Open Season for Israeli Politics and Peace- Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin (January 29, 2024)

Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, a scholar and writer, is an international political and strategic consultant. She has advised and conducted research on nine national campaigns in Israel over the past twenty years, and has provided research and advising for elections, referendums, and civil society campaigns in fifteen different countries.

As time passes and October 7 begins to recede from the immediate frontal cortex, don’t expect Israel’s trauma to go away – it will only get worse. If you’ve ever broken an arm,  you may know that the first moments are not so painful – scientists call it stress-induced analgesia – but the agony sets in over time. 

Thus, when I interviewed Dr. Cigal Knei-Paz (for Haaretz), a social worker responsible for both local mental health programs and the absorption of displaced people in Netanya, she observed that as time passes, mental health problems related to trauma or post-trauma are increasing. On one hand, the direct witnesses, victims and bereaved or displaced from October 7 are confronting the full extent of their losses. Additionally, she said, Israelis with older traumas are seeing resurgence of post-trauma symptoms and crises over time as the war goes on. 

There is a political parallel here. In late November, I analyzed Israel’s history of public opinion shifts following major escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and specifically when these involved attacks on Israeli civilians. One can argue the mythical point about how wars lead to peaceful or conciliatory attitudes from earlier decades, but if true, those examples essentially ended in the early 1990s (the example of disenagement from Gaza is ambiguous, but that’s for a different article). From the mid-1990s onward, the conflict took on the framework of an Israeli juggernaut of ever-expanding state-backed, settlement-driven occupation and the Palestinian responses split between diplomacy and terror (attacks on civilians). The Israeli response to the latter has always, almost invariably, been a shift to the right. That’s what I expected would happen after October 7. 

Keeping an obsessive eye on the polls, I found it notable that the shift wasn’t immediate. There were interesting signs that the right-ward shift wasn’t materializing. First, among the dozens of public polls, from media and think tanks, the few that published the basic breakdown of self-identification as left, right, or center, such as a-Chord surveys, showed little change from before the war. 

But most striking were the political dynamics. By contrast to most other societies in wartime, there was no wave of support for the political leadership. The opposite; the famous “rally round the flag” effective was powerful but focused almost exclusively on Israel rallying to itself – society, other civilians, and the incredible mobilization of volunteer organizations to help the evacuees, the soldiers, in every possible way. The current political leadership, in every single survey, has tanked. 

I keep an eye on four major indicators: First, vote intention – in every single survey since October 7, the original parties of the pre-war coalition have lost about one-third of their parliamentary power (Likud, Religious Zionism – which has since broken up into Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism – Shas, and Torah Judaism). These parties now poll at about 42-48 seats out of 120, a distant gap from the 64 seat majority they held in the past. (For the record, and for wonks, I usually don’t include DirectPolls/Channel 14 surveys, since they are essentially well-tempered government propagandists, but I will revisit this if Israel goes into elections, since their polls can be more serious in that context). 

Second, in these electoral surveys, Likud is routinely losing between 40-50 percent of its support. The  weekly surveys commissioned by Maariv newspaper and conducted by Menachem Lazar show that Likud is doing worse over time, with more recent surveys showing just 16 seats (compared to 32 in the last elections). 

Third, trust in the government hit an abysmal low after the start of the war. Just 14 percent thought the government was functioning well, in a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute in mid-October, and just 20.5 percent of Jews expressed confidence in the government. Nearly four months after October 7, with a special war cabinet to augment the reviled government, just 41 percent of the public give the cabinet high marks; not even the Jewish population gave it a majority positive rating.

Fourth (and best), Netanyahu’s personal ratings have spiralled downward, in the one question most media outlets are asking: “Who is more suitable to be prime minister.” Netanyahu loses by a double digit gap; between 25 – 32% say he is more suitable, compared to former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who gets in the upper 40 percent range, or an absolute majority, like 52 percent in last week’s Maariv poll.

One more detail about the electoral dynamic is important, for the observation that Israel hadn’t dashed to the right as expected. All this time, Israeli electorate has flooded towards the security-military oriented right (or what Israelis view as central right), and the National Unity party led by Benny Gantz swelled in surveys to the top spot. That party drained support from parties to its left and to the right – Yesh Atid tumbled from its second-place position, losing about half of its votes, just like Likud. 

But most interesting to me was that the fanatic, violent, messianic fascists, Religious Zionism and Jewish Power party enjoyed no bump at all. From the 14 seats they had won (running as a single unit) in 2022, polls for most of the first few months showed them winning 11 or fewer (now running separately) – very similar to their showing throughout 2023 when they were largely blamed as the engine behind the sinister judicial coup. Sometimes Smotrich’s Religious Zionism didn’t even cross the electoral threshold in surveys, bringing the combined total to as low as seven seats. I wondered if Israelis were reeling with physical fear, but distancing themselves from the extremism that was so clearly leading Israel down an abyss.

Now I’m not at all sure. The right-wing effect might be creeping in. In one survey I’ve seen, the portion of self-identified right-wingers among Jews has risen after all (by some polls it now reaches two-thirds). For the first time in my history of polling – and as far as I know, for the first time in Israeli history – the portion of Jews identifying as left-wing has fallen to single digits. This is background data for surveys, so I can’t show the published findings here, but they’re real. 

Second, Netanyahu’s support seems to have stabilized; the stubborn one-third who see him as the more suitable prime minister is not nothing. If not now, those people will never leave him. They are the kernel for his potential political resurrection if the next elections aren’t held too soon.

And finally, the two Kahanist parties have seen their votes climb steadily up. In mid-January, for the first time I can recall (including well before the war), their combined support hit 14 seats in a Channel 13 poll, the same portion they received in the last elections. Other polls show that Religious Zionism (Smotrich) seems to have come back from the brink of the electoral threshold in recent weeks. And Ben-Gvir is regularly getting 8-9 seats for his Jewish Power party. 

In light of all this, the fact that Israeli support for a two-state solution hasn’t fallen below one-third in the January Peace Index from Tel Aviv University is almost a surprise, but Jewish support in Israel is still trending slowly downward and now stands at just 27 percent (compared to 29 percent in November). 

Based on everything we know about Israel at war, I expect the latter trends – stabilization of Netanyahu’s position, growth of the extreme right, and decline in support for a two state solution will continue. 

But there’s another important thing to keep in mind: attitudes are in flux. A nominally right-center pragmatist party has the overall top spot, and the ear of Israeli society. People are listening closely for details about the next development, the next day and the future. Not long ago I made a simple point in a little-watched television discussion panel about the need to reach a long-term political resolution to the conflict; weeks later, people have stopped me in the neighborhood café to thank me for “talking sense.” If two people heard someone like me, imagine if Benny Gantz were to start talking sense, and how many people would listen.