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OPINION

Waning confidence. Despite its consensus on war with Hamas, Israeli society demands political reforms

Six months into Operation Iron Swords, the initially strong unity among Israelis around the actions of their country’s military and political leadership has shifted to heated internal debate. The discussion revolves around what steps to take next, what reforms ought to follow the defeat of the terrorists, and whether early elections should be held before the war ends. Political analyst and sociologist Zeev Hanin highlights a stark contrast: while public trust in the IDF remains unprecedentedly high, confidence in the government is waning. A significant portion of Israelis believe the government should resign once it has fulfilled its obligation to restore security.

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Sweeping change

While the Israeli public's stance on Hamas remains firm, two pressing questions have emerged: who ought to bear responsibility for the October 7 catastrophe, and who should be held accountable for the war's political outcomes?

The answer to the first question seems clear-cut: less than a week after the terrorist attack, close to 80% of Israelis had pinned blame on the government. However, they remained open to the possibility that the political leadership could still make up for the systemic fiasco that led to October 7, and for the failed “coexistence and containment strategy” pursued by Netanyahu's team for nearly a decade.

Time appears to have worked in the Prime Minister’s favor. According to a survey by 11KAN released at the end of March, 45% of respondents held Netanyahu responsible for failing to prevent the Hamas massacre, while 35% pointed fingers at IDF leaders and intelligence services (the head of military intelligence recently resigned), with 3% attributing blame to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. A similar poll by ITV in March revealed a comparable range of opinions: 44% blamed Netanyahu, 43% held the “Chief of Staff, head of military intelligence, and the army as a whole” accountable, with only 2% attributing responsibility to Gallant.

But a new political problem has emerged. The public expresses growing doubt as to whether Israel can achieve the war's objectives: the complete destruction of Hamas's military and civilian infrastructure, the safe return of Israeli hostages, and ensuring that the Gaza Strip will no longer serve as a staging ground for aggression against Israel. Their skepticism doesn't extend to the military, whose performance garners near-universal acclaim. Rather, it's directed at the political leadership's handling of the campaign, particularly its informational and diplomatic efficacy.

The performance of the military garners near-universal acclaim

According to an Israeli Democracy Institute's survey conducted in December and January, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) enjoyed a trust level of approximately 86.5%, while municipalities were trusted by 64% of respondents. The Supreme Court garnered 42% trust, with only 30% expressing confidence in the media. However, trust in the government stood at a mere 23%, with the Knesset (in its current composition) trusted by 24% of Israelis. One of the main grievances against the government was its failure to optimally utilize the resource of time, particularly the unprecedentedly extensive “hourglass of patience” that leaders of partner countries extended to the Jewish state in the immediate aftermath of October 7. In previous instances of counter-terrorist operations, Jerusalem typically received only a few weeks of Western goodwill with which to conclude them. In this case, the grace period lasted around three months. And yet the military operation was not completed within that critical time frame.

By early January, the Biden administration and European capitals had already begun expressing concerns that continuing military actions on the current scale would be excessive. According to the White House, Israel had “already achieved the political objectives of the military operation,” and thus it was time to “form an alternative Hamas government in the Gaza Strip through diplomatic negotiations.” Washington was displeased with the Israeli leadership's refusal to present a “next-day” plan that would follow the war's conclusion. In the absence of such a roadmap, Washington began to promote a counter-plan under which the wealthy Gulf oil monarchies would take on the mission of managing and rebuilding the Gaza Strip after Hamas's overthrow. Under this framework, the Palestinian National Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas (ousted from Gaza by Islamists in 2007) would become the formal sovereign on the Strip.

Washington was displeased with the Israeli leadership's refusal to present a “next-day” plan that would follow the war's conclusion

Netanyahu has opposed such a formula, fearing that the next step would entail resurrecting the idea of a Palestinian state and dealing with the corrupt and deteriorating regime of “secular Palestinian nationalists” from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. However, the motivations behind the Israeli government’s decision to escalate already difficult relations with Biden are rooted not so much in ideology or geopolitical ambition, but in domestic politics.

Firstly, Netanyahu is concerned that even symbolic support for the idea of a Palestinian state would alienate the radically right-wing faction of his already fragile governing coalition. Secondly, he is mindful of the deep disillusionment among Israeli Jews with the concept of resolving the conflict with Palestinian Arabs through the “two-state solution” model. In January, only 34% of respondents supported it — an all-time low, according to polling.

