Bibi Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted to its lowest point during his tenure as prime minister with a favorability rating of 31% compared to 60% who disapprove. His lowest previous poll had shown 54% approval and he’d never dropped below the 50% mark.
Despite Bibi’s reputation as an economic whiz including his past tenure as finance minister, during which he dismantled Israel’s social welfare economy, this poll proves that it is precisely these policies that are his undoing. There are two primary reasons for his precipitous decline. The first is his disgraceful “cave” in the face of Haredi pressure on the Tal law, which would eliminate the IDF exemption for Orthodox men who study in approved yeshivot. After standing firm for a time, he eventually put forward a compromise that would give the ultra-Orthodox years before the exemption would be eliminated. In protest, Shaul Mofaz withdrew Kadima from the ruling coalition. Though this move virtually torpedoed Mofaz’ career and reputation, it also hurt Bibi as well.
Service in the IDF is one of the few universally accepted norms of Israeliness (for Jews, at least). Therefore, any compromise giving the Haredim a pass would be seen by those Israelis who do serve (the vast majority) as yet another sop thrown to the Orthodox. That’s why Bibi has paid a steep price.
But even more important has been the beating Bibi has taken at the hands of the social justice movement, including the self-immolation deaths of two destitute Israelis who were protesting their mistreatment at the hands of a thoughtless, brutal social welfare system. The new budget being debated by the Knesset calls for tax increases on precisely those who can afford it the least. It also calls for increases in the defense budget and spending on the settlements. In essence, Israelis think Bibi has no compassion. They see his economic policies as Friedmanism, capitalism without a heart.
Israel has one of the greatest disparities (5th place) in wealth among the western nations. Its economy is essentially capitalist oligarchism with a small number of families controlling a vast amount of capital and wealth. While Israelis may be deeply cynical, they are not stupid. They know they are being shafted. They know the odds are against them, stacked heavily in favor of the Ofers, Denkers and Mozes’. Their problem is they believe there’s nothing they can do to change it. But it doesn’t mean they give Netanyahu a pass. They see his as the political guarantor of the economic status quo.
So what does all this mean? First, there will not be elections any time soon. This is the last thing Bibi needs. It means he will do everything possible to change the prevailing tune. He’ll bellow a great deal of Iran as existential threat. He’ll warn repeatedly about the danger of Syrian chemical weapons. He’ll remind Israelis that Egypt is in the hands of the Islamist enemy. Not to mention the trusty Hamas, which he can always use as a punching bag regardless of whether they’ve actually done anything worthy of punishment (as happened last summer when he bombed Gaza in retaliation for a terror attack on Eilat for which the Gaza militant groups were not responsible).
It doesn’t necessarily mean that Bibi will actually go to war against Iran. But if his popularity continues to decline I would say the likelihood of such a strike increases. War is the ultimate diversion from whatever ails political leaders at home. During a war the home front unites, the leader becomes a heroic figure around whom everyone rallies.
If all else fails and Bibi cannot recover, what would that mean for Israel? Unfortunately, very little. Bibi may be bad, but there isn’t much good with which to replace him. There is a resurgent Labor party now that it has rid itself of the festering boil that was Ehud Barak. But even Labor has no policy to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will do no better on this issue than Olmert or Barak, so-called “moderates,” when they served as PM. To put it plainly, there is no political consensus around which any governing party can put forward a sufficiently attractive offer to the Palestinians. That means, anyone naive enough to celebrate Bibi’s possible demise is naive and should think twice. He won’t be replaced by anyone much better.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.