Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel, in which more than twelve hundred people were murdered, revealed a woefully unprepared Israeli government, as well as—it was later discovered—a government that ignored warnings about the raid. As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-tenured leader in Israel’s history, has seen his approval ratings crater, with a majority of Israelis saying that he should leave office at the end of the war in Gaza. But, with the war showing no signs of ending, and with Netanyahu’s record of near-invincibility, it remains unclear what any future government will look like.
To understand what may come next for Israeli politics, I recently spoke by phone with Dahlia Scheindlin, a political scientist and an expert on Israeli public opinion, as well as a policy fellow at the Century Foundation and a columnist for Haaretz. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed who might succeed Netanyahu, whether October 7th and the war in Gaza have opened up new space for a different kind of politics in Israel, and how to understand Israel’s long rightward drift.
What can we say about Netanyahu’s popularity right now? Has the war—as wars often do, at least initially—done anything to boost his standing after the calamity of October 7th?
By every possible indicator we have in survey research—and there have been lots of surveys done since October 7th—his popularity is abysmal. It’s the worst I’ve seen, certainly since 2009. I’d like to say ever, but I would have to check every single survey done since the early nineties.
I can think of four or five different questions that are regularly tracked over time. One of them is the question of how his party, Likud, is doing in a theoretical vote—in which case his party loses close to fifty per cent of its support. His coalition has lost its majority—even before October 7th, but now even more so. They had sixty-four out of a hundred and twenty seats in the beginning. They’re down to thirty-two. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, there are record-low levels of trust in the government, and his personal ratings have gone down to the point where if you ask who’s more suitable to be Prime Minister, between him and Benny Gantz, he only gets about twenty-five per cent. Benny Gantz is over fifty per cent. [Gantz is a retired army general who is part of Netanyahu’s current wartime coalition.]
Add to those a newish question since this war: Do you want Netanyahu to resign? And we have between seventy per cent and seventy-five per cent, depending on different surveys, that say they want him to resign.
Do the questions ask about resigning right now or, rather, when the war is over?
Different surveys ask that in different ways, but most of them try to give some sort of gradation of: Do you want him to resign right now or after the war or after the active fighting of the war? And the number that I gave you is what the different surveys have as the total. The bigger portion, like forty-five per cent, would prefer for him to resign after the war, even though it’s very hard to have an exact definition of what “after the war” would mean. The smaller portion—about twenty-five per cent, depending on the survey—would like him to resign right now. So we see about a quarter of the population who’d be willing to even switch leaders in the middle of a war because they’ve lost confidence in his leadership.
How do you understand the desire to not want to get rid of him right away if he is so unpopular? Is it that logistically it would be too hard?
It’s important to keep in mind that nobody really understands what an end date to the war would look like. Everybody understands the idea that there is one clear measure of getting the hostages back, and there’s another stated aim of destroying Hamas. But the second one is what the public thinks the government has adopted as the first aim. Nobody really knows what the measure of that would be. So, when people say they want him to resign after the war, there’s no consensus on how we would know when it’s here.
In terms of your first question: I think that the Israeli public is going through something that is more extreme than anybody remembers in our lifetime, and there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s the most extreme situation Israelis have been in, ever. I think that the fear of the kind of political instability that it would require to change the Prime Minister right now is simply another layer of fear that the majority of Israelis don’t want to deal with. Except for roughly twenty-five per cent, who find it more fearful and more dangerous for the country to continue with him even right now.