The “Rafiah Test”

Critics of the government argue that instead of capitalizing on American carte blanche, the Netanyahu administration squandered time and energy on an unproductive conflict with the U.S., leading America to abstain rather than vetoing an anti-Israel resolution in the UN Security Council. This shift was interpreted by over half of Israeli Jews and more than 40% of Arab citizens of Israel as “a departure from the unwavering support traditionally offered by Americans to Israel.” As a result, Israel, without reaping any diplomatic or strategic dividends, finds itself undertaking actions in Gaza that it neither anticipated nor prepared for, including withdrawing a significant portion of its troops from the sector and reducing the overall intensity of military operations. The two remaining brigades and IDF special forces, backed by aviation, are now conducting tactical military operations in the sector that are more reminiscent of IDF operations in Gaza before October 7, 2023 than of the full-scale assault that followed the terrorist attack.

Israel finds itself compelled to withdraw a significant portion of its troops from the Gaza Strip

Estimates suggest that up to 60% of Hamas fighters have been taken out of action, with the remaining militants hiding among civilians or in tunnels. While Washington voices interest in Hamas's destruction, it insists on a robust plan to address the resulting humanitarian crisis. This urgency is particularly acute in Rafah (known as Rafiah in Arabic), the southernmost city of the Gaza Strip. Rafah stands as the final bastion of organized Hamas resistance, with around a million residents and displaced persons acting as “human shields” for the militants’ last four more or less intact battalions.

In both the U.S. and Europe, there is opposition to Israel launching such an operation until the civilian population of Rafah can be safely evacuated. Biden's ultimatum to Netanyahu was explicit: “Protect civilians and humanitarian workers in Gaza, or face consequences.” Despite the insistence of Netanyahu and of Defense Minister Galant that the Rafah operation will proceed in any case, Israel is currently adhering to Washington’s demands.

Inside Israel itself, there are several competing explanations as to the reason for this compliance.

First, the Israeli government is striving to set the stage for resuming negotiations with Hamas in the hope of securing a hostage release on reasonable terms. However, Hamas consistently refuses to reach a deal while continually upping its demands. Hamas leadership sees negotiations as a tactic to buy time until Western pressure forces Israel to withdraw or to cease the operation. This strategy has partly succeeded: Israel has agreed to repatriate some displaced Palestinians to the northern sector and to exchange dozens of terrorists for each Israeli — alive or deceased — held by the Islamists. Each subsequent concession by Israel signals to Hamas that its pressure campaign is effective. Following the Middle Eastern model, Hamas believes that if concessions are made, they can demand ever more, thereby gradually shifting the narrative to the familiar “humanitarian problem of Gaza Arabs,” which is popular in left-progressive circles internationally.

Each subsequent concession by Israel signals to Hamas leaders that its pressure campaign on Israel is effective

Second, the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops is not directly linked to negotiations. The operation is multifaceted, involving troops leaving some areas while tactical units are deployed to others, including previously cleared locations that terrorist groups have re-occupied. This strategy aims to buy time to prepare for relocating residents from Rafiah/Rafah to another location and facilitating the return of Gazans to the northern sector. It is understood that among these mostly civilian groups there will nevertheless be numerous Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, but this fact will only provide an opportunity for the IDF to let the militants concentrate once again in order to “deal with them in one fell swoop.” While it's uncertain whether such a scheme could work, it does at least contain some underlying logic.

Third, with American elections looming in November, Joe Biden is not inclined to support Israeli actions that could escalate the conflict in the Middle East. Therefore, the problem lies with the Americans, who are allegedly hindering Israel from “finishing off Hamas” due to their own domestic political concerns.

Fourth, the Israeli leadership has come to realize that its military strategy and domestic political landscape are not entirely harmonized. Public confidence in the Prime Minister, his government, and the ruling coalition in the Knesset is notably low. In a March survey, 58% of respondents expressed the belief that “Netanyahu is unable to govern effectively,” while 50% anticipated the imminent resumption of anti-government demonstrations. Although initial protests of this nature were limited, journalist Tal Schneider suggests that “major protests have not yet started, but as activists demobilize, expansion can be expected.”

