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Forgotten but not forgiven: Political (in)stability in Israel

Iran’s attack on Israel in mid-April has strengthened the political position of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu domestically. Tamsin Hunt considers how this development has provided a temporary distraction from deep-seated public grievances that have long driven large-scale anti-government protests in the country.

On 13 April, hundreds of armed drones rained down on Israel, marking Iran’s first ever direct attack on the country, and escalating the long-standing rivalry between the two adversaries from grey-zone tactics to direct military confrontation. While Israel successfully deflected the attack, intercepting the vast majority of the drones and missiles, Iran’s aggression will have an undeniable impact on a government – and public psyche – still reeling from the security implications of Hamas’s 7 October attack and subsequent conflict in the Gaza Strip.

The violence on 7 October 2023, and the – albeit brief – loss of control of borders, towns and villages near the Gaza Strip, exposed Israel’s vulnerable regional position, and a need to strengthen national security against hostile militant groups on its borders. The sheer shock of the attack, and this renewed focus on Israeli security, had a galvanising effect on large parts of Israel’s population in support of their government’s response. However, the same cannot be said for public support for the country’s leaders themselves, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically.

Corruption and controversy

Benjamin Netanyahu is no stranger to public discontent. Following his re-election in December 2022, weekly anti-government protests surged in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, driven by widespread outrage over his government’s proposed judicial reforms, and corruption charges against the prime minister relating to alleged fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

Since 7 October, Netanyahu’s government has faced fresh fury over the security and intelligence failures that enabled Hamas to carry out its attack, prompting promises of investigations, inquiries and resignations from the country’s top brass – but only after the war cabinet succeeded in its goal of eradicating Hamas. The government has attracted further criticism for its failure to secure the release of dozens of Israeli hostages that remain in Hamas’s custody – which Israelis are increasingly equating with the government’s inability to duly protect and secure its citizens. As a result, frequent anti-government protests calling for Netanyahu’s resignation and early elections, attended by tens of thousands of people, have become something of an institution in Tel Aviv. Although the focus of anti-government demonstrations may have shifted for now – from corruption and policy issues to safety and security – strong dislike for Netanyahu and his coalition partners has persisted through the shock of conflict.

Frequent anti-government protests calling for Netanyahu’s resignation and early elections have become something of an institution in Tel Aviv.

A fresh spotlight on security

Iran’s April 2024 attack has changed the game for Netanyahu’s government. While popular grievances remain broadly in place, the attack on Israel by another sovereign state has made an indelible mark on the country’s political environment. Iran’s aggression has proven Netanyahu’s often downplayed claims that Iran poses the real security threat to Israel. Furthermore, Israel’s successful deflection of the more than 300 Iranian drones boosted Netanyahu’s self-styled image as the protector of Israel – a reputation dented by the security failures of October 2023. It has also lent a measure of legitimacy to his populist campaign as the only viable option for leading Israel out of its present security crisis. Indicatively, opinion polls conducted a week after the attack have found that public support for Netanyahu has grown from single-digit levels in November 2023, to as much as 37 percent in April 2024; and that if elections were to take place now, Netanyahu’s coalition would win three more parliamentary seats than they would have a month ago. For the first time in a long time, Netanyahu’s popularity has grown.

The attack is also likely to distract the international community from Israel’s actions towards Palestine, easing – to some extent – the pressure that had been building from some of Israel’s Western allies. Prior to 13 April, Israel’s government faced mounting concern over its planned assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, substantial criticism over expanding Israeli settler activity in the West Bank, and an Israeli airstrike that killed seven foreign aid workers in a clearly marked vehicle in central Gaza on 2 April. Following Iran’s attack, however, many foreign governments have refocused their attention on trying to prevent the conflict from escalating further, urging caution from Israel, and expanding sanctions on Iran.

A welcome distraction

Recent events have played directly into the hands of Netanyahu and his coalition allies. Calls for early elections – from both political opponents and the general public – are likely to subside while Israel grapples with this new security threat. The more radical elements of Netanyahu’s cabinet are likely to use this emergent threat to justify more aggressive actions – whether it be escalating attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon, expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, or intensifying its military campaign in Gaza. But for now, Israel’s comparatively muted response to Iran on 19 April – choosing to attack one airbase in Isfahan, rather than launching extensive airstrikes on a wider range of strategic targets – has largely averted a regional conflagration.

Nevertheless, temporarily forgotten does not necessarily mean forgiven. Israeli politics have become highly divisive in recent years, with differences between right- and left-wing groups deepening. While Israel’s government may experience a welcomed moment of unity and public support in the short term, underlying grievances with Netanyahu’s leadership have not been resolved, and Israel’s government remains under pressure from political discord, international scrutiny, and public dissatisfaction.

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