Q&A: Israel, Politics, War – Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin (February 26, 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.

Q: Polls show Netanyahu looking unpopular; his party, Likud, has lost between 40-50% of its support, his original coalition has lost one-third, and when asked who is more suitable to be prime minister, he trails Benny Gantz by at least 15 points. Is there any way for him to recover and win an election again in Israel?

A. With Netanyahu, never say never. My general assessment is that the sooner elections are held, the more likely they are to reflect current polls: a poor result for Likud, and no path for his original coalition to win. As time goes by – say, if elections are not held within one year of October 7th, or not held in 2024 at all, anything can happen, including Netanyahu’s recovery. Remember that Netanyahu is standing trial for criminal corruption charges, but this does not pose a legal obstacle to him serving as prime minister; but the situation could continue to limit the number of parties who would be willing to serve under him.

Here's how he can recover: By that time Israelis might feel more satisfied with the outcomes of the war; their anger at Netanyahu for the failures of October 7 could fade; while the right-ward shift following most wars deepens over time; support for the ultranationalist Jewish supremacist parties swells as a result, and the appeal of these Jewish nationalist religious parties goes beyond religious voters – these factors could carry Netanyahu through.

But as a general rule, no one knows who will win the next elections, because Israel hasn’t called elections yet. Israeli elections are particularly unpredictable, because once a date is set, each cycle brings a crop of new parties, along with parties that break up, merge, or collapse. People are being polled constantly, but until after elections are called, and even until after the party lists are finalized, but poll respondents don’t even know who’s running, so the findings can be misleading. Then of course after the election comes the coalition bargaining, introducing a whole new layer of unpredictability. At that stage, a small handful of leaders decide who forms the government. Polls don’t tell us much, or anything, about that.

Despite all the unpredictability of elections, polls are very dependable for predicting the ideological outcome of Israeli elections. That is, if you break down the parties in Israel not by likely coalition partners but by their broad right, center or left-wing orientation, their election outcomes very closely match the rates at which Israeli respondents identify as right, center or left; these numbers line up quite accurately over the years. So, if we know that about 53% of all Israelis hold right wing ideology, we know with near certainty that the Knesset (not just the coalition) will be dominated by right-wing parties of various types. We also know that between 64% and 68% of Jews identify as right wing, and over the last 24 years (since 2001) Arab citizens vote at far lower turnout rates than Jews. That means the Knesset will look more like the Jewish trends, rather than the total population trend.

Q: What are the potential scenarios that could depose Netanyahu?

A. Many think that after the war there will be enormous street protests; the Israeli Democracy Institute has found that 60 percent of Israelis think there will be protests, and 24 percent expect to join such protests themselves.

However, I’m somewhat skeptical that this will bring Netanyahu down. It’s true that polls show widespread anger, large majorities who want him to step down, or believe that he’s making war decisions based on political considerations, not only based on security. But as the IDI polling shows, in any situation, only a small subset of people actually take to the streets for any cause.

Now, Israel did establish a vast mobilization effort over 2023, and surely large numbers will in fact join post-war protests; the “Kaplan” antigovernment protests have already resumed during the war. But that’s the problem: the protests in 2023 were so huge, yet Bibi definitely didn’t resign. Why should he now? He’s not known to be motivated by his conscience, nor for his inner sense personal responsibility to his citizens. And there’s no legal or institutional mechanism for turning street protests into government collapse.

Another possibility is that the war cabinet breaks up, and then the original 64-seat coalition has a crisis over the decision to accept a long-term ceasefire, or an international demand to commit to a two-state solution. In that case there could be a coalition-reshuffle, and depending on how urgent the dilemma, Gantz might bring his party back to support the government, or even Lapid, who has already said he would provide coalition support for a hostage deal if the ultranationalists bolt.

But such an alternative government wouldn’t last long if Bibi remains in power; it could either reach an agreement for him to resign as prime minister, or break up and go into elections.

Another possibility is that after the war cabinet breaks up, the original coalition goes chugging along, because a taste of power is a very nice thing. And some divisive issue, such as the bitterly divisive bill from the Defense Ministry regarding the IDF draft, causes a huge social rift. Netanyahu could try to water down the bill (or squeeze the exemption routes for Haredim) to satisfy the majority of Jewish Israelis who do serve, and his coalition cracks up over it. Many Israeli coalitions (or most, depending on how you count) collapse over religion and state, or conflict-related issues. Even after October 7, some traditions could hold.

Q: Did the war and other recent developments shatter the pro-Bibi camp? What does it mean today to be a “Bibist”?

A. Netanyahu seems to have hit a floor – a core base of support that ranges from 25-32 percent. This is much lower than the 40-45 percent support he enjoyed from roughly 2018 in my surveys, through to 2022 (before the elections). That’s an enviable level of support for an incumbent in power for so many years.

After the war that support plunged, but the downward trend levelled off – I haven’t seen any polls showing less than 25 percent who think he’s most suited to be prime minister, and the number has crept back up to around 30 or 32 percent. That portion of the population has stuck with him through criminal corruption indictments, through the fact that he plunged the country into four years of political havoc, and the worst security failure in the history of Israel. I’m guessing that anyone with him now is with him for life.

Q: What is the nature of the pro-hostage deal and anti-hostage deal divide in Israeli society. Do Smotrich and his ilk oppose prioritizing it because of political ideology or is there a deeper, opposing perception of collective identity in the national-religious camp in Israel and the liberal-secular public?

A. Support for hostage release through a deal negotiated with Hamas has become highly politicized. The Arab parties support prioritizing hostage release over destroying Hamas in the IDI surveys at the highest rates, followed by Labor and Meretz voters, and a majority of those who support Lapid and Gantz. The trend flips among voters for the original coalition – a among them, a majority prioritize destroying Hamas over hostages. The same trend goes for support for a comprehensive deal trading hostages for prisoners, establishing a ceasefire, and agreement to a future demilitarized Palestinian state. In IDI surveys, a clear majority of Arabs, left and centrists support this but just over one-fifth of right-wingers.

Ideology and voting behavior are heavily influenced by religious observance but not exclusively. I see Smotrich and Ben Gvir being dismissive of the priority of releasing hostages as part of their messianic cosmology, in which Jews vanquish all enemies and redeem all biblical lands. Like the great ideologies of the 20th century seeking a utopia of communism or fascism – for the sake of the that fundamentalist vision, in human sacrifice is justified.

Having said that, I think it’s a very serious charge that they don’t view liberal secular Israelis as part of their collective identity and therefore not worth saving. Would these politicians truly change their entire policy if the hostages were dati-leumi (national religious) girls nabbed during their national service? I don’t know. I hope not. I mean, I hope yes – I wish they prioritized the hostages no matter what. But I hope no leader in Israel would practice selective commitments to the lives of their citizens, and to the social contract of equality among all citizens. Then again, these specific figures had little regard for equal citizenship before October 7. That’s why they shouldn’t be ruling the country.