Why Israeli Public Opinion Doesn’t Matter for a Strike on Iran

Shibley Telhami has just written about a poll he conducted in Israel, in which it appears that a majority of Israelis are uncertain or skeptical about an Israeli strike on Iran to stop its nuclear program. Although certainly noteworthy, particularly for what his data says about Israeli attitudes toward the US, the Obama Administration, and GOP efforts to portray itself as the real pro-Israel party, the numbers don’t help us understand what Israeli leaders will do about the Iranian threat. 

This is because Israeli decision-making in the foreign and security policy arena is highly personalized and centralized, with little room for sustained consideration of public opinion.

The historical development of the Israeli state, the powerful personalities who dominated the government, and the nature of perpetual threats converged to create such a decision-making structure. This has made public opinion even on such weighty issues as war far less relevant for Israeli leaders than in other democracies.

In their important book, Asher Arian, David Nachmias, and Ruth Amir note that the process of centralization of decision-making began with the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the expansion of the Prime Minister’s Office entrenched this authority through political, legal, and normative means. The heavy institutionalization of political parties in Israel has also meant that policymaking is played out primarily within and through the party, with little room for voters to have an impact on elected officials.

On none of the major issues related to war and peace have Israeli prime ministers felt the need to bring public opinion into their consideration, if they considered an issue to be important enough. The decision to build nuclear weapons, the various wars and invasions, and the Oslo Accords were all pursued regardless of public attitudes, despite their controversial nature. Indeed, Israeli leaders seem to consider public opinion malleable.

These attitudes are enhanced by the population’s tendency to trust the government in foreign policy and security matters, particularly in the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1988, one study found that “there is tremendous deference in Israel to the leadership precisely because security problems are so difficult and intractable. Public opinion appears to be more reactive than active, more led than leading.”

Polling data bears this out. For example, before the 1991 Gulf War, a majority of Israelis preferred retaliation if Iraq fired SCUDs at Israel; but after the government invoked restraint, 80% supported non-involvement. Similarly, support among Jewish Israelis for the peace process begun in 1991 increased considerably after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords.

Those leaders who exert confidence and determination are trusted even more. The classic example of the opposite effect was Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who in a key televised address in the midst of the 1967 crisis came across as unsure, scared, and bumbling. Polls and anecdotal evidence indicated a decline in the public’s confidence immediately afterward.

In recent years, Jewish Israelis supported, by very large majorities, the 2006 war in Lebanon and the 2008-2009 attack on Hamas in Gaza. It is true that these numbers can decline the longer the violence continues: this was born out by both the 1982 and the 2006 invasions of Lebanon, though not in the case of Gaza.

Despite popular perceptions in the West, Israelis are not unhappy with the Netanyahu government. The monthly Peace and Security Index found, in January 2012, that “61% [of Jewish voters] affirm that the government is greatly or moderately contributing to the country’s security situation.” Under these conditions, trust in the government’s ability to fend off perceived security threats increases.

Moreover, it’s unlikely an Israeli attack on Iran would include a full-scale ground invasion, or an extended presence in the country: this simply isn’t logistically feasible or politically possible. With a relatively quick strike, even if Iran or Hezbollah respond with attacks on Israel, the public isn’t likely to protest in the short term (they didn’t in 2006).

If they do protest, it won’t have an immediate effect on government policy: Again, in all past conflicts where public attitudes turned away from supporting military activity, the government continued its policy for an extended period of time before finally withdrawing from combat.

The conclusion is that if the Israeli government considers it necessary to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, the Israeli public (the Jewish sector, at least) will not significantly oppose the decision or the military action.

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