Foreign Policy: The Problem Isn’t Just Netanyahu. It’s Israeli Society.

2 April 2024 // Foreign Policy

Despite blaming the prime minister, a large majority of Jewish Israeli citizens support his destructive policies in Gaza and beyond.

When U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the staunchest pro-Israel lawmakers in the United States and the highest-ranking Jewish official in Washington, effectively called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster on the Senate floor in mid-March, it was a watershed moment for anyone following Israel’s role in U.S. politics.

Israel has been so sacrosanct in America for so long that the idea that a hawkish Democrat like Schumer would call for regime change in Israel is extraordinary. But the Senate leader’s stance is fairly mainstream among Israelis. There’s consensus—even within his own party—that elections should be held early. It seems like conventional wisdom in Israel that Netanyahu is dragging out the war for his own political survival, since he knows the moment it comes to a halt, Israelis will focus even more resolutely on investigating the failures of Oct. 7 and pushing for early elections to vote him out of office.

The focus on Netanyahu is a convenient distraction from the fact that the war in Gaza is not Netanyahu’s war, it is Israel’s war—and the problem isn’t only Netanyahu; it’s the Israeli electorate.

Blaming Netanyahu—who refuses to leave Israeli political life despite being on trial for corruption and presiding over the country during the worst catastrophe in its history—has eclipsed the fact that when it comes to Israeli policies on Gaza in particular, and the Palestinians in general, many Israelis are broadly aligned with Netanyahu. By a large margin they support the current military campaign in Gaza and the government’s goal of destroying Hamas, whatever the human toll for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

FOR YEARS, ISRAELIS HAVE BEEN ABLE—through military and economic domination—to disregard the single most pressing issue facing the country—its control over millions of Palestinians. The shock and trauma inflicted by the Oct. 7 attack opened the floodgates even further on what is considered acceptable.

A large majority—88 percent—of Jewish Israelis polled in January believe the astounding number of Palestinian deaths, which had surpassed 25,000 at the time, is justified. A large majority of the Jewish public also thinks that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is using adequate or even too little force in Gaza. Couched in the idea that Hamas forced this “war of no choice” upon Israel and the people of Gaza and that Hamas must be destroyed as a matter of Israeli survival, even the threat of imminent famine in Gaza has not provoked opposition to the campaign.

Further, in a February poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, around two-thirds of Jewish respondents (63 percent) said they oppose the proposal for Israel to agree in principle to the establishment of an independent, demilitarized Palestinian state. Israeli leaders have framed the movement underway internationally for governments to unilaterally recognize Palestine as a state to be rewarding the Palestinians for the Oct. 7 attack.

You don’t need a poll to discover that support for a two-state solution, much less for Palestinian basic rights of freedom and self-determination, has been steadily declining among Jewish Israelis in recent years, and today is probably the lowest it has ever been. You can just look at the positions of Israel’s Jewish political parties. Almost none of them endorse a two-state solution, and the ones in power actively reject it, working fastidiously to thwart it from ever happening.

The thousands of Israelis who are once again turning out to march in the streets are not protesting the war. Except for a tiny handful of Israelis, Jews, and Palestinians, they are not calling for a cease-fire or an end to the war—or for peace. They are not protesting Israel’s killing of unprecedented numbers of Palestinians in Gaza or its restrictions on humanitarian aid that have led to mass starvation. (Some right-wing Israelis even go further by actively blocking aid from entering the strip.) They are certainly not invoking the need to end military occupation, now in its 57th year. They are primarily protesting Netanyahu’s refusal to step down and what they see as his reluctance to seal a hostage deal.

At a recent protest in Jerusalem, “We are not our government” signs were front and center, echoing the distinction Democrats are making between the Netanyahu government and its people.

But that distinction is misleading.

Putting all the blame on the prime minister misses the point. It disregards the fact that Israelis have long advanced, enabled, or come to terms with their country’s system of military occupation and dehumanization of Palestinians.

