Israelis take little heed of global anger. But their contempt for Netanyahu is growing

<span>A woman chants slogans on a megaphone during a protest outside the home of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on 20 January 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock</span>
A woman chants slogans on a megaphone during a protest outside the home of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on 20 January 2024.Photograph: Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

After four horrible months, the Israel-Hamas war drags on, and Israel seems more isolated than ever. Mass protests against Israel on US college campuses and UK streets in the early weeks of the war gave way to South Africa’s appeal to the international court of justice accusing Israel of genocide. The US, Israel’s best friend, moved from quietly pushing it to begin downscaling the war and allow more humanitarian aid to Gaza, to slapping sanctions on violent West Bank settlers and pushing a UN security council resolution for a ceasefire; even Prince William called for the fighting to stop.

But little of this global pressure has moved Israelis. In a mid-January survey from Tel Aviv University, more than half of Jewish Israeli respondents thought Israel was using the right amount of force, but another 43% said that it had not used enough. In a survey last week by the Israel Democracy Institute, a majority of Jewish Israelis opposed a detailed political agreement to end the war, and two-thirds opposed humanitarian aid to Gaza. This data is sobering, though mirrored by trends among the Palestinian public, during the war, where polls show high support for Hamas and for the 7 October attacks.

Most societies rally behind a war effort. But there are reasons why Israelis seem impervious to growing international opprobrium, not to mention the human disaster in Gaza, that go beyond regular wartime rallying.

It’s not that Israelis don’t care about global attitudes. Global protests shook Israelis – with anger

First, Israelis are simply shattered by 7 October, a day they have been living ever since, along with fresh trauma from the war. Outsiders often blame the Israeli media for insufficient coverage of suffering people in Gaza but this misses the point: Israelis have retreated inward. The media is simply hyper-focused on Israelis.

Hours of broadcast news are devoted each day to individual stories about soldiers killed in the war, displaced people from the north or the south, witnesses and survivors from 7 October or their family members. Tune into the radio at any time, and the most common conversation is: “Tell us about your late son/husband/brother killed in Gaza. Who was he?” The answer is never “My father was…” it’s always “Dad was”. Israel is a very personal society; everyone wants to hear about the dead person’s special qualities, the winning smile, the life of the party.

The remaining news time is fragmented into items about the war, politics, the budget, divisive social issues. International news, even about Israel, can be buried in the mix.

It’s not that Israelis don’t care about global attitudes. Global protests, and particularly the international court of justice hearings, shook them – with anger. Their conclusion is not that Israel’s war has gone too far; rather, that their suspicions that the world is always against them have come true. That magnifies their sense of an existential threat, a latent constant fear before 7 October, viscerally inflamed ever since. Arab citizens, logically, show radically different views towards the war in surveys and cannot be analysed together with Jewish Israeli trends.

And yet, something is changing in Israeli Jewish attitudes regarding the war. Polls from the Institute for National Security Studies show falling confidence in the war itself. From a high point of more than three-quarters of the Jewish population in November, just 58% now think Israel can achieve all or most of its war aims. In a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute this month, only a minority, 39% of all Israelis, think there is a high or very high likelihood of “absolute victory”, as the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised.

But it’s probably not Joe Biden, Prince William or the world court that’s changing their minds, at least not exclusively. I believe they’re worried about what’s going wrong in the region.

Families are frantic that their loved ones will die before being released in a deal that never comes

Israelis see that Hamas has not been destroyed and is still fighting; as I write this, nearly five months in, the shrill tones of alarm apps announce rocket fire in the south. Reports that the Hamas mastermind Yahya Sinwar skipped town to the Sinai with hostages in tow may or may not be true, but he’s definitely not dead. And, after brief euphoria when the Israel Defense Forces liberated two hostages in a military raid, families are frantic that their loved ones will die before being released in a deal that never comes.

Their concerns about the war achievements tap into another overriding dynamic in public opinion: unlike most other countries, who rally around their leaders in wartime, all polls show that Israeli support for its government plunged after 7 October.

Three demonstrations held every Saturday night for weeks now tell the story. The biggest one is led by the families of hostages; it mobilises large, politically mainstream crowds demanding that the government prioritise hostage release, while avoiding an overtly anti-government message. The second is a swelling group drawn from the massive pro-democracy, anti-government movement of 2023. These protesters call openly and angrily to oust the government, and thousands of them fill a central plaza in Tel Aviv weekly. In a far corner of the plaza is the third group – a tiny clutch of activists protesting against the war, supporting a ceasefire and opposing Israel’s occupation. Few pay them much attention.

Yet, together, the protesters have been gathering force. Some strands have blocked the main highway out of Tel Aviv at night. Protests have spread to Jerusalem, at the prime minister’s residence, or to his private home in Caesarea, and other locations.

External pressure probably won’t change Israelis’ minds on its own. But it can add to the public’s growing image of its leadership as fanatical, corrupt, lethally incompetent, eager to sacrifice both democracy and the hostages while turning the country and its people into global pariahs. At some point, just as they voted this ruinous government in, Israelis will have to throw that same government out.

• Dahlia Scheindlin is a Tel Aviv-based political analyst and pollster

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