Rather than bolster Benjamin Netanyahu in a “rally around the flag” effect, the October 7 attack on Israel has destroyed his standing with voters. Netanyahu’s political career, which has fundamentally reshaped Israeli society, may be effectively finished.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses media in Jerusalem on October 24, 2023. (Christophe Ena / AFP via Getty Images)
On its face, Hamas’s October 7 brutal attack on Israel might have been expected to shore up support for longtime right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Instead, polling suggests that Israelis overwhelmingly blame his government and would vote for the opposition if elections were held today.
Josh, aka Ettingermentum, is a graduate student and prolific political analyst whose Substack has quickly become among the most widely read of its kind. In the following interview, he joins Jacobin’s Luke Savage for a far-ranging discussion of his recent piece, “Life After Netanyahu,” the political origins of Israel’s current consensus, why this month’s violence represent an existential threat to Netanyahu’s entire political brand, and how Israel’s shifting political dynamics may impact the Palestinians. Their interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A Brief History of Electoral Politics
The jumping-off point of your recent analysis was the formative role of Benjamin Netanyahu in establishing and solidifying Israel’s long-standing political consensus — a consensus you argue was shattered by Hamas’s attack earlier this month. Before we come to recent events, how would you characterize Netanyahu’s significance in his country’s political history? And what would you say are the fundamental tenets of the consensus he’s synonymous with?
Netanyahu has been active, and relevant, in Israeli politics for a long time. He’s been the prime minister of Israel almost uninterrupted since 2009–2010. And that wasn’t his first time as prime minister. He was first elected in 1995, and he had been the leader of the right-wing, mainstream conservative party, Likud, since 1993. When he came to power, Israel was a very competitive two-party system between the center-left, traditionally dominant Labor party, and Likud: composed before Netanyahu mostly of former paramilitary members like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
Shamir is interesting. He was part of a group that admitted it was a terrorist group and was wanted by the British government before Israel was founded. Begin couldn’t visit some countries for a long period while he was an active Israeli politician.
So that was the state of the Likud party: they were very hard-line and violently opposed to not just the Arab existence in the country, but also the mindset of the more moderate labor Zionists who were traditionally dominant. Labor was backed by the Ashkenazi immigrant community and sort of tepidly supported by the Azi community, people who had lived in the Palestinian Territories and the Middle East before Israel was founded and across the Middle East.
Former prime minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir. (Yolene Haik / Wikimedia Commons)
Likud takes power in 1977, largely as a consequence of Israel’s initial failure in the Yom Kippur War, and then Netanyahu succeeds Shamir and becomes the leader of Likud in 1993. He’s a different kind of figure. He’s American-educated and lived in the United States for much of his life. He grew up in Philadelphia and worked at the Boston Consulting Group with Mitt Romney; he started his career as a foreign affairs guy who worked in the UN.
But he’s no less radical than his predecessors. He begins his career by virulently opposing the Oslo Accords. Infamously, he leads a number of marches where people call for Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin to be killed — and he’s actually approached by Israeli intelligence services, who said he needed to turn down his rhetoric because he was causing a security risk.
He completely ignored them and Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing lunatic in 1995, which basically leads to an election. At this period, Israel had directly elected prime ministers, and Netanyahu, by 1 percent of the vote, beats Rabin’s successor and longtime rival, Labor’s Shimon Peres. So he becomes prime minister in the immediate aftermath of the Oslo Accords in 1995 and immediately begins stalling the peace process. This becomes what he’s known for.
Netanyahu becomes prime minister in the immediate aftermath of the Oslo Accords in 1995 and immediately begins stalling the peace process.
He’s also one of the country’s leading economic liberals: Israel had a very regulated, more left-wing economy for much of its history, and he advocates privatization, deregulation, and neoliberalism. (It feels a little silly to talk about neoliberalism in a country where the top political issue is an ongoing occupation, but this has also been a major part of his career.) He flounders a bit when he’s prime minister, and in 1999, he loses to Ehud Barak, another Labor Party member (and former general).