That’s true of other members of the war cabinet who are often depicted as counterweights or alternatives to the prime minister. It wasn’t Netanyahu but his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who called for a total siege of Gaza after Oct. 7: “no electricity, no fuel, no food, everything will be closed.” It wasn’t Netanyahu but the supposedly centrist president, Isaac Herzog, who implied that every resident of Gaza is a legitimate target when he said at the outset of the war that there’s an “entire nation out there that is responsible. This rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved [in the Oct. 7 onslaught]—it’s absolutely not true.” (He later said his words were taken out of context.) Incendiary and genocidal language by various Israeli politicians and figures was well documented in South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice late last year.

Focusing on Netanyahu also ignores the rightward drift of the Israeli body politic, which has normalized racism and nationalism, especially evident in mainstream media’s coverage of the war. Israeli news rarely shows the suffering in Gaza, almost never platforms Palestinians, and military journalists seldom challenge or scrutinize the IDF’s version of events.

It also disregards the fact that Israelis are still showing up for reservist duty without question, almost six months into this war, despite distrusting Netanyahu’s leadership and motives, and despite having already threatened to refuse duty over the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

Despite the high number of soldiers killed since Oct. 7 (600) and wounded (over 3,000, not including much higher numbers suffering from post-traumatic stress), mothers of soldiers are not protesting the war, a factor that played a significant role in opposition to Israel’s occupation of Lebanon and eventual withdrawal.

And a change of leadership won’t necessarily mean meaningful policy changes. If Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister and IDF chief of the general staff who is polling well against Netanyahu, were to become prime minister, it is unlikely that he would adopt policies regarding the Palestinians that are substantially different from Netanyahu’s.

In 2019, Gantz released an election campaign video boasting of sending parts of Gaza back to the Stone Age during his term as IDF chief of the general staff in 2014. And today, like Netanyahu, he insists on an invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where up to 1.5 million local and displaced Palestinians are now concentrated, to deal what they claim will be a final and fatal blow to Hamas.

He also rejects unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state; instead, he has at most acknowledged the possibility for Palestinians to have an “entity,” not a state. Indeed, as defense minister in the short-lived Naftali Bennett government in 2021, Gantz hosted Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in his home, indicating he espouses the military’s deeply ingrained understanding that keeping the PA operational is a vital Israeli national security interest for maintaining control.

THE DOCTRINE OUTLINED by the Biden administration to restructure the PA and send it to Gaza, along with creating a political process that would require Israeli concessions toward a Palestinian state as part of a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, is the only alternative to Israel’s protracted destruction and occupation of Gaza currently on the table.

Some former Israeli government and security officials have also adopted this approach, since they understand it is the best option for Israel to stem further alienation from the American public and maintain some international legitimacy.

survey among Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in February showed that half would support a political process along these lines. In this sense, some Israelis are at least searching for a pragmatic off-ramp.

Whether this idea is realistic is also doubtful: It is unclear if the PA can be reformed sufficiently to regain legitimacy among Palestinians; likewise, it is unlikely Hamas would disappear completely from the scene in Gaza. Nor does the proposed track outline what sorts of concessions Israel would need to make. But it could at least produce an immediate de-escalation in the form of a cease-fire, which is vital.

Either way, it’s notable that the U.S. administration is proposing it, not an Israeli leader or politician. As such, the outcome of such a process would depend on how both Israelis and Palestinians respond to a cease-fire over time, and how much the United States and other actors would be prepared to push to make it happen. For now, Israelis are largely not calling for a cease-fire.

As long as Netanyahu is in power, the war is almost sure to drag on, and along with it the risk of mass death from starvation in Gaza; further regional escalation; and an Israeli public living with shrunken, insecure borders without ever knowing the fate of their loved ones held in Gaza.

Putting all their energy into ousting Netanyahu, while understandable, keeps Israelis from assuming responsibility for their complicity in the prolonged military occupation, the destruction of Gaza, and their failure to outline a genuine political path out of the current crisis. In that sense, Netanyahu is a convenient scapegoat.