It isn’t Netanyahu who is acting against the will of his people, it’s Biden

It isn’t Netanyahu who is acting against the will of his people, it’s Biden

Democrats are criticizing the Israeli government for not reflecting the desires of Israelis in its war on Gaza. Netanyahu may be hated, but it’s clear he’s not acting against the will of his people. That description is far more fitting for Joe Biden.

by Mitchell Plitnick, reposted from Mondoweiss, March 15, 2024

On March 14, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, long one of Israel’s most zealous supporters on Capitol Hill, made international headlines when he called for Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster in new elections. In a speech in the Senate, Schumer said, “Israel is a democracy. Five months into this conflict it is clear that Israelis need to take stock of the situation and ask, must we change course. At this critical juncture I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.”

This reflects a pivot Democrats have been making as we enter the sixth month of Israel’s genocide in Gaza, and the Biden administration attempts to frame their unpopular support for Israel by isolating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the most fanatical of his ultra-right ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Vice President Kamala Harris did this during a March 8 interview with CBS, where she sought to deflect criticism of the Gaza genocide at large and instead pin it on the Israeli government as a non-representative outlier of sorts. In the interview, Harris said: “It’s important for us to distinguish or at least not conflate the Israeli government with the Israeli people.”

This argument needs to be scrutinized carefully. U.S. leaders love to say they are not antagonistic to a given group of people but to their leaders. But these pronouncements are rarely used in regard to an ally, especially one the United States considers a close friend and a fellow democracy. But upon analysis, it is clear that it is in fact not the Netanyahu-led government that is acting against the will of its people, but the Biden administration.

The views of the Israeli people

Harris’s contention is that we should not blame the people of Israel for the actions of their government, implying that the truly horrific actions of the Israeli military in Gaza are not supported by the people of Israel. But is that true?

In a poll published on February 20, the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI) asked a number of questions that pertain to Harris’s point.

One key question was, “Do you support or oppose the idea that Israel should allow the transfer of humanitarian aid to Gaza residents at this time, with food and medicines being transferred by international bodies that are not linked to Hamas or to UNRWA?”

The implicit linking of UNRWA and Hamas says a lot about the general atmosphere in Israel, but by qualifying in that way, the IDI made it easier for Israelis to support the idea of humanitarian aid getting in.

Yet, fully 68% of Israeli Jews said they opposed aid going into Gaza. Only 30% supported it. Of course, the Palestinian population of Israel’s citizenry overwhelmingly supported letting aid in (85%), but no one even pretends that their views have any impact anymore.

Take a moment and consider that response. By stipulating that Hamas would not be involved in the transfer and distribution of aid, the question makes it clear that it is asking whether civilians in Gaza should get humanitarian aid. And 68% of Israeli Jews answered “no.” Even among the dwindling Israeli Jewish “left,” nearly 40% want to keep aid out of the hands of Gaza’s civilian population.

One might wonder what Israelis think about Biden’s golden calf, the two-state solution. This notion, one which Israel years ago murdered as effectively as it has killed over 31,000 people in Gaza, is the windmill Biden will tilt at until he dies. Do Israelis support this vision?

The IDI poll gives a definitively negative answer. Israeli Jews oppose even accepting the notion of a de-militarized Palestinian state (something, we should recall, that it is hard to imagine the Palestinian people agreeing to after this onslaught) as an abstract goal relegated to sometime down the road by a margin of 63% to 30%. By more than a two-to-one margin, they reject this idea.

Netanyahu contends he is representing the will of the Israeli people in his actions and positions against the Palestinian people. It certainly appears he is correct.

Israeli and American views of Netanyahu

In January, an ISI poll found that only 15% of Israelis want Netanyahu to remain in office after the Gaza onslaught ends but that 56% supported continuing the offensive, while only 24% thought that a swap and political agreement was a preferable option for retrieving the Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

This poll reflected the common understanding that Israelis are fed up with Netanyahu, and why would they not be? His corruption is common knowledge, and even many of his supporters understand that he has broken the law. Before October 7, the waves of protests against Netanyahu’s attempts to disempower the Israeli judiciary to save his own skin and enhance the power of the ultra-right made his diminished popularity clear.