Jumping ahead to 2009, the centrist Kadima party wins more seats, but Netanyahu and his coalition gets a majority. So he comes back, and you see the shift. After the Second Intifada [the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000], there’s this process of building the wall around the West Bank and Gaza — which was a major change in Israel’s security mindset. And then under Netanyahu, you see them really push to build the Iron Dome [Israel’s anti-missile system], with US money and supplies, and a total end of any official peace negotiations, which had still been ongoing, even during the [George W.] Bush administration.
President Bill Clinton with Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority in Oslo, Norway, November 1999. (Wikimedia Commons)
All of that ends with Netanyahu’s second term in office. He has an unstable government and has to hold a number of elections in 2013 and 2015. There are persistent issues between him and his right-wing allies. The regular far right of the party, which is very militaristic, is not a fan of the ultrareligious parties because the religious parties don’t serve in the military. But he wins in 2013, he wins in 2015, and he keeps on kicking the peace process down the road. [Barack] Obama tries to restart some framework talks, but he calls his bluff. He says: “You’re not willing to really exert any leverage on us,” and Obama’s like, “Yeah, you’re right.”
So they keep on building up security. Israel gets more and more advanced weaponry. They create the walls, which are supposed to guard them from a ground invasion. They create the Iron Dome. And that is seen as putting a lid on the issue: “You don’t have to worry about the Palestinians going in anymore and bombing buses because there’s the giant barrier. You don’t have to worry about the rockets anymore because you have the Iron Dome.”
They create the walls which are supposed to guard them from a ground invasion. They create the Iron Dome. And that is seen as putting a lid on the issue.
So what’s the problem from the Israeli perspective, especially from Netanyahu’s perspective, of just letting the occupation continue? Letting Gaza starve to death and the West Bank be under direct military occupation? There are no downsides to this from Netanyahu’s perspective. Maybe the US could get angry about Israel not pushing a permanent solution. But then, in the middle of all this, you have [Donald] Trump elected and he has an insanely Zionist administration, which is on the same page as Netanyahu. They don’t care about a two-state solution even nominally, and they just say, “We’re going to give you unconditional aid. We’re going to back all your claims.”
Netanyahu has this very close, almost hand-in-hand partnership with Trump that kills off the idea of any long-term settlement. And, at this point, it’s been a decade of Netanyahu’s premiership, and the Arab countries start considering this as a solid situation too. That’s how you get the Abraham Accords, where you have countries like the [United Arab Emirates], Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan…
Possibly Saudi Arabia, before recent events as well.
Yeah, that was going to be the major capstone of this process where they say, “You guys have figured out the Palestine issue. It’s over. The benefits that we could get from allying with you are greater than any possibility of Palestinian self-determination that could feasibly come.”
This is considered a done deal even when Joe Biden is elected president and he has the same diplomatic team as the Obama people — who were ostensibly pushing for a two-state solution. Hey, don’t even attempt to return to a two-state solution.
In the background of all of this, Netanyahu becomes incredibly controversial in Israel because he’s indicted on allegations of corruption and bribery in 2018. There’s an election in 2019 and by this point Netanyahu is so controversial and so hated that a lot of his traditional allies — like Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, who is his deputy prime minister for a number of years; Naftali Bennett, who was another coalition partner of his; and some of his former military staff like Benny Gantz, who starts his own party — they start turning against him.
At this point the Labor Party, and the Left in Israel, is a complete shell of itself. It’s considered to be a total lost cause.
At this point the Labor Party, and the Left in Israel, is a complete shell of itself. It’s considered to be a total lost cause. So the opposition to Netanyahu takes the form of these centrist/center-right parties that basically accept his consensus. They assume, too, that he has figured out the Palestinian issue and that there isn’t any purpose to peace negotiation.
The anti-Netanyahu opposition is led by figures like Benny Gantz, who is the former [Israel Defense Forces] chief of staff and announces his 2019 campaign with an ad talking about how he bombed the Palestinians to the Stone Age. He won’t even say that he supports a two-state solution — he says he supports a “two-entity solution.”
So the opposition sells out to capture right-wing and Netanyahu voters, and even still they cannot get a majority across several successive elections. There’s a brief proposed team-up between Benny Gantz and Netanyahu because of COVID, where Gantz would be an alternate prime minister after six months. Lo and behold, the deal falls apart before Netanyahu leaves office, which most people assume is because if he lost prime ministerial immunity, he’d be in prison.
