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Is time running out for Binyamin Netanyahu?

Israel’s population cannot plead ignorance to what’s happening in Gaza, but polls could give false impression of public mood

Support in Ireland for the Palestinian cause, as many have observed, has much to do with history and sympathy for an oppressed people. But, it would seem to me, it also reflects a reaction and shock at the extraordinary degree of Israeli public support for its government’s brutal military campaign.

Polling finds that a huge majority in Israel – 87 per cent of Jews, three-quarters of all Israelis – think the number of Palestinian casualties, now over 32,000, is justified. Half of Israeli Jews think Israel is using the right level of force. But another 43 per cent say it isn’t using enough, with almost three-quarters supporting an assault on desperately overcrowded Rafah.

This is a country still in shock, deeply scared and scarred, following the murderous attack by Hamas on October 7th in which 1,200 died and 250 were abducted. Support for harsh retaliation, dressed up as self-defence to eliminate Hamas, is understandable, however shocking to Israel’s many friends.

Whether or not its actions constitute genocide, the conduct of its campaign, from the bombing of civilians and vital infrastructure, to denying access to food and medicine, to the killing of aid workers, to forcibly moving entire populations, indubitably involves war crimes. It’s not just, to quote prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, an excusable “this happens in wartime”. And Israel’s population cannot plead ignorance.


Yet such polling could give a completely false impression of a country in lockstep and of one mind. Remarkably for a state engaged in what all see as an existential war, this is far from the truth, as the thousands who turned out in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this week to demand an immediate election and the removal from power of Netanyahu testify. Since October 7th polls have consistently shown large majority support for an early election; 30 per cent say “now”.

Netanyahu’s own recent support ranges from a quarter to a third of the population – only 27 per cent of the Jewish population trusts him – while his far-right coalition allies have consistently seen their support ebbing to the centre. Now the forces that organised mass protests and general strikes during his attempted “judicial coup” last year are mobilising again in alliance with critics of the government’s incompetent handling of the Hamas threat and of its bungling of diplomatic relations with the US.

Only 39 per cent of the total population believe that Netanyahu’s promise of “total victory” has a high or fairly high chance of success.

His insistence that the hostages can only be freed by military means, and excuses over the killing of aid workers, have brought hostage families to the streets, and an implicit rebuke from war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, leader of a key centrist party in the government, who joined the ranks of those demanding an election.

As did Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat majority leader and highest-ranking Jewish official in the US, in a speech specifically targeting Netanyahu. It was subsequently endorsed by US president Joe Biden and has opened up an unprecedented rift between the US and Israel’s leadership.

Pressure is also coming from inside a riven cabinet, with extremist settler representatives pushing for harsher measures against all Palestinians in Gaza, while religious party leaders threaten to bring down the government over court-ordered removal of long-standing privileges for religious students to evade conscription. Any further concessions to the latter will see a cabinet revolt by former military officers and secular centrist “moderates”.

Two far-right members, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, caused an uproar recently with calls to depopulate Gaza. “If in Gaza there will be 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs and not two million the entire conversation on ‘the day after’ will look different,” said Smotrich, who called for most Gazan civilians to be resettled in other countries.

Although the government has denied that this is policy, one newspaper reported Netanyahu telling a Likud faction he is searching for countries that Gaza residents can be sent to.

Settler representatives have warned that the prime minister is undermining their project to populate the West Bank and Gaza with further settlements, and have forced him to reject international proposals both for a role for the Palestinian Authority in any postwar Gaza administration and all talk of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu, preoccupied with deferring his looming trial for corruption, will do anything – and cynically promote any policy – to keep his unwieldy coalition together. If that means obstructing a developing international consensus on the path towards peace, then so be it. The Israeli prime minister has become a big obstacle to peace. Israelis themselves are increasingly saying he must go. And urgently.

“The public in this region is feeling militant, belligerent, traumatised and distrustful,” polling expert Dahlia Scheindlin writes of the country’s contradictory mood. “But if a different set of leaders proposed a different path towards a better future, the public is listening – and waiting.”

There is hope, but without Netanyahu at the helm.