Politics: Bennett, not Netanyahu, is the big winner of Israel's Gaza operation

A recent poll found that the percentage of Israelis satisfied with Netanyahu had fallen from 45% to 40% since the last Dialog poll three months ago.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
Many American presidents and Israeli prime ministers have enjoyed a spike in their approval ratings during wars and security crises, known in political science as the “Rally ’Round the Flag Effect.”
The best example in the US is president George W. Bush, whose approval reached 92 percent in an ABC poll – a record for any American president in history – following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
That figure is especially astounding considering Bush also received a record low approval rating for any American president – 19% in a September 2008 in a poll by CBS – which had him at 90% seven years earlier.
Bush’s father, president George H.W. Bush, hit his peak during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter also hit record approval ratings for their presidencies during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Iran Hostage Crisis, respectively.
In Israel, prime minister Ehud Olmert enjoyed 71% approval when he took over from Ariel Sharon following his stroke. He also reached approval heights when the Second Lebanon War began.
But near the end of his term, he hit a nadir of only 2% – the lowest for a prime minister in Israeli history.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also traditionally risen in the polls when the national agenda has been security, and fallen when it has been socioeconomic issues.
Polls have shown that in precarious times, Israelis want an experienced leader on whom they can rely. That helps Netanyahu, because barring a not altogether implausible political comeback by outgoing President Shimon Peres, no candidate can compete with Netanyahu’s credentials.
HAS NETANYAHU risen in the polls due to Operation Protective Edge?
It is tough to say, because only two media outlets have published polls at this time. Interestingly, the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom has decided not to gauge his approval rating, or at least not publish it.
Ha'aretz ran a Dialog poll that found that Likud would jump from its current 20 Knesset seats to 25, Yisrael Beytenu would rise from 11 to 14, and Bayit Yehudi from 12 to 16. But the same poll found that the percentage of Israelis satisfied with Netanyahu had fallen from 45% to 40% since the last Dialog poll three months ago.
A Panels poll broadcast on the Knesset Channel found the Likud would rise from its current 20 Knesset seats to 21 – not exactly a Rally ’Round the Flag Effect.
Yisrael Beytenu, which broke off from the Likud this week claiming that Netanyahu was too soft on Hamas, has remained at its current 11 seats. The only right-wing party doing well in the polls is Bayit Yehudi, which is predicted to win 18 mandates – way up from its current 12.
Perhaps what explains the numbers is that Netanyahu’s Rally ’Round the Flag Effect has been balanced out by people in range of rockets being angry at him. Liberman’s move to break up Likud Beytenu during a tense security situation gave him negative coverage. Only Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has been able to capitalize on the current round of conflict.
IT WAS a good week for Bennett.
He went to the South and vowed in speeches to “hunt down” current Hamas leaders, the way Israel assassinated former leaders like Sheikh Ahmed Yassein and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
He has gone on foreign media outlets and talked tough, standing up to a hostile interviewer on Al Jazeera who asked him why Israel was killing civilians in the Gaza Strip.
Bennett, a former General Staff Reconnaissance Unit commando, will not be drafted to fight Hamas. But he can stand up to an enemy his right-wing constituents may hate nearly as much – the left-wing newspaper Haaretz.
Bennett came to the newspaper’s poorly timed “peace conference,” which was ironically interrupted when sirens went off in Tel Aviv and the left-wing activists in attendance ran for their lives.
He told a crowd that hissed at him before he had even said a word to wake up and face reality. He explained how he had learned in his hi-tech career that when ideas fail, it is time to move on and try new approaches.
And then, he was lucky enough to get shoved by a not-so-peaceful peace activist – giving him even better headlines in the Hebrew press and more to say to the international media.
“People can heckle me,” he told Al Jazeera. “That’s what a democracy is all about. I am proud to be in a country where as a government minister, people can heckle me, and nothing bad will happen to those demonstrators.
That’s what a beautiful democracy is about and I wish other countries in this region would adopt such a liberal democracy.”
Political and military battles often impact each other.
Ahead of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu was under political pressure to take a tougher stand on Hamas.
Liberman pushed Netanyahu to do just that. Yet calls for greater action on the Right have been balanced out by praise the prime minister has received for his restraint from his fiercest left-wing critics, like journalists Nahum Barnea and Amnon Abramovich.
The people of Israel have thus far united behind the operation; even left-wing leaders have supported it.
That has been the impact of politics on the military battle so far. As for how the operation could affect politics, calls in the Likud for opposition parties to enter the coalition were quickly rejected by the leaders of Labor, United Torah Judaism and Shas.
The long-term impact on the political standing of leaders on the Right, like Netanyahu, Liberman and Bennett, remains to be seen.
If the operation goes well, they could all benefit.
But if the operation hits a snag, the leader who gains might end up being the one sitting outside. Former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon intends to form a new political party and run in the next general election.
If things go wrong, perhaps he will be the one to emerge from the operation in the Gaza Strip with a protective edge.