Netanyahu After the War: Less Popular, but Still Unchallenged

As Haaretz's latest poll showed, the prime minister's ratings took a hit now that the ash and dust have settled. But for now, even those who would like to replace him will remain his cabinet colleagues.

Michal Fattal

The words were words of victory, security, hardheaded realism. The body language bespoke weariness, exhaustion, lassitude. Bags under the eyes and a near closing of the eyelids on live television. That was what the chieftains of the war looked like in the press conference they held on Wednesday evening, a little over 24 hours after the cease-fire came into effect.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the wizard of public diplomacy, the polished speaker, the marketing master who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee on every podium – barely eked out a faint smile on his lips, as he heaped sarcasm on the pathetic celebrations of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was ashen gray. His comments were a masterpiece of vagueness and a sort of opium for the masses. But he looked like a young Mick Jagger on stage when compared to the drowsy, anti-charismatic show put on by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who only by some kind of a miracle avoided making thousands of drivers tuned in by radio nod off simultaneously on the roads.

The battle over the public’s consciousness and for control of the narrative never appeared so droopy, even though the facts on the ground say otherwise.

No one need envy this trio their 50 sleepless nights, and the critical dilemmas and wrenching decisions they faced. They had to cope with tremendous political pressures, with some urging them to send Israeli troops into the heart of densely populated, dangerous, booby-trapped Gaza, in order to achieve a deceptive goal of “eradicating” Hamas.

But the press conference was not without its satirical moments. Notable among them was Netanyahu’s explanation of why a democracy is incapable of “wiping out” a terrorist organization. “Even the United States, the strongest power of all, did not wipe out Al-Qaida,” he noted. He linked the idea of bringing about the collapse of Hamas, a well-worn slogan of his from past years, to demilitarization. In other words, collapse by agreement.

In the 2009 election campaign, Netanyahu was less rational when he vowed “to vanquish Hamas and let the IDF finish the job.” Since then he’s taken private civics lessons, and just as well, too. Israel doesn’t need militant, roaring, rash prime ministers. We have more than enough of those types in the cabinet, the security cabinet and the ruling party.

Netanyahu and Ya’alon emerged from the command center in the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv, looked around and discovered that their political situation is reasonable-plus. True, the Haaretz-Dialog poll supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University and published here on Thursday, shows a considerable decline in the amazingly high support they garnered during Operation Protective Edge, but the two, who have intertwined their political fates, are hanging in there pretty well.

Netanyahu has the support of 50 percent of the public for his conduct during the fighting in Gaza, while 42 percent support his suitability to be prime minister, according to the survey. Given the general disappointment and the collective grimace at the way the military campaign ended, he can be satisfied and emit a sigh of relief, while praying to the gods of public opinion that his decline in popularity will not continue – though that is far from certain.

Nevertheless, the premier can definitely be pleased about one critical fact: The 50-day operation did not produce a true alternative or generate a genuine challenger to him, certainly not in the foreseeable future. With all the troubles Netanyahu has – and he has a fistful – the leadership drought shows no signs of ending in the form of a deluge of suitable leadership candidates.

Netanyahu’s delight is the missed opportunity of Labor Party head and opposition leader, MK Isaac Herzog. Herzog behaved admirably during the operation: He acted civilly at the right times, was critical sometimes, backed the IDF and its commanders, flayed the security cabinet members who ran amok, supported the military moves, and consistently demanded that Netanyahu not lose sight of the diplomatic arena. He followed the book.

Still, Herzog made not the slightest political gain: Only 12 percent of the public considers him suitable to be prime minister, and his party continues to suffer from acute Knesset-seat anorexia – the equivalent of 14 seats in this week’s poll.

Labor is in crisis. On the eve of the primary in which Herzog defeated Shelly Yacimovich to become the party leader, a Haaretz-Dialog poll gave it 17 seats if elections were held then. Herzog promised to shatter that glass ceiling, but the current 14-seat prediction (which would be a drop from its current 15) is an optimal scenario for him: before Moshe Kahlon enters the arena, and with Yesh Atid, Meretz and Hatnuah weakened (relative to their situation in the Knesset and/or according to previous polls), and with no one sniping at him from within the party. For the time being.

Marriage of convenience

If there’s one thing the Gaza operation proved, it’s that this prime minister is incapable of working with some of his cabinet ministers – mainly Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads Habayit Hayehudi. For most of the fighting, they were in a state of lethal collision.

Authoritative sources close to Netanyahu said this week that he doesn’t think an early election is necessary, and that he intends to smooth things over with Bennett and Lieberman and the rowdies in Likud ahead of the Knesset’s challenge-filled winter session.

The most serious problem facing the prime minister currently is the state budget and Finance Minister Yapir Lapid’s floundering zero-VAT plan for first-time home buyers. (Incidentally, Lapid too emerges badly scathed from this week’s Haaretz survey, with 4 percent support as premiership material and 12 seats-worth of support for his party, before Kahlon has officially made his move). Lapid continues to insist on his zero-value added tax initiative and is threatening to dismantle the coalition if it’s not passed soon.

