Jonathan Rynhold: Israel's Divided Politics

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Jon Alterman: Professor Jonathan Rynhold is the head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Jonathan, welcome to Babel.

Jonathan Rynhold: Thank you. 

Jon Alterman: Where is Israeli public opinion now? How has it changed since October 7th, and how has it changed in the last 10 years? 

Jonathan Rynhold: At the beginning of this war, there was a very strong, unified sense of purpose. It was very clear to all Israelis, not only Israeli Jews, but also Israel's Arab citizens, what Israel needed to do. It needed to defeat Hamas and it needed to use a lot of military force to do that. That kind of bound the country together. The horizon of what you do afterwards was a long, long way off. Over the last few months, we have approached the critical elements where there is more disagreement. For example, whether getting the hostages back is more important or whether bringing Hamas down as the governmental authority in Gaza is more important. That begins to have a stronger impact in the debate. 

It's also become intertwined with the end of this unity government that the center and the left are looking to leave. The third element I would say is that Israelis are becoming somewhat more tired. Our younger members of society, who are between 18 and 25, are carrying the bulk of this. Many of them have been fighting in Gaza since October with only maybe a week off here and a day off there. That's it. That's very, very tiring for a lot of people. Under those kinds of circumstances, the criticisms of the higher echelons, be they the political or sometimes the military, but mainly the political, become sharper.

In terms of the last 10 years, I think that what we've seen is two things. One, we've seen a hardening of the opinion that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Even if Israel were to give more than the Israeli public believes is correct to the Palestinians in the form of a state, certain borders, and half of Jerusalem, Israelis wouldn’t believe they would get the minimal level of peace that they would want, which they would think of in terms of “when my daughter goes to eat pizza in Jerusalem, she won't be blown up”—the very, very minimal. This lack of faith has destroyed the peace camp. It has also destroyed the centrists because they said, “Well, look, we can't have peace, but let's disengage from Gaza. Let's disengage from Lebanon.”

When the disengagement from Lebanon and Gaza led to lots and lots of missiles landing on Israel, then most Israelis said, “Don't talk to me about the longer-term problems of a two-state solution, Jewish majorities, and all of that. Just stop the missiles. Make sure they don't land on my apartment.” While that's how most of the public sees it, that created an opening for the more ideological right in the Knesset. People have not suddenly become en masse ideologically right-wing, but the solutions that were offered by the center and left are seen to have failed and the right has managed to gain a foothold. People on the far right, particularly in the last four or five years, have an unprecedented level of influence on Israeli politics, which doesn't really reflect the breadth of attitudes in Israeli society. 

Jon Alterman: It feels like there are contradictory instincts. One is “we're tired of what we're doing.” A second is “there's really no alternative to what we're doing.” As you said, it's a lot of young people engaged in the war. A lot of your students and former students who are in the middle of all of this. What is the mood on campus among these young people? Is it different from what we hear about the Israeli public at large? 

Jonathan Rynhold: Israeli campuses tend to be much quieter places than American campuses politically and a large part of that is because Israelis study later. They've been in the army for two, two and a half, or three years. Perhaps even more interesting is that in the last decade or so the number of Arab students at my university has gone up from about 1 percent to about 14 percent. You hear a lot of Arabic; you see two women speaking Arabic between them. One with a head covering and one without. Yet, it's very quiet on our campus. There is no palpable tension. The university president says he keeps quiet about it because he knows that if he was to say something positive, someone would make sure that the atmosphere suddenly became a lot nastier. 

It's not that we don't know that in the background there are a lot of stresses. At the beginning of the war, Arab students didn't always turn up to class. I think they were concerned about the response. But now they do. It can be a difficult thing to navigate, particularly in the politics department. I have to say however, so far, it's been very impressive. I think the students who are fighting are mainly wrapped up in either fighting, or making sure that they get the allowances that they need in order to pass the exam. But it's all really very practical.

Jon Alterman: Getting back to the broader climate in Israel, it seems to me from where I sit that there's very little reporting in the Hebrew language press about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza, which is a real difference from both the international Israeli press, which is in English, and international newspapers, like the Washington Post, New York Times, and others. Is it accurate that the Hebrew language press really isn't covering issues of civilian conditions in Gaza? Is it changing? What other kinds of sources are Israelis plugging into, or does it just not matter? 

