No Rallying Around the Flag in the Middle East
Neither Israel's government nor Hamas has a lot of trust.
A few days ago, Axios’ Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei reported that Biden officials were on edge about the possibility of the Israel-Hamas war widening to the greater Middle East: “Red-hot rhetoric by Israel and Iran — including publicly threatening to widen the war — has U.S. officials on edge. ‘It's quite a dangerous situation,’ a senior administration official told us. ‘It could all veer off the rails really quickly. The whole region could be in conflict.’" Sure enough, U.S. forces in the region have already come under attack and responded with force.
The Biden team is right to be worried about this, but there’s another dynamic in Israel and Gaza that bears some noticing: neither government is terribly popular.
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Let’s start with Hamas in Gaza. As it turns out, the Arab Barometer completed their latest survey of the Occupied Territories just before the Hamas attack, surveying close to 400 respondents in Gaza. The results flatly contradict the claims that residents of Gaza are inextricably linked with Hamas because of their 2006 election victory. Amaney Jamal and Michael Robbins wrote up their findings for Foreign Affairs:
The survey’s findings reveal that Gazans had very little confidence in their Hamas-led government. Asked to identify the amount of trust they had in the Hamas authorities, a plurality of respondents (44 percent) said they had no trust at all; “not a lot of trust” was the second most common response, at 23 percent. Only 29 percent of Gazans expressed either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in their government. Furthermore, 72 percent said there was a large (34 percent) or medium (38 percent) amount of corruption in government institutions, and a minority thought the government was taking meaningful steps to address the problem….
Given the low opinion most Gazans hold of their government, it is unsurprising that their disapproval extends to Hamas as a political party. Just 27 percent of respondents selected Hamas as their preferred party, slightly less than the proportion who favored Fatah (30 percent), the party that is led by Abbas and that governs the West Bank. Hamas’s popularity in Gaza has slipped as well, falling from 34 percent support in the 2021 survey. There is notable demographic variation in the recent responses, too. Thirty-three percent of adults under 30 expressed support for Hamas, compared with 23 percent of those 30 and older. And poorer Gazans were less likely than their wealthier counterparts to support Hamas….
The results of the Arab Barometer survey paint a bleak picture of Gaza in the days before the October 7 attacks. The Hamas government, unable to address citizens’ vital concerns, had lost the public’s confidence. Few Gazans supported Hamas’s goal of destroying the state of Israel, which left Gaza’s leaders and its population divided over the future direction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The vast majority of Gazans strongly favored a peaceful solution, and they yearned for leaders who could both deliver such a solution and improve Gazans’ overall quality of life.
The survey findings demonstrate that the logic that some hawkish commentators have adopted of “Gaza = Hamas” is flat-out wrong. Seriously, read the whole thing.
Jamal and Robbins warn that further Israeli attacks might cause Gazans to rally round Hamas. That could be true; rally-round-the-flag effects are common during wartime; remember, George W. Bush’s popularity in the United States skyrocketed to 90 percent in the weeks after 9/11.
Intriguingly, however, that is not happening in Israel right now despite the war. Netanyahu was already a polarizing figure in Israeli politics, one whose partisanship compromised Israeli national security. Since the attacks, however, public opinion surveys show his support has nosedived. According to one recent survey, less than 30 percent of Israeli voters thought Netanyahu was still fit to be prime minister.
When President George W. Bush presided over the response to the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the country rallied behind him. Most voters did not think his administration could plausibly have anticipated such an audacious plot, and gave Bush a pass for not stopping it. But Israel was founded precisely because the Jewish people have long experienced devastating assaults—and the state was meant to prevent them….
Americans could not imagine a coordinated mass-casualty attack on civilians; Israelis imagined it every day. Netanyahu told them that as long as he was in charge, they would not have to worry. It was a lie.
Israelis do not forgive failures to secure their safety. Golda Meir left politics after the debacle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel lost nearly 3,000 soldiers following a surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack. Her name is reviled by some in the country to this day. But what happened on October 7, 2023, was worse than what happened on October 6, 1973. Meir lost soldiers—people who had purposely put their lives on the line. Netanyahu lost civilians—the people the state and its soldiers were supposed to protect.
The corrosive effect of Netanyahu’s unpopularity is bleeding over into Israel’s policy response. The most alarming thing I have read so far about Israel’s response comes from the New York Times’ Patrick Kingsley and Romen Bergman:
Israeli leaders, who have vowed to retaliate against Hamas for its brutal massacre of civilians, have yet to agree on how to do so, though the military could move as soon as Friday.
Some of them worry that an invasion might suck the Israeli Army into an intractable urban battle inside Gaza. Others fear a broader conflict, with a Lebanese militia allied to Hamas, Hezbollah, firing long-range missiles toward Israeli cities.
There is also debate over whether to conduct the invasion through one large operation or a series of smaller ones. And then there are questions about who would govern Gaza if Israel captured it.
This recognition of tradeoffs does not bother me. What bothers the hell out of me, however, are these paragraphs:
Analysts believe that Mr. Netanyahu is wary about unilaterally giving the go-ahead because, with public confidence in his leadership already decreasing, he fears being blamed if the operation fails.
“All indication is that he’s going to try and stay on,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group….
In a sign of internal division, the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, pointedly did not describe rescuing the hostages in a speech on Thursday evening as one of Israel’s military objectives.
The mutual suspicion between the military and the prime minister runs so deep that civil servants have barred the military from bringing recording equipment into cabinet meetings, according to two people present. They interpreted the move as an attempt to limit the amount of evidence that could be presented to a national inquiry after the war (emphasis added).
Mr. Netanyahu has appeared unusually isolated since the Hamas attack, amid cratering poll numbers and accusations that his chaotic leadership over the past year had set the stage for the catastrophic security failure on Oct 7.
So it is not just the Israeli public who appears to distrust Netanyahu; it is Israel’s own military.1
Governments with low levels of public trust are uncertainty engines. Leaders might adopt riskier policies to gamble for resurrection and try to trigger rally-round-the-flag effects. It is possible that Hamas launched its attack precisely to trigger this kind of response. The evidence to date, however, suggests that Netanyahu does not have that option. Maybe that means he holds off on a full-scale invasion; maybe not.
What is terrifying to consider is that the political actors with the greatest ability to ramp down tensions are the ones who might look at the future and believe that they have nothing to lose.