“Netanyahu,” a source in the prime minister’s circle said on Wednesday, “is not shrugging off this threat. He is backing the plan and has asked the relevant people in the coalition to promote it.” The source added: “There is currently a serious dispute between two schools of thought: that of the treasury and that of the Bank of Israel. Netanyahu will have to decide between the two contrary approaches in the days ahead.”

People with a musical bent could form the impression that the conductor is torn between his political baton – which pulls him in the direction of keeping the finance minister happy, because the fate of the coalition hinges on him – and the pure economic theory that Netanyahu believes in but whose implementation is liable to foment cacophony. His tendency will be to find an appropriate compromise. His aides think this is achievable, on the assumption that Lapid doesn’t really want to leave the coalition and bring about an early election, given his own poor showing in the polls.

The hammer blows that Netanyahu dealt Bennett and Lieberman – in his press conference last week, when he implicitly accused them both of hollow speech and irresponsible behavior; and in Wednesday’s press conference (“I don’t manage a country via populism and Facebook”) – apparently have not made much of an impression on them. Lieberman intends to carry on blasting the decisions of the regular cabinet and the security cabinet, in both of which he is a senior member, and to portray his prime minister as a hesitant, cowardly wimp. In this week’s Haaretz poll, his Yisrael Beiteinu party is holding steady with 11 seats, if an election were to be held now.

Bennett’s approach is different. He too lost no time in posting a series of festive, sentimental, patriotic, warm messages for the country’s soldiers and citizens. He reserved his verbal violence for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom he promised “to settle accounts.”

Bennett thus opted for a sure thing, knowing that a frontal assault on the prime minister is not what his constituency wants. So Bennett is focusing on the issues, though he has sniped at Netanyahu a little, and managed to make Lieberman look like more of a trouble-maker than he (Bennett) has been. And his approach is working: This week’s survey gives Habayit Hayehudi 17 seats, five more than what it has now, and second in size only to Likud (which gets 26 in the poll).

These developments make it extremely unlikely that Bennett will resign from the government. Sources in his circle say that he will stay on not only due to cold political calculations, but because “national responsibility” demands it. Leaving now, and bringing about the dissolution of the coalition, would serve up the “victory photo” Hamas sought for 50 days, in vain. Bennett will not be the one to hand the enemy a present like that.

As for Lieberman, God only knows – and even that’s not certain. Last week, he told Channel 2 that he does not intend to resign. If he sticks to that, then he, Bennett and Netanyahu are doomed to go on marching along their Via Dolorosa for some time to come. It’s a type of marriage of convenience, for the time being.

On the brink

Among the dozens or hundreds of security experts who came and went in the country’s television studios during the Gaza operation, one highly relevant seat was left empty: that of former Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin. Not that he kept mum – he wrote thousands of passionate, angry and infuriating words on his Facebook page and in the newspapers.

Yesterday, in an article in the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, he summed up Operation Protective Edge thus: “Israel is now being led by a limp leadership that is dictating diplomatic paralysis.” He called again, as he did in Haaretz on the eve of the newspaper’s peace conference in July, for a far-reaching diplomatic initiative that would make it possible for Israel to leverage the confrontation with Hamas from a situation of tactical stalemate between a strong country and a terrorist organization, into a “strategic knockout.”

Diskin’s approach is hawkish from the security standpoint and very dovish politically. That makes him a potential asset for a center-left party, from Meretz to Labor to Yesh Atid. After leaving the service, the last thing he considered was politics. He doesn’t appear to be made of the right stuff for the political arena, on top of which it’s been shown that Shin Bet chiefs who enter politics after their retirement are deeply frustrated when their ambitions, and their exaggerated self-assessments, are shattered against the rocks of political reality. Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon know this especially well.

Diskin founded a company for cyber warfare, which operates worldwide and is successful. Now, though, he is pondering whether to leave the business world he only recently entered and dive into the turgid political waters for which he feels only scorn. Casual approaches to the leaders of a few political parties in the center-left camp showed they would be very interested to have him among them.

The Haaretz poll, most of whose findings were published yesterday, also examined the public’s stand regarding Diskin’s possible entry into politics. The result is very flattering for him: Forty-one percent replied that they would see it as a “positive step,” 23 percent said it would be a “negative” development and 36 percent had no opinion. That’s a very convenient basis for the leap, if he decides to make it.

The security-diplomatic discourse is shaping up to be the main topic to expect on the agenda in the next election, which will be held at the beginning of 2016 at the very latest, according to all the assessments. Generals will be a valuable commodity. An interesting trivia note: In the past two decades, every second election has been marked with a security-diplomatic character. The previous one had a social-economic agenda, on the wings of which Yesh Atid was born.

The working assumption and prevailing consensus among political savants is that Likud and the right wing always come out ahead in security-diplomatic elections, and do poorly when the campaign is fought over socioeconomic issues. It’s the opposite, of course, for the left.

The big question is whether conventional wisdom will apply again next time. Will Netanyahu and Likud gain from a discourse about Hamas, the tunnels and all the other troubles, or will the next election be different?