The leaders of Israel’s current government often mention the “mandate” that they received from the Israeli public in the last elections as justification, not only for judicial reform, but also for a fully-fledged right-wing approach to foreign policy.
This policy’s trademarks include openly opposing the two-state solution with the Palestinians and working to undermine its feasibility by laying the groundwork for de facto annexation of the West Bank.
The Mitvim Institute’s Israel’s Foreign Policy Index 2023 – the yearly public survey of Israeli public opinion on foreign policy topics – exposes a significant gap between the public’s views and this government’s fundamental foreign policy goals and mindset. This is first illustrated by the public’s general discontent regarding this government’s international performance.
When asked to grade the government’s performance in the field of foreign policy, the public produced the lowest grade it had awarded in the past seven years. This year’s grade stands in stark contrast to the relatively high grades given to the previous Netanyahu government. Public perception of Israel’s international standing and of the state of its relations with the United States have also declined dramatically.
Netanyahu’s strategy, in previous years, was focused on winning public support through celebrating foreign policy successes while enhancing his image as a global leader in the eyes of Israelis. The need for this is even more critical this year as the current Israeli government is suffering from an acute domestic legitimacy crisis amid its attempt to pass the judicial reform. Therefore, for this government, external legitimacy serves as a tool to increase Netanyahu’s public prestige, and as a necessary means to maintain legitimacy at home.
This has led to a series of diplomatic visits to world capitals by members of this government that were meant to create an atmosphere of diplomatic achievement, which backfired more than once when Israeli leaders from the radical Right were refused an audience. Mitvim’s survey clearly shows that Netanyahu’s old maneuver of converting external legitimacy into domestic legitimacy has failed. The cold shoulder given by world leaders (from DC to the UAE) to the prime minister and his cabinet members turns the foreign arena from an electoral asset into another source of public discontent.
Beyond an unfavorable performance review, a closer look at the survey findings exposes major conceptual gaps between the views of the Israeli public and this government’s approach to key strategic issues. The government’s approach and policy steps in the West Bank are chief among them. One of the key features that separates this Israeli government from its predecessors is the declarative and practical rejection of the concept of a two-state solution. Its guidelines refer to the “exclusive and indisputable right of the Jewish People” over the historic Erez Yisrael.
More importantly, its policy has focused on creating a legal and tangible infrastructure for annexing the West Bank. The Israeli public is much less decisive, to say the least, regarding Israel’s strategic direction as regards the Palestinians. In fact, the two-state solution still serves as the most popular option (36%), with a quarter of Israelis undecided regarding the Palestinians. However, only 13% of the public share Smotrich’s belief that the continued existence of the Palestinian Authority (PA) negates Israel’s interests, while 43% think the PA serves or is crucial to Israel’s interests.
The government and the public at odds
The government and the public also disagree on handling the Jerusalem issue. This government has committed itself to erasing Palestinian political presence in the holy city, and its radical echelons often express their intentions to challenge the status quo on Jewish prayer in the Temple Mount. However, our survey shows that a considerable majority of Israelis (61%) support establishing a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian mechanism in Jerusalem to prevent conflicts in the city’s holy basin.
The Abraham Accords have so far served as a major public success for Netanyahu. Aware of their importance as a source of legitimacy and public support, members of this government have been keen to publicly emphasize the normalization with Saudi Arabia as an impending success – a done deal waiting to happen. Simultaneously, they were also keen to marginalize the role of the Palestinians in the Saudi deal – which the prime minister described as “a checkbox that you have to check to say you’re doing it.”
This goes well with the prime minister’s long-standing approach of isolating the normalization process with the Arab world from the Israeli-Palestinian topic. However, our survey reveals that the Israeli public adopts an entirely different approach. 61% believe that Israel should leverage its new relations with the region to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Much more than an abstract concept, a considerable portion of the Israeli public is willing to compromise and offer actual steps to achieve this goal. Forty-one percent support stopping settlement activity and evacuating new “illegal” settlements in return for normalization with Saudi Arabia (compared to 40% who oppose such a deal).
Netanyahu made a global trademark out of his opposition to seeking a diplomatic solution with Iran to halt its nuclear efforts. However, the apparent failure of the “maximum pressure” policy vis-à-vis Iran seems to profoundly impact Israeli public views. The public now turns its hopes to the diplomatic alternative as the leading option for the last-minute effort to stop the Iranian race for the bomb. Almost half of the respondents view the diplomatic track as the primary means of curbing this threat. Only a quarter support a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Finally, contrary to the government’s ambition, the Israeli public considers international criticism when forming its opinion on judicial reform. While members of this government head off external criticism, insist that the reform is strictly a domestic Israeli matter, and call upon concerned global partners to “mind their own business,” Mitvim’s survey indicates that the Israeli public is much more attuned to the critical voices coming from DC, Berlin, and Paris. A relative plurality of the Israeli public (45%) indicates that the international criticism of the reform has strongly influenced their opinions.
The findings of Mitvim’s survey portray the current government as a “minority government regarding its foreign policy. The attempt to win skeptical hearts and minds from Right to Center by turning to diplomatic activity has been unsuccessful. In fact, it may have served as a double-edged sword. Diplomatic blunders such as Cohen’s failed engagement with his Libyan counterpart or the treatment of Smotrich as an international pariah emphasize to the Israeli public that this government is anything but ordinary.
While Netanyahu and government members have sought international support to gain internal legitimacy, national public feedback indicates that this effort might have served to expose the radical nature of this government and its ideas.
The writer is the CEO of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute of Regional Foreign Policies.