The Washington Post is right to emphasize the popularity of the Gaza operation in Israel. This is necessary information for the many who follow events through various media outlets and can’t always tell what percentage of the electorate each outlet and each columnist represent. Online media and social media make the world of public opinion seem flat – but it isn’t. The Israeli public (that is, the Jewish majority) has few qualms about the conduct of the war thus far. The operation is backed by right and left – except for very few people on the very far left.
Take a look at yesterday’s Peace Index survey. “From the beginning of the operation to the time of writing (July 27), there has been consistent and almost complete unanimity in the Jewish public that the launching of the operation was justified; in the three surveys we carried out, an average of 95% thought so”.
You might say that such unanimity makes the position of dissenters even more admirable and courageous. That’s fine, as long as you remember they speak for a tiny group. This isn’t "a right wing government’s war”, it is Israel’s war. That is one of the reasons Netanyahu could rebuff American pressure in recent days: he even has the backing of opposition leaders (one should wonder: did President Obama notice the fact that, unlike in the case of the peace process, this time he can’t claim to have any allies within Israel that support his position?).
One way to asses the real percentage of dissenters is to look at the following question: “In your opinion, is the use the IDF has made so far of its firepower in Gaza at an appropriate level, excessive, or insufficient?”.
Dissenters on the left are those you’d expect to have doubts about the use of force, and to be susceptible to complains about “proportionality”. So what are the numbers?
59.5% say appropriate. That is the Israeli consensus.
33.4% say too little – these are the members of the significant camp of a grumbling right who support the operation but believe Netanyahu is being too cautious.
As for the opposing left: that’s 3.7%. If all of them are your Facebook friends, or if you read the paper for which all of them write, you might think there are plenty of them. But in reality they are a tiny minority whose only impact is to mislead the international media into thinking that Israel is having its usual debate between “right” and “left”. It isn’t.
Of course, public opinion in a time of war can be a shifty thing. I looked at polls from two weeks ago, when the operation was still in its initial stages. 'Are you for\against ground operation?' was the question given to the public. More people (47%) were against it than for it (42%). Today, 85% of the Jewish public supports a continuation of a “limited ground operation” (56% of the Israeli public strongly support the statement: “Send in ground forces for a limited operation in coordination with continued aerial attacks until significant damage is caused to Hamas’s capacities to fire rockets at Israel”).
Of course, that such changes can occur within a short period of time means that the public can also reverse its positions very quickly if there are signs that the operation is going wrong.
As you ponder the many considerations the government must have as it negotiates a cease fire, you should always keep the politics of it all in the back of your mind. The government was very good thus far in preventing this operation from seeming political in any way – PM Netanyahu was especially good at it, and that is a reason for his approval numbers to soar – but politicians can never fully cease to be politicians.
So what should the government worry about at this point? The obvious problem is that having a consensus without anyone raising doubts and presenting alternatives can be dangerous. It is reasonable to expect that within the government some people will be given the mission of looking at things from a less sympathetic viewpoint – and making counter arguments to challenge decision makers before they keep moving forward.
But there’s another problem hidden behind the numbers and that is the growing expectations of the public: if two weeks ago 77% of the public expected “another round against Hamas” after the current round ends, this number has significantly declined in recent weeks to 65% (7.17.2014) and now to 50%. At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of Israelis expecting “long term quiet” has risen from 8% (7.14) to 16% (7.17) to 30% (7.23).
When the public begins to expect long term quiet, the government has to be more insistent as it negotiates the terms of a cease fire.
Another problem: in polls about the war the pollsters feel the need to count Jews and Arabs separately, because of the mirror image views of the two publics. For all those who have concerns about the future of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, this is a troubling – if expected – phenomenon.