by Ben Sales
TEL AVIV (JTA)— Israel’s war is over, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fight may only have just begun.
The past month has seen Netanyahu’s approval rating plummet, according to polling by Israel’s Channel 2. On July 23, about a week after Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza, the television station reported his approval rating as 82 percent. Given the fractious political climate in Israel, it was an impressive achievement.
It wouldn’t last long. Two weeks later his approval rating was 63 percent. By Monday, Aug. 25, on the eve of the ceasefire going into effect, it was at 38 percent, with a full half of the country disapproving of his performance. And a day after the truce it was down to 32 percent with 59 percent disapproving.
The steep drop may reflect a measure of public disappointment in Netanyahu’s handling of the conflict. Throughout the fighting, his supposed allies on the right lambasted Israel’s indirect negotiations with Hamas and accused the prime minister of being unwilling to depose the organization. Meanwhile, the left called for a broader diplomatic initiative to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“When you want to beat a terror organization, you defeat it,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the hawkish Jewish Home party, said on Aug. 19. “When you hold negotiations with a terror organization, you get more terror. Sooner or later Israel will have to defeat Hamas, there’s no way to avoid it.”
But political analysts say that despite the criticism, Netanyahu’s job is probably safe, noting that no other Israeli politician is strong enough to build a rival coalition.
Plus, they say, a leader’s approval ratings often fall in the aftermath of conflict. Case in point: At the beginning of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a 73 percent approval rating. By the war’s end it was at 29 percent.
“It’s always this way in war,” says Gideon Rahat, a political science professor in Israel. “In the beginning everyone is supportive, and then the support falls. This is not exceptional. Strategically he goes to the center. That may help him unless there’s an alternative to the right.” Throughout the 50 days of conflict, Netanyahu aimed above all to project strength, determination and measured stewardship of the fighting. The goal, as he told his Cabinet, was “to restore quiet and security to you and to all Israeli citizens.”
In July, it seemed, most Israelis thought he was succeeding.
After Hamas either rejected a series of cease-fire proposals or broke actual truces, Netanyahu sent ground troops into Gaza to destroy the Hamas tunnel network—something many Israelis saw as a critical threat to the country. Two days after the July 23 poll showed 82 percent support, Netanyahu rejected U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s cease-fire attempt, which did not include Israel’s core demand to disarm Hamas.
By Aug. 5, when Netanyahu registered the 63 percent rating, Israelis were becoming more skeptical. Israel was withdrawing troops from Gaza and entering a three-day cease-fire with Hamas — even negotiating with it (albeit indirectly) in Cairo. Yes, Israeli soldiers were back home and tunnels had been destroyed, but nothing was in place to stop Hamas from firing again.
Hard-line members of Netanyahu’s coalition continued to call for a much stronger Israeli attack on Hamas. The left, meanwhile, wanted Netanyahu to re-engage with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in broader Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Netanyahu did neither.
“The diplomatic agreement shouldn’t be with Hamas,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the center-left Hatnua party, told Channel 2 on Aug. 8. “It should be against Hamas. We do want to get to an agreement, but not with those who shoot at us—[rather] with those who don’t use violence.”
And by Monday, Aug. 25, when the 38 percent approval rating came out, weeks of negotiations with Hamas had yielded nothing. Meanwhile, rocket fire from Gaza had restarted and a 4-year-old boy from Israel’s embattled South had been killed.
Far from acquiescing to demands from right or left, Netanyahu held a news conference to tell them all to be quiet.
“There’s opposition from the left that we need a comprehensive agreement rather than having small wars, and there’s opposition from the right that says he should have made broader military moves to conquer Gaza,” Rahat says. “He’s in the middle.”
For Netanyahu, rivals pushing him in different directions is nothing new.
In the first year of his coalition government, his coalition partners to the right and left—Bennett and Livni, respectively—had taken the lead on many of the government’s major initiatives. Livni, for example, led the first substantive talks with the Palestinian Authority since 2008, while Bennett pushed a series of parliamentary measures on religion- state reforms.
If the present calm holds, Netanyahu’s poll numbers may rise again. But politically, it’s a particularly bad time for him to be unpopular. His Likud party split with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu in the period leading up to the war, then lost another Knesset seat when a lawmaker who left to be ambassador to UNESCO, the cultural and scientific arm of the United Nations, was replaced by a Yisrael Beiteinu member.
Likud now has 19 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, tying it with the centrist Yesh Atid and making it the smallest ruling party in Israeli history.
But as long as Netanyahu stakes out centrist positions, says Bar-Ilan University political science professor Shmuel Sandler, he shouldn’t have to worry.
“In any democracy, you can’t come to lead without the center, so that’s the best place to be,” Sandler says. “The course he has taken was very centrist, not right and not left. And from that perspective he’s the only candidate that can hold a coalition that can govern.”