Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going on the offensive following a recent wave of international diplomatic setbacks, including a stinging rebuke of Israel’s settlement policy from a conference of the Geneva Convention. With elections coming up, the leader is attempting to leverage the wave of international censure to rally domestic support, experts said. It is unclear, however, whether his decision to position himself against European powers will be an effective strategy in building support among Israeli voters.
Netanyahu has leveled some of his strongest criticisms against Europe in the aftermath of a string of decisions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by various international organizations. A European Union court ordered Wednesday that the Palestinian militant group Hamas be removed from the bloc’s terror blacklist, prompting Netanyahu to express his outrage in vivid terms. "It seems that too many in Europe, on whose soil 6 million Jews were slaughtered, have learned nothing," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Also on Wednesday was the meeting of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which delivered a major condemnation of Israel’s continued settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. To this, the prime minister responded, “What hypocrisy, what a travesty. I ask, where is elementary European integrity?”
Netanyahu has his domestic audience in mind as he responds to the diplomatic censure, according to Middle East political experts. “No doubt he's trying to get political advantage out of it,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. “Most Israelis share the view that there's a lot of anti-Semitism in Europe.”
Netanyahu's tough approach to security issues is one of his biggest selling points to the Israeli electorate, and he may be eager to emphasize this kind of rhetoric given that he likely will not be able to lean heavily on his record following Israel’s Gaza war this summer. Roughly 54 percent of Israelis were skeptical of Netanyahu's claim that the country had achieved victory against Hamas, according to a Haaretz poll released in August. The war, which resulted in nearly 2,200 casualties and caused massive infrastructural damage in Gaza, sparked widespread international criticism of Israel and may have contributed to its increasing diplomatic isolation. On Friday, the Israeli military said that a rocket fired from Gaza struck Israel's southern Eshkol region in the first such attack since September, according to the Associated Press.
“I don't see him talking much about the Gaza war because many Israelis think that there was no decisive outcome,” said Abrams. “But he is talking about security ... and that general issue does work in his favor.”
Israel's Powerful Youth Vote
While polls show that Netanyahu himself is increasingly unpopular, his right-wing Likud Party continues to attract far more significant support than any other faction, according to a survey released last week by Israel’s Channel 2. The right remains powerful in Israel for a number of reasons, including Israel's youthful population. Israel's median age is around 30, and, unlike many other developed countries, Israel's youth tends to lean rightward, with two-thirds of first time voters describing themselves as "right wing" during the 2013 elections and over 40 percent voting for hawkish parties such as Likud.
Support for a two-state solution is also weakest among the young, with a 2010 survey by the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith finding that only 40 percent of Israelis between the ages of 18 and 24 favored the creation of a Palestinian state, according to the Los Angeles Times. Young Israelis, many of whom are required to serve in the military, are also not necessarily inclined to be more sympathetic toward Europe, because they have "seen what they view as unbalanced and unfair European pressure on Israel over the last couple of decades," Abrams said.
Another significant right-leaning group is Israel's Middle Eastern Jewish community, which makes up around 50 percent of the country's population. The possible breakup of the Shas Party, which has been one of the most prominent parties supporting this community's interests, means that there is now a big question mark around who these voters will support. "Their votes are divided right now," said Brent E. Sasley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. "They tend to vote to the right, and they like parties that project images of strength," which could potentially be a political boon to Netanyahu, Sasley said.
A Hamas Takeover?
A looming United Nations Security Council resolution that seeks to set a two-year deadline to reach an agreement on the issue of Palestinian statehood could also influence Israel's election. Netanyahu warned on Thursday that if the resolution was passed it could lead to “a Hamas takeover” of the West Bank, according to Haaretz.
Depending on whether the draft is approved by the council and what the final version of the resolution looks like, Netanyahu could have a powerful electoral weapon against his left-wing rivals, said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. “That is a significant major step, and if it does happen, it gives [Netanyahu] an opportunity to rally his base and reach across the center and grab some of those [parliament] seats,” he said.
Netanyahu’s biggest threat in the upcoming March elections is a center-left coalition party led by Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah Party Chairwoman Tzipi Livni, who have made surprising gains in popularity and are currently neck and neck with Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, according to the Channel 2 poll.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party would need to win 61 seats in Israel’s Knesset in order to stay in power in March. Herzog’s Labor coalition has made a powerful play to attract more support from the center, and this effort could actually be successful unless the Europeans push Israel too hard, according to Goldenberg. “The left has its own narrative that is credible as long as the Europeans don't overstep and do things that are universally unpopular and seen as damaging in Israel,” he said.
The political challenge from the left means that Netanyahu will be eager to emphasize the various international threats Israel faces. “He wants to argue that there is only one alternative for PM right now,” said Abrams. “He wants to argue Herzog is weak, so pointing to the threats Israel faces, whether diplomatic and economic threats from Europe or military threats from Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran, is probably a good strategy.”
However, this might not necessarily be a winning strategy for the prime minister. Netanyahu does not have much to leverage on this subject with the Israeli public, said Sasley. “It's certainly the case that over the last 10 to 12 years or so, Israelis have become more concerned about their place in the world,” he said. “But there's also a general sense within Jewish Israeli society that, to put it crudely, 'much of the world is already not interested in helping us so these negative developments are not new.'”
Instead of security concerns, the March elections could follow the pattern of Israel’s last elections in January 2013, when economic and social issues were the major concerns, argued Sasley. “At the moment, the trends are still that the social and economic issues are important, and the center and left have been able to capitalize on that,” he said. “I think this will continue to play out again, barring a major international development.”