They hold a fourth election in 2021, and the opposition is able to create this incredibly rickety coalition consisting of basically every single political element in the country besides Netanyahu. It’s led by Naftali Bennett, who is basically an American-Israeli settler, and it’s supported by military officials, centrist politicians, Arab Islamists, social democrats, and socialists.
Netanyahu is the leader of the opposition for this period, and the main purpose is just to keep him in — because, after he gets indicted, his goal is to reduce the power of the judiciary and make himself immune from prosecution as long as he’s prime minister so he doesn’t go to jail.
This episode was quite interesting because it was the first time I’d seen places like the New York Times op-ed page openly express anxiety about something his government was doing.
It’s all high-level governance, upper-class concerns. But it becomes a polarizing issue, and this is a testament to how dominant he is.
That opposition coalition falls apart one year into its five-year mandate, and they hold another election in 2022, which was right before the US midterms last year. Netanyahu basically runs on a “Don’t Send Me to Jail” platform and wins his outright majority. He clears the threshold with room to spare, so he’s able to form what everybody calls — including his own coalition — the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
Former president Donald Trump at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)
It includes these incredibly far-right forces — this is beyond the pale of what people even considered possible in the country, but they’re in power now. It is a watershed moment in the country, and Netanyahu is by this point at the height of his powers. He has a very solid majority, and his first priority is to pass judicial reform, which leads to tremendous outrage from the center of the country, including the military establishment. There are massive protests in the streets; some think that it is the biggest divide in Israeli society ever. There were reports of reservists saying they wouldn’t report to their bases if it were passed.
The ruling coalition starts polling below what they need to win, and the public is really turning away from Netanyahu. Then the Hamas attack happens, and the entire basis for the past thirteen years of Netanyahu’s rule, which transformed the country’s politics and foreign relations, is completely shattered in a single day. And that’s where we are now.
After the Attacks
It’s generally axiomatic that wars, at least at their outset, benefit sitting governments. When we think of the climate of jingoism that prevailed after September 11, 2001 — to take an obvious example — there was a feverish rallying around not only the flag but around the figure of George W. Bush specifically.
You suggest that this hasn’t happened in Israel since the conflict began. What has the general response been of Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and what does the picture now look like for Netanyahu’s ruling right-wing coalition?
They hate him. I would compare this more to the response to Herbert Hoover and the onset of the Great Depression than I would to a figure overseeing a war.
Because this isn’t just some military problem that nobody saw coming. This was an issue they have known about for decades and has been an explicit political question for decades. This exact sort of incident was the thing this was all supposed to prevent: the worst massacre of Jews happening since the Holocaust on Israeli soil. That was the sole purpose of every single aspect of the county’s Palestinian policy. And the debate was: Is it best to do that through a negotiated settlement or is it best to suppress them through military force?
I would compare this more to the response to Herbert Hoover and the onset of the Great Depression than I would to a figure overseeing a war.
Netanyahu, throughout his entire career, has said that the negotiated settlements are naive, counterproductive, unrealistic, utopian, and has hurt Israel more than it helped them. This has been his single through-line throughout his entire life, and it turns out his entire worldview was wrong. He asked people to judge him on his capacity to bring security to the country — you can see the ads where he shows himself as a babysitter or as a lifeguard keeping everybody safe. He was the indispensable protector of the country. This sort of thing was never, ever supposed to happen.
So now people aren’t thinking, “Oh, we need to support him.” They’re thinking, “The guy who promised for decades that he could create security through his policies, the guy we’ve given a blank check to do whatever he wants for the past ten years, he’s proven to be wrong.” He’s just a corrupt asshole.
His political standing in the country has collapsed. Ninety-four percent of people in the country say the government bears responsibility [for the October 7 attacks]. A majority of people want him to resign once the war ends. They want his defense minister, who was previously very popular according to polls, to resign. His party has historically low polling numbers and would win, I think, only nineteen seats — which would be down from the mid-thirties from the past election and represent maybe less than 20 percent of the vote.
His political standing in the country has collapsed. Ninety-four percent of people in the country say the government bears responsibility [for the October 7 attacks].
