Sunday, May 19

Fears Over Iran Buoys Netanyahu at Home. For Now.

Since the Hamas-led attack on Israel last October, the deadliest in Israeli history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future has seemed bleak, with critics blaming him for the security failure and his poll ratings plummeting.

But a confrontation between Israel and Iran this week — including on Friday when Israel retaliated against last weekend’s missile barrage by Iran — may have helped change the dynamic, at least for the time being. Now, Mr. Netanyahu is in his strongest domestic position since the October attack, even as his global standing ebbs amid anger at the conduct of Israel’s war in Gaza.

“This was his best week since October,” said Mazal Mualem, a biographer of Mr. Netanyahu. “We’re all afraid of Iran, with all the nuclear forces that they may have. And that’s the reason that, this week, we can see Bibi recovering,” Ms. Mualem said, calling Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname.

Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition is still trailing the main opposition bloc in the polls, and he would still likely lose an election if it was called tomorrow. But the latest surveys show the gap has more than halved since October. His personal approval ratings have edged up to 37 percent, just five points fewer than his main rival, Benny Gantz — one of the smallest margins since the start of the war.

Analysts partly attribute this limited recovery to Israel’s conflict with Iran, once a clandestine war that turned into an overt confrontation this month after Israel struck an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria, killing seven. The attack prompted Iran to respond with its first-ever direct attack on Israeli soil last weekend, and then Israel to retaliate in Iran on Friday.

At least for now, the tensions have shifted some domestic attention away from Mr. Netanyahu’s perceived failings in the war against Hamas in Gaza, and played to Mr. Netanyahu’s strengths.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu has for years presented himself to Israelis as the only politician with the experience and smarts to both stand up to Iran and cajole other countries into doing so, too. For years, he has called for the U.S. to take a tougher stance on Iran, most memorably in a speech to Congress in 2015 that angered the Obama administration.

Some Israelis question Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy in Gaza, where he is accused of dragging out the war and delaying a transition of power to a new Palestinian leadership in order to prevent his government from collapsing. Far-right lawmakers who hold the balance of power in the coalition are pushing Mr. Netanyahu to occupy Gaza in perpetuity and re-establish Israeli settlements there.

But among Israelis, there is less suspicion about Mr. Netanyahu’s approach to Iran. Though some foreigners accuse him of stoking a war with Iran for his own personal benefit, in Israel he is often seen as cautiously threading the needle between keeping Iran at bay while avoiding an outright war.

In Israel, “People look at him and they say, ‘OK, we trust him because he doesn’t take big risks,’” Ms. Mualem said.

In more than three decades in politics, Mr. Netanyahu has built a reputation as someone who has always been able to restore his electoral advantage even after falling behind in the polls.

While leader of the opposition in 1996, he fell 20 points behind after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose approach to reaching peace with the Palestinians he had criticized. But Mr. Netanyahu still clawed his way back, defeating Mr. Rabin’s successor in a general election in 1996.

Still, some long-term analysts of Mr. Netanyahu say it is still too early to say whether his mild revival portends success at the next election. Tensions with Iran could ease for the time being and other domestic crises could worsen.

Secular members of his coalition may demand that he support legislation that forces ultra-Orthodox Jews, who currently have an exemption from military conscription, to serve in the army. That might prompt his ultra-Orthodox partners to quit the alliance.

“I’m still not seeing this as a good week for Bibi,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a biographer of Mr. Netanyahu. “It’s just that the pendulum swings a bit.”

But there are several reasons the pendulum may not swing back so quickly, allowing Mr. Netanyahu’s revival to continue.

First, the anger over the security failures that led to the October attack has begun to be directed not only at Mr. Netanyahu but toward other political and military leaders as well, analysts said. That could help him retain some support.

Also, while protests against his government have swelled in recent weeks as the war has ground on, they are still smaller than they were at their peak last spring, when anger at Mr. Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul led to fears for Israeli democracy.

The protest movement also lacks a unifying rallying cry, slowing its momentum. Some specifically want Mr. Netanyahu to take responsibility for his government’s failure to prevent the October attack, and to resign.

Another faction is focused on freeing Israeli hostages held in Gaza and want Mr. Netanyahu to agree to a cease-fire deal with Hamas that would secure their release. Parts of the hostage movement are reluctant to attack Mr. Netanyahu too personally lest it undermine that primary goal.

A third group of government critics are mostly motivated by a desire to remove the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service.

“There’s a lot of overlap between these three but there’s not one cause that is motivating and animating people,” said Mr. Pfeffer, the prime minister’s biographer.

Mr. Netanyahu may also have been boosted by the decision by Mr. Gantz, his primary rival, not to articulate a clear alternative to Mr. Netanyahu’s wartime strategy, or a long-term vision for a postwar Gaza.

Polling shows that Mr. Gantz’s alliance would still win an election if it was held tomorrow. But in a gesture of unity, Mr. Gantz joined Mr. Netanyahu’s government at the start of the war. His critics say that, in his efforts to maintain wartime solidarity, he has failed to provide a clear manifesto around which Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents might rally.

“Israelis want the war to end, and they want the war to end in victory,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “Gantz hasn’t really managed to articulate any idea of how that happens.”

Some analysts think the Gaza war has the potential to create the same kind of political and social ruptures in Israel that the Yom Kippur war did.

In 1973, military reservists returning from the Yom Kippur war, angry at their leaders’ failure to prevent its outbreak, ultimately helped drive political opposition to the government of the day.

But that took time. Prime Minister Golda Meir, whose government was criticized for failing to prevent the war, resigned but her party still won the next election and lost power only in 1977.

The Yom Kippur war also ended within weeks, whereas the Gaza war has lasted months and could still continue for months more. And while it does, voters may be wary of protesting in large numbers against Mr. Netanyahu, and risk puncturing the war effort, said Ms. Mualem, the biographer.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are still displaced from their homes near Gaza and by the fighting with Hezbollah along the Lebanon border. Others are on active reserve duty in the military, some of them even fighting in Gaza.

“The public understands that we are in a big war and this is not the time for a new election,” Ms. Mualem said.