The Paradox of Israel‘s Post-Gaza Election Polls
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University
As far as the Israeli public was concerned, the IDF’s latest war campaign in Gaza was a resounding success. A huge majority of (Jewish) Israelis supported the war in principle from the start, a similar majority still feels that the war was conducted in a professional manner (unlike the Second Lebanon War in 2006), and all three leaders – Defense Minister Barak, Foreign Minister Livni and PM Olmert – have seen their personal popularity ratings increasing significantly. The number of Israeli soldiers killed (10) was amazingly low, considering the nature of urban warfare, so even in this most vulnerable area of Israeli sensitivity, the campaign ended with very minimal harm to Israeli society.
As a result, one would have expected the election survey data taken immediately after the cessation of hostilities to show the electoral strengthening of the governing parties. Instead, the party that has increased its strength is the Likud! Such a counter-intuitive development demands explanation.
It seems to me that there are two different but complementary reasons for this “paradoxical” outcome. First, the “I told you so” factor. Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud party, has been arguing for several years that we will have to move into Gaza with military force to stop the missile attacks. The present Kadima-led government, especially, had been loath to do so, in large part due to the lack of army preparedness as exhibited in the Lebanon 2 campaign. This is not to say that the government was wrong to wait and try to exhaust all diplomatic channels before the incursion; it is to say that Netanyahu warned that diplomacy was not going to succeed when faced with an implacable enemy such as Hamas. So in a sense, to paraphrase the Bible: “the hand is the hand of Olmert (et al); the voice is the voice of Netanyahu”.
The second factor – and to my mind even more important – is the “conclusion” of the campaign. Israel has (hopefully) achieved all of its explicitly stated goals: stopping the smuggling of arms and cessation of rocket attacks for at least a year and perhaps more (a la Southern Lebanon, which has been quiet for 30 months, notwithstanding a couple of token missiles shot over the northern border during the Gaza campaign). However, precisely because Israel is facing an implacable enemy that in principle will not recognize the right of Israel to exist, the most recent polls also show that an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews feel that no matter how many Israeli soldiers died the war should not have been stopped at this stage but rather taken to its “logical” conclusion: the elimination and annihilation of the entire Hamas leadership. Given that with Hamas continuing at the helm, the missile attacks will sooner or later commence once again, the Israeli public wanted to see a strategic end to the Gaza problem and not merely a temporary, tactical one. However, as it is only the latter that the Olmert government achieved, Israelis are now turning to Netanyahu who will not make the same mistake if and when the IDF will once again have to fight in Gaza in the coming years.
Many pundits have suggested that the current Israeli government wanted to end the war before Obama’s inauguration as a sort of good will gesture to the new administration. I think that Israelachieved the opposite. Had the war continued another week or two and the Hamas leadership decimated, the Barack/Hillary team would have had a far easier time of it bringing some semblance of a genuine peace process to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. With Hamas remaining in power, they might well find themselves talking to a wall – a true Middle Eastern “Wailing Wall”. In such a situation, the Israeli public has more confidence in Netanyahu/Likud than in Livni/Kadima.
Jan. 28, 2009