Benny Gantz — the center-right general who is currently part of the Unity government but has historically been a very anti-Netanyahu figure — is polling at near-unprecedented levels of support. He could very easily form a coalition with the numbers he’s seeing now.
Some people mock anybody who says this could all be the end of Netanyahu, because he’s come back from the dead so many times. But this is different. This is not just some scandal or some minor issue. It’s the whole point of his existence as a political figure being completely rebutted.
And he hasn’t done a good job responding to the crisis. He still hasn’t admitted responsibility. He won’t speak to anybody. He looks gaunt and terrified. He’s had to basically cling on to Biden to get any sense of legitimacy — which is part of why I think Biden visiting there was a massive favor that probably should have wrung more concessions.
But it’s the end of an era, and I think this is going to define his legacy. He can’t promise any alternative. He’s gotten everything that he wanted, and he can’t say what he’s doing is ever going to work.
And this is in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Historically, the downfall of Israeli politicians has often been getting bogged down in long and bloody conflicts. It brought down Begin after the Lebanon War, which was initially very popular. The intifada ended Ehud Barak’s career, because it was considered a security disaster and it led to Netanyahu’s rise in the first instance.
Whenever there’s an election, whether it’s next year or in five years, he doesn’t have a purpose anymore. And I don’t see how you can survive politically without a purpose.
You seem to think, though, that even if there are considerable shifts in Israel’s political dynamics underway, the shift in consensus is unlikely to bring about positive change for Palestinians.
It’s tricky, because this is all in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, and there are still elements of the rally-around-the-flag mindset that might be at play. Even if there isn’t a rallying around Netanyahu, there’s general support for the security state and the repression and the military response. I saw a poll that said 65 percent of Israelis support a ground invasion.
I think that the immediate response to the attack is probably preventing people from looking at the situation through any larger lens and asking whether they made a mistake by abandoning the peace process or mistakenly assuming that this could all be solved by high-tech gadgetry. I don’t think that’s really the kind of discussion you can have in this moment.
Even if there isn’t a rallying around Netanyahu, there’s general support for the security state and the repression and the military response.
Later on, especially if the operation is a disaster and proves that the status quo is itself a disaster, there might be an opportunity — if people are willing to listen — to re-engage with the idea that there needs to be a more permanent solution to this, which would be an ironic consequence of a major attack of this kind. You might think it would make that kind of thing impossible. But, from the perspective of an Israeli who rationally cares about their own security, what’s the other answer that you have?
I want to close by asking about the United States. Beginning last week, there’s been brewing rebellion among congressional staffers, over four hundred of whom signed a letter calling for a cease-fire — and a mutiny of some kind over Biden’s policy among officials at the State Department, with one high-profile resignation. What, at this point, can be said about US public opinion in relation to the conflict?
There was one recent poll that had some pretty unexpected numbers and a narrow majority of people opposing arms transfers and armed shipments to Israel, while a majority supported humanitarian aid to both sides of the conflict. This is not what a lot of people expected, given past polling and that the general political environment in America has always been staunchly pro-Israel.
There’s sort of a desire from Biden right now to return to a unipolar moment and the post-9/11 feeling, where everybody’s united around the government and there’s a consensus around which the sitting president can boost their political standing. Biden has tried to do that with Ukraine, and he’s now trying to do it with Israel.
But it’s obvious here that you can’t return to that moment because we already lived through the consequences of it. Everybody alive remembers the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, which are universally considered to be mistakes.
And, when people come to that conclusion, it shapes how they understand conflicts everywhere else. They’re not just going to turn back to how they were in 2001 and immediately say, “America’s this beacon of global leadership. We have to be involved everywhere to save the world.” They’re going to see these conflicts, remember what happened and how it turned out twenty years ago, and ask why we should expect this to be any different.
This quest for people in Washington to use every single overseas flare-up as an opportunity to reestablish a kind of jingoistic, interventionist perspective, that is clearly from another time. And it is part of a pattern that you can see in Biden himself — who is very old and has staff who have been around since the [Bill] Clinton administration — not really adapting to the current moment.
So I don’t have very lofty expectations that they’ll be able to meet the changing opinions on this. Someone later might, though it will be tricky given the mess he’s set up for us. But that’s the point of political engagement, I guess. There’s nowhere to go but up.Original post