The Middle East Channel

Israelis speak up

In the maelstrom of commentary regarding the Gaza flotilla from all corners of the earth, one important group has hardly been heard: the Israeli people. Are Israelis critical, scandalized like Americans after Kent State, and demanding political change? Or are they going defensive against the international onslaught and scorning the specter of global excommunication Right ...

AFP/Getty
AFP/Getty

In the maelstrom of commentary regarding the Gaza flotilla from all corners of the earth, one important group has hardly been heard: the Israeli people. Are Israelis critical, scandalized like Americans after Kent State, and demanding political change? Or are they going defensive against the international onslaught and scorning the specter of global excommunication

Right away, both sides were out and both were angry. The "critical" crowd protested against the actions at the Tel Aviv defense compound; "defensive" citizens flocked to the Turkish Embassy to support the soldiers and shake fists at Turkish Premier Erdogan. Days later, fresh demonstrations brought greater numbers, roughly 2000 at the Turkish embassy, and roughly 6000 "critical" lefties calling for a new government, two states, two capitals in Jerusalem, and end to the closure. There are no recent precedents for a left demonstration outnumbering their counterparts by three-to-one.

The activity itself already signifies a watershed, so to speak. In recent years, Israeli society has been uncharacteristically unengaged, with the right in power, and the geriatric left in despair. Polls show that people support peace, but the streets attest to their silence; the numbers consistently show young people turning towards nationalist, hard-line attitudes.

The silence has been broken.

Mainstream Israel is mainly defensive, powerfully influenced by the IDF-filmed and edited battle scene replayed endlessly. Images of Israeli soldiers being beaten and screaming have been seared into people’s minds, uniting them in victimhood. It was victimhood that propped up 80% support or more, for the Gaza war. Don’t expect a crack in that consensus.

The crisis of relations with Turkey is also top of mind and top of the news and stoking hostility among defensive Israel. Signs at the first demonstration at the Turkish embassy read: "Erdogan is a terrorist," and "Turkey, shame!" Amit Strikovsky, a 32-year old demonstrator said: "The provocation makes me very angry.." Shaul Goldstein, the head of the regional council of the Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank, said that Turkey proved has "crossed over to the axis of evil," expressing the latest Israeli fear of the Turkey-Iran-Syria takeover of Middle East affairs.

And Israelis love to debate their image, even when it is a disaster. A March Jerusalem Report/New Wave Research  survey showed that 73% of Jewish Israelis say Israel’s international image is very important. But as I have discussed, that’s because defensive Israel far prefers to confront its image rather than policy.

Serious, penetrating questions about Israel’s broader policies are seriously lacking, in stark contrast to the international discourse from which many Israelis are insulated by language and provincialism. Only with talk of a local and international investigative commissions being established, are the questions even being raised.

Maybe that’s because Israelis basically back the Gaza closure. A 2008 survey commissioned by the human rights group Gisha showed that they were at once realistic and intransigent. Seventy-nine percent of the 600 Jewish respondents, a near-consensus, agreed that the closure primarily harms civilians. Sixty percent worried that it would increase Islamic extremism, fully two-thirds (67%) said it hurt Israel’s image internationally. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) said it would not bring down the Hamas. Despite acknowledging these failings, a broad majority of nearly two-thirds (63%) rejected easing the closure.

Accordingly, in a survey by the Dahaf polling agency for the Knesset Channel taken just before the ships set sail, 65% of 425 Jewish Israelis said Israel should "prohibit protest inside Israel’s territory such as the aid flotilla for Gaza residents." (Note the keyword: "inside.")

In one of the first post-Marmara polls (by Maariv/TNS), the questions are as revealing as the data. A strong 63% Jewish majority admitted that the flotilla should have been stopped some other way. Forty-three percent, a strong plurality, said Defense Minister Barak is mainly responsible for the results; 20.8% cited the army and 16.1% chose Prime Minister Netanyahu. Add the "Barak" and "army" responses, and 64% see this as military/security, rather than political issue.

That’s partly because the IDF is determined to brand the operation a success (since it did stop the ships). Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi gave Maariv its huge Friday headline, "They fought like lions;" Yediot Ahronot published flower-decorated letters by schoolchildren praising the "dear soldiers," for "always protecting our country." Hardly anyone thinks that the defense minister or the prime minister should resign (74.8% and 89.1%, respectively, reject this).

Hardly anyone is asking whether the flotilla should have been stopped at all. That’s probably because, according to the most recent poll published on Thursday in Israel, there’s a consensus: 92% of the 561 Jewish respondents said Israel should have stopped it, and 91% say it should stop future ships. If politicians think they can get away with avoiding the larger question of the Gaza closure, they probably can. Remarkably, in total opposition to the global discourse, the percentage of people who oppose lifting the closure is now higher than the 2008 survey: 73%. In another poll, 85% said Israel used either the right amount of force, or not enough. The remainder, 15%, is roughly equal to the percentage of left-wingers in Israel today – who are asking the tougher questions.

"Critical" Israel, or the long-suffering left, is experiencing a sense of awakening lately. This is the public whose parties floundered in the last several election cycles; it’s the roughly 15-18% that calls itself "left," in most surveys. But it organizes and demonstrates weekly at Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem against house evictions of Palestinians by Jewish settlers. Critical Israel includes human rights groups who were demonized for aiding the Goldstone commission, and advocates for human rights and democracy, which defensive Israel slams as "anti-Zionist."

Do these rumblings sound like potential change? It might seem amazing but after such a super-sized debacle, the political system does not seem poised to shift. The left is galvanized but lacks an adequate framework. Its people are enraged at Labor and its leader, Defense Minister Barak. Little Meretz was voted down to just three seats in the 2009 elections and has not demonstrated renewed relevance, save for its requisite presence at the demonstrations. Kadima, the opposition party, which many Israelis view as center-left, could have gained from public anger at the government; but the Maariv poll doesn’t quite support that. With rumors of Kadima joining the coalition in the wake of the events, party leader Livni has toed a stalwart "defensive Israel," line regarding the flotilla. Plus, she probably believes it (center-left was always a far -fetched description).

In terms of policy, there are some precedents for events leading to public pressure for change. People have compared the flotilla to Sabra and Shatilla; but those events sparked massive demonstrations, launched a National Investigation Commission and felled a defense minister — and Israel still stayed in Lebanon for another 18 years. A 1997 helicopter crash contributed to public demands to withdraw from Lebanon, but 73 soldiers were killed.

Israel urgently needs a genuine policy debate before either analogy applies. If the mainstream narrative continues to fixate on the military angles and investigative commissions, self-criticism in Israel will probably end in the acknowledgment of a few intelligence flaws. If defensive Israel decides this is just about rescuing its wounded international image, loosening of the sea blockade to Gaza will suffice, and the big picture won’t change.

But after a week and a half, the flotilla story has refused to die and is still extremely prominent in the Israeli public discourse.  Friends and families are still arguing about it. Should the public polarization continue, anger at political leadership deepen, and the fear of international isolation increase, maybe Israelis will finally say something like "ad kan!" ("up to here!").

Dahlia Scheindlin is an independent public opinion analyst who has provided strategy for four national electoral campaigns in Israel and in over a dozen other countries.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political analyst and a public opinion expert; she is a regular writer at +972 magazine and a policy fellow at Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Dahlia also co-hosts The Tel Aviv Review podcast, on TLV1 Radio.

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