkey cheaper, after Israel upped its travel warning to its highest state of alert.

The Knesset, in a marked change from peacetime, is an island of political tranquility. Getting over a quick reversion to political theater on its opening day last Monday, when the opening session was also interrupted by rocket alerts, cross-aisle politicians have agreed to limit the use of parliamentary tools to advancing wartime interests, rather than engage in political stunts.

This agreement is in line with Netanyahu’s deal to bring Gantz into the government, whereby parliament would only focus on critical, emergency legislation unless approval is granted by both leaders.

This, in turn, has sidelined coalition members’ ambitions to advance the judicial overhaul and to legislate sweeping military exemptions for Torah scholars.

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