Jonathan Rynhold: There's no doubt that we see less of the suffering in Gaza than you would if you were in London, New York, or Los Angeles. But we do see it. We know it's there, and actually, in some ways, we see it more. That's because when you have 300,000 young Israelis in Gaza, and they come home for the weekend, that's what they talk about. From their perspective, they've got a split second to decide whether this is a woman or a child, or a young man or a youth. Someone who is 15 or 16 years old—has he got a weapon? For them, that's how they are processing it. There's a lot of stress. I can't tell you that every soldier cares about it, but I hear these stories regularly and those are the things that they will talk about, or they'll talk about the risks that they had to take. 

The child of a friend of mine, she's the medic for three tanks. That means she has to get out of the tank if there's someone injured in the other tank. But because she's small, she can fit in this little space at the back of a tank. And she saved four soldiers' lives because she could get in this space and give them first aid. Why do I tell that story? Because that’s where the Israeli public is. It feels like it can't allow itself to be too emotionally engaged in the suffering on the other side because it needs to win. Afterwards, I would imagine that in time that will begin to look different, at least for some Israelis. But for the public at large, I think they are extremely focused on either the hostages, winning, or both. 

There are Israelis who do care a lot about this. Quietly and behind the scenes, Israeli organizations have actually been facilitating aid going into Gaza. However, the ability to do that, given the type of government we have, requires keeping quiet about it. The government knows, but if it was to become public, that would create a political problem. So, what you read about is all the attempts of the far-right to block aid, and that is also a political problem because the prime minister feels his government will collapse without these extremists. 

Jon Alterman: I want to come back to hostages, but I just want to pick up on the thread you suggested that there are some soldiers who care a lot about the rules of war and differentiating victims. It's also clear there are some people in the Israeli military and Israeli society who say, “Look, they're all terrorists, or they support them, and we're going to win.” Does the fact that the military itself has a strong split on these issues manifest itself in any visible ways? Are there people who say that “this is making our job so much harder and it has to stop”? 

Jonathan Rynhold: The irony is that the civilians tend to be more gung-ho than the high-ranking officers, and that's for a number of reasons. First of all, the social background of a lot of the intelligence officers and the strategists is more ‘small-l’ liberal. The fighting soldiers and elite units may sometimes be more right-wing and more religious, but they are very disciplined; that military discipline can constrain things. It tends to be non-elite units of people who are sort of less committed. That's usually where the bad stuff happens. There are officers, obviously, who take a less humanitarian view, but I think that division is usually more subtle in the field. The question is “what degree of risk?” There's no doubt that in general, the rules of engagement of the IDF have been loosened in this conflict, and that's because the level of threat is far greater, and the losses are far greater. 

The IDF will always think about, “Do we use a one-ton bomb, or do we use a two-ton bomb?” They don't move without lawyers because, in practical terms, it's not only a moral issue, but it's also a political issue with the ICJ and ICC. There's an understanding within the hierarchy that fighting the war according to the rules as best you can is important to being able to do the job. On the other hand, sometimes they just want to get the job done. The way the Israeli army works is that our offices in the field have a huge amount of leeway in deciding things. That's why it can look very different in different places and at different times. Still, I think the emphasis remains on getting the job done. 

Jon Alterman: Have you seen a change in the way Israelis are talking about the war because of the ICC and ICJ actions? 

Jonathan Rynhold: Yeah, there's no doubt that has helped Netanyahu and the right. All the polling shows that the ICC and ICJ actions, and the recognition of a Palestinian state by Spain, Ireland, and Norway, have, from the Israeli perspective, fit into Hamas' strategy. Their strategy is: you put your fighters protected underground, and you put your civilians and your weapons above ground. Either Israel kills your civilians and has huge diplomatic and political problems, and perhaps will be stopped from destroying you, or Israeli soldiers get killed because they're careful with civilians. That's the Hamas strategy. The sense that it doesn't matter what we do and that we'll never have the level of understanding from the rest of the world for the type of dilemmas that we have feeds into the right-wing narrative in Israel that the world is against us. President Biden bought a hell of a lot of credit at the beginning of this war, but it is running down. Although he didn't really stop much of the weapons coming to Israel, and Israelis are not fully aware of just how much weaponry America has supplied and just how critical that's been. So, the public tends to be lessening their thankfulness to the president, and Netanyahu has been rising because of these things.

