At the height of Israel’s first Lebanon war in 1982, Amiram Nir, the Israeli officer and journalist who went on to serve as the prime minister’s counterterrorism adviser and later died in a mysterious plane crash, coined the phrase: “Quiet, we’re shooting.”
Nearly all of Israel’s normally feisty and irreverent media observe this rule at times of war or during a major military operation. While soldiers are falling on the battlefield, criticism of the government is largely muted. Public opinion likewise falls in line and the prime minister and other civilian and military leaders receive levels of approval in the polls they could only dream of during peacetime.
It all ends come the ceasefire or when an operation gets bogged down into a lengthy war of attrition. Israelis have extremely high expectations, bordering on the unrealistic, from their army and intelligence services and for more than four decades have punished the politicians for any perceived shortcomings — as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is learning now. He has taken a nosedive in the latest polls and received a bashing from the Israeli media over the past week.
Only three weeks ago, 77 percent of Israelis responded to a poll commissioned by the Haaretz newspaper saying they were satisfied with the way Netanyahu was conducting the Gaza offensive. A day after the ceasefire on Tuesday last week, he had already lost a third of that and was down to 50 percent. In another poll carried out for Channel 2, Netanyahu’s fall was even more dramatic, his approval rating descending in the space of a month from a high of 82 percent to only 32 percent this week. He is not the first Israeli leader to suffer such a reversal.
Israel successfully fought off a surprise attack on two fronts from Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but public anger over the intelligence failure forced then-Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and then-defense minister Moshe Dayan to resign and set the scene for the end of the Labor movement’s 29 years in power. In 1982 the Israeli army dislodged the Palestine Liberation Organization from its bases, but the continued bloodletting led to former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s resignation and total withdrawal from public life, as well as an end to the first period of the Likud party’s dominance in Israeli politics. During both these wars the leadership enjoyed wide support from media and public, only to plunge into a trough in the aftermath.
Military setbacks were never the sole reason for changes in political fortunes — financial crises and corruption scandals played a major part as well. However, the anticlimax, following the euphorically high ratings while the guns are blazing, sets in motion an immediate and steep decline. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was ultimately brought down by allegations of bribe-taking, but it was the second Lebanon war, perceived by most Israelis as ending in a stalemate with Hezbollah, that cast a permanent pall over the rest of his term.
It is not a phenomenon unique to Israel. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s landslide defeat in the 1945 general election, less than two months after VE Day, remains the prime historical example of the way a wartime leader can swiftly lose public support. Former US president George H.W. Bush also failed to win a second term in 1992 despite the success of the first Gulf War. However, in Israel, with its frequent bouts of warfare, it has become a pattern.
In addition to the dire polls, the Israeli media, largely supportive of Netanyahu throughout the 50-day military operation, have also piled in, with commentators on almost every channel and newspaper — with the exception of the Israel Hayom freesheet owned by Netanyahu’s US backer and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — excoriating the prime minister for having lost the initiative throughout, allowing Hamas to dictate nearly every stage of the crisis and finally accepting a ceasefire agreement that contains no assurances against future rocket launches from Gaza or mention of a demilitarization of the Palestinian organizations — a demand repeatedly raised by Netanyahu throughout the crisis.
Westerners viewing the conflict through the prism of international media might be surprised that the heavy toll in Palestinian casualties and destruction of thousands of buildings in Gaza barely features in local criticism of the government. Many observers have also noted quite correctly that if any side has come off worse in the confrontation, it was Hamas, which for all the devastation in Gaza has achieved none of its demands save for a return to the agreements achieved in 2012 and a vague commitment to address its demands in a further round of talks next month. However, that is not the Israeli perspective.
The majority of Israelis say that their army acted with restraint and that the blame for civilian casualties lies squarely with Hamas, which launched its rockets from heavily built-up areas. They blame Netanyahu for not using the military might at his disposal to achieve either the toppling of the Hamas government in Gaza or extracting firm commitments to dismantle its rocket arsenal. As Israelis see it, life in much of their country was brought to a standstill for seven weeks, residents of the kibbutzim around Gaza were forced to flee and 71 soldiers and civilians were killed for no gain.
Now they are back where it all started, with no guarantee that another round will not take place very soon. They see no one else to blame for that except the prime minister. He had their support while the fighting was ongoing — now that he failed to deliver any tangible result, he has lost it.
This does not spell political demise for Netanyahu quite yet. The ray of light for the prime minister in the polls is that there is still no alternative on the horizon to his position. In the Haaretz poll, 42 percent of Israelis still see him as the most suitable candidate for the job. His closest rival, Labor’s lackluster leader Yitzhak Herzog, polled only 12 percent, while his challengers from the far-right, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, each received 11 percent and are deemed as too extreme by three-quarters of the electorate.
Most Israelis do not love or revere Netanyahu and are deeply disappointed with the outcome of the war. If there was on the horizon a leader they felt was competent enough to replace him, he or she would have a good chance in the next elections. However, for now there is no one.
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