On March 31st, approximately 100,000 demonstrators gathered both at the Knesset and on the streets of Jerusalem in order to demand Netanyahu's resignation, early elections, and a resolution with Hamas for the release of 130 Israeli hostages. The prevailing sentiment is clear: the proportion of Israelis advocating for the immediate dissolution of the Knesset and early elections reached 44% in early April (one and a half times more than it had been two months before).

The proportion of Israelis advocating for the immediate dissolution of the Knesset and early elections reached 44% in early April

With the next round of scheduled elections not set to take place until October 2026, Israeli politicians have begun calling for the establishment of an early election date. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's primary rival in past (and likely future) contests, has already proposed holding an early vote in September. Other suggestions range from the end of 2024 to the beginning of 2025.

The idea of holding fresh parliamentary elections and forming a new government immediately after the conclusion of the war has reached near consensus levels. In practice, the electoral campaign is already underway, and it appears that even the ruling Likud party has come to terms with this reality. However, this doesn't sit well with the Prime Minister, as numerous public opinion polls indicate that in the event of early elections, his Likud bloc and its allies would face defeat. For instance, a poll from March showed that if elections were held at that moment, parties in the current opposition would secure 74 out of 120 parliamentary seats, while the current coalition would only manage 46. “Elections now” or “immediately after the war” leave Netanyahu with only two options: in the best-case scenario, he could still become the leader of the opposition; in the worst-case scenario, it would spell the end of his political career.

Thus Netanyahu is trying to persuade Israelis that holding elections would play into the hands of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. He argues that it would effectively paralyze the country “for at least six months” and halt negotiations for the release of hostages, all right before an anticipated victory. Thus, he asserts that the next parliamentary elections in Israel ought to stick to the plan — i.e., that there is no need to vote again until October 2026.

Fifth, Israel no less than Hamas seeks a respite and an opportunity to regroup. There is a strong possibility that neither the Iranians nor their allies will rally behind Hezbollah, and the dominance of Shiite Islamists is causing unease even within Lebanon itself. It is evident that neither Lebanese Christians nor Sunnis are enthusiastic about the prospect of Hezbollah turning Beirut into another Gaza Strip. In contrast, Hamas still enjoys considerable support among Gaza residents. A survey conducted in the sector during the week-long ceasefire at the end of November 2023 revealed an increase in sympathy for the group compared to the pre-war period. And with time, Gazans appear to have become even more accepting of the terrorist group’s methods. Initially, 57% of residents justified Hamas militants' October 7 rampage through Israeli border towns. By early March 2024, this figure had risen to 71%.

Israel, no less than Hamas, seeks a respite and an opportunity to regroup

In broader terms, Israel’s lack of progress in achieving its stated goal — swiftly and completely defeating Hamas, retrieving hostages, and ultimately “pacifying” Gaza — has forced Netanyahu’s team to consider alternative strategies. For instance, they might choose to present the indecisive outcome of Operation Iron Swords as but one battle in a larger war aimed at defeating the entire “axis of evil” comprising Iran, Hezbollah, and Tehran’s other satellites in the region.

If Israel ever does find itself confronting a full-scale war in the north, reducing the intensity of military operations in Gaza to redirect resources elsewhere would appear entirely reasonable. Under such circumstances, Israel could afford to temporarily shift focus away from Gaza, confident that it can return as needed. Regardless of how events unfold, Israel will maintain control over security in and around Gaza. And of course, in the interim, as these discussions continue, the current government can continue to function.

The bottom line

The prevailing sentiment in Israeli society over the past six months has been that Hamas must be dealt a decisive blow. There is a widespread belief that if this is not accomplished soon, another opportunity may not arise. The position is shared across the political spectrum, from the coalition to the opposition, within the government and among civil society. When Israeli leaders assert their readiness to engage in conflict with or without American support, it reflects the prevailing mood inside the country.

And yet, there is reluctance within Israeli society to embrace the current political leadership. Polling from March registered the approval rating of IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi at 55%; Defense Minister Yoav Gallant registered 46%; opposition figure Benny Gantz enjoyed 37.5% support; Netanyahu himself stood at just 32%. While there are still many who are willing to give the current leadership yet another chance to rectify the situation, the overwhelming majority believe that as soon as the goals of the military operation have been met, those who headed it should step down immediately. And then, of course, they should finally be compelled to answer the questions of an independent commission appointed to investigate who really is to blame for allowing the events of October 7.

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