Jon Alterman: You talked about the military being concerned about the ICC and ICJ issues, but your feeling is that is part of the growing divergence between the military and the civilians. The political leadership has been using it to make hay. The military leadership has found it increasingly constraining. Is that how you see it?

Jonathan Rynhold: Yeah, the political leadership is using it to make hay, but it's not hard for them. Listen, if the president of the United States says it's outrageous, then Israelis are only going to feel it's extremely outrageous. So, that's the first thing. I don't think they have to work very hard to make political hay out of it. The second thing is, it is not so much that the military doesn’t feel that sense of outrage. It's that their main concern is, “We need to be able to do what we need to do in Gaza, and therefore we look at the ICC and ICJ from a practical point of view. How do we navigate this? How do we keep the Americans on board?” It's just a professional view. They share the same gut instincts, but they have to actually think, “What do we actually do about it?”

Jon Alterman: You talked about Hamas putting its fighters below ground and leaving civilians and weapons above ground. Of course, hostages are also below ground, and it seems that there's a rising debate in Israel about the priority that freeing hostages should take vis-a-vis militarily defeating Hamas. Has the hostage issue become a game changer in the way Israelis are thinking about this? Do you expect it to rise or fall in importance as Israelis think about the strategy for going forward? 

Jonathan Rynhold: There are two elements to this. There's the atmospherics, what happens on the streets, and demonstrations. In that sense, you very much see the hostages issue becoming more important. But when you start to look at the polling, it’s not clear that there's that big a change in the priorities. If you say to Israelis, “a complete ceasefire in exchange for the hostages,” the majority will be against it. If you say, “a six week pause and then we can start again, and we get the hostages,” then you'll get a majority in favor. Obviously, the president deliberately kept that very vague. So, you can have a debate in Israel. It's a bit of shadowboxing because we haven't seen an offer on the table that the majority of the Israeli public would support. That's why Netanyahu always says, “but we are not giving up on destroying Hamas.” In other words, “I'm prepared to make some concessions.” 

More terrorists can be released and the ceasefire can be for a bit longer, but it's hard to see just a complete ceasefire. The public might go along with it because they will think they can restart the war in six weeks when they’re actually entering a track that they can't deviate from. That's possible. But if you tell them up front, a majority will be against it. But it's also interrelated with the discontent with Netanyahu. The strongest feeling in Israel is that Netanyahu does what's good for Netanyahu politically, and that he is unable to distinguish between what's good for Israel and what's good for Netanyahu. It's what's good for Netanyahu that defines what's good for Israel. As a result, people say that he doesn't want to compromise on the hostages because he wants the war to go on as long as possible so he can stay in power. 

Now one can believe that and believe that he is that cynical, and still believe that he's not wrong about not ending the war until Israel has brought Hamas down. As General Petraeus said, you can't really put out 80 percent of a fire. You've got to put the whole thing out. I think there's confusion there because of two things coming together, and the lack of clarity about the president's latest plan only adds to that. When the president says, “I don’t trust Netanyahu,” a lot of Israelis will agree with that—and probably a majority—but that doesn't mean they're going to agree with everything that he said.

Jon Alterman: You've written very thoughtfully about the future shape of politics in Israel and what coalitions can look like. I've seen a number of accounts that suggest that even if the government fell, new elections were called, and a new government was formed, Netanyahu would be in power for the next five months because of the time between now and the elections, and then the time of government formation. How does that affect any sort of end game going forward?

Jonathan Rynhold: A Netanyahu in power with the war going on in a serious way is one scenario, and a Netanyahu in power where the war has more or less ended is a different scenario. If the war has more or less ended, there would be massive public demonstrations in Israel against Netanyahu, but there could also be a reaction to that with major demonstrations in favor of him. The dynamic in the war itself, I don't think will be critical because even if Israel continues this war on a lower flame and wants to get rid of Hamas, it's going to take a lot, even when the big fight ends. Let's say Israel takes Rafah, it's still going to be months and months of establishing order so that somebody else can take over.