Many Israelis across the political spectrum justifiably blame Netanyahu for allowing the October 7 attack to happen and for the Israeli defense’s slow response that day but have consistently supported the massive assault on Gaza.

Americans, in general, were less hostile to Netanyahu, with a January Statista/YouGov poll showing that 36% held an unfavorable view of Netanyahu while 34% held a favorable one. But Israel’s high-profile war crimes have had a real impact among Democrats.

February 27 poll by Data For Progress showed that more than three-quarters (77%) of Democratic voters wanted the United States to call for a ceasefire. Netanyahu’s refusal not only to stop the slaughter but even to try to rein in the daily war crimes that range from looting to Israeli soldiers opening fire on civilians lining up for aid has angered Democratic voters and embarrassed their pro-Israel elected officials.

Biden administration continues to ignore reality

On Thursday, the Likud issued a statement in response Schumer’s admonition of Netanyahu. “Israel is not a banana republic but an independent democracy,” and stated, correctly, that Netanyahu’s policies in Gaza were “supported by a great majority of the people. We expect Senator Schumer to respect the elected government of Israel and not undermine it. This is always true, but especially in a time of war.”

To use words I never thought I would, I agree with Likud. Schumer is a U.S. senator. It is not his job, nor Biden’s or Harris’s, to decide on the composition of Israel’s government any more than it is their job to determine who may or may not participate in Palestinian politics.

Schumer likely does not believe his words will suddenly lead to snap elections in Israel. This is just a continuation of what Harris did with her misleading statement. Of course, there are many Israelis who feel that a diplomatic resolution is needed in Gaza and beyond. But it is equally certain that the general will of the Israeli Jewish public (again, especially when it comes to matters like Gaza or anything dealing with the Palestinians, the non-Jewish sector in Israel is of no political consequence in the apartheid state) is to maintain the military operations even if a majority do not believe that Hamas can be fully exterminated by military force.

Netanyahu may be hated by an overwhelming majority of Israelis, but this is not a case of a government acting outside the will of its people. Indeed, that description is far more fitting for the Biden administration than it is for the Netanyahu government.

It is far from certain that a new government will be much different from the current one. For one thing, recent developments in Israeli politics have changed the outlook. The National Unity party, headed by Benny Gantz, has split, with Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope faction leaving the party, essentially leaving Gantz’s Blue and White party and a couple of independent Knesset members alone. How that might affect an election is unclear, but Sa’ar made it clear that he was supporting Netanyahu, a major reversal of his position for years.

For another, as I explained recently, Gantz’s policies regarding Gaza are not much different from those of Netanyahu. But while those differences are minuscule for Palestinians, they might make all the difference for Biden and the Democrats. Gantz may well be amenable to a vague commitment to a Palestinian state somewhere down the road and might also be less brazen about attacking international relief sites and food lines. Basically, while Gantz has the same goals as Netanyahu, he is not beholden to the ultra-right and so would not be reluctant to go back to the more traditional practice of less brazenly committing the same war crimes. And appearances, as we’ve seen, are really all Biden and his gang care about.

But if a hypothetical Prime Minister Gantz were to sharply change course and agree to a permanent ceasefire, it would be he who would be going against the will of the majority of the Israeli Jewish public. Recalling that fully 68% of Israeli Jews said they want to continue starving Palestinian children to death, it becomes clear that Schumer, Harris, and Biden are all trying to mislead the U.S. public once again.

Netanyahu is a despised man in Israel. It will be highly unlikely, though not totally impossible as it would have been six months ago, that he will retain his position in new elections.

But the idea that he is leading Israel into pariah status — which he is — without the support of the Israeli people is untrue. How much of that extremism is due to the ongoing rage after October 7 is impossible to say. Americans who lived through the aftermath of September 11 know how long that rage can last and how murderous it can be, especially among privileged people like Americans and Israelis. But right now, for whatever reason, what Netanyahu is doing in Gaza is what the majority of Israelis want. Pretending otherwise is just another in a lengthy list of examples of Americans hiding their eyes from reality.

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy. He is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. Mitchell’s previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Director of the US Office of B’Tselem, and Co-Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.


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