The issue would be more about how that would be synchronized diplomatically. It would distance what the Saudis and the Biden administration want, which is to link a resolution to Gaza with the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a defense treaty or guarantee between Israel and the Saudis. However, the only thing given, I think, the rightful cynicism Israelis have towards the prime minister, is that it's not impossible that he might end the war and blame Biden and the Americans for not allowing Israel to finish the job, and then take advantage of that to then do a deal with the Saudis. That is not impossible. He could do that. It wouldn't surprise me because I'm not sure that in his heart of hearts he thinks that getting rid of Hamas is such a good idea. 

He obviously has to be publicly committed, in every way, to destroying Hamas. But at the end of the day, this is someone who is cautious, who intrinsically believes that there is no political solution on the horizon, that a Palestinian state is dangerous, and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is not an alternative. So, the more the Palestinians are divided, and the more chaotic and weak things are there, that's not necessarily bad. He just can't be the author of it. A lot will depend on his political standing. One of the advantages of an interim government is you can't bring it down. That means, paradoxically, he's under less pressure from the far-right, and therefore, moving to the center might make sense. That's where he has lost mainly. It might make sense. It's not impossible to imagine that scenario. 

Jon Alterman: You talked earlier about how Biden got a lot of credit for coming to Israel in October. There is a sense that the value of that is diminishing over time. Increasingly, it feels to a lot of people, like the Israeli leadership is just waiting out President Biden with a sense that he may not be there after November, so it won't really matter. Do you sense that the United States has a window to act under Biden, or do you think that the United States is going to be relevant anyway because the United States is relevant to everything Israel does? 

Jonathan Rynhold: I think the latter. American presidents occasionally think they can walk away from the Middle East and then it just comes back and hits them in the face. I'm sure that President Trump would like nothing more than to walk away from the Middle East. Being a sort of belligerent isolationist, he's very happy to smash Iran if it does something directly against an American citizen or America, but he doesn't respond if it's against the allies. From an Israeli perspective, it's by no means clear that waiting things out is a good idea. 

Jon Alterman: Although Israeli public opinion is much more favorable to Trump than Biden right now. 

Jonathan Rynhold: Sure. In terms of public opinion, you're right. But that's the Israeli public. They look at the symbolic, the grand gesture, and Trump's very truculent language towards the Palestinians or Israel's enemies. That's the thing that they remember. But the IDF and the security establishment will look at the amount of aid, a $14 billion dollar package that Biden has given, the amount of military equipment, the support at the UN, and Biden sticking his neck out many times. They will value that, and they'll worry that President Trump says he doesn't want to give Israel aid, he wants it to be loans. Will he be willing to send two aircraft carriers to deter Hezbollah and Iran? President Biden did it quicker than any American President has ever done. That commitment was much quicker and much more complete than 1967 or 1973. It's unprecedented, really.

Now the public doesn't know that. Right? They think America has always been very supportive. The defense establishment does know it. So, while it might hope that a Trump Administration might be more assertive towards Iran, it's more the public that sort of thinks Trump's a good thing. And I think that those people who think strategically are not sure exactly what's better and value President Biden more. Right-wing politicians are with the public.

Jon Alterman: I'm wondering, based on all of that, if you feel that Biden really has an opportunity to shape Israeli public discourse. Or is it more like a rugby scrum where you're just all sort of locked shoulder to shoulder and trying to push inches one way or the other?

Jonathan Rynhold: I think there is something he could do, but I don't think he will do it. That is to allow Israel to bring down the Hamas regime by destroying the remaining armed forces in Rafah, and coming to an agreement with Israel that it will establish order there over a few months. At that point, he can pivot to, "Now I want the Palestinians to take over. I want a reinvigorated Palestinian authority." And particularly at that juncture, when for Israelis it becomes a choice between our children are doing 60 days reserve duty every year in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority, and then we could get in return something with the Saudis.

At that juncture, if he can do that pivot, then that would make a difference. If he was to choose a governor of Gaza so it's under the PA, and you have Salam Fayyad as prime minister. Now Salam Fayyad is a Palestinian leader who has credibility with the Israeli public. Not because they love him, but because he can point to the fact, "I made it better, I'm not corrupt, and security was better." It's just the only guy who delivered. The Gulf Arabs like it for the same reasons. So that would be my grand strategy if I was advising President Biden. 

You could do this but there is this mistaken belief that Israel's involved in counterinsurgency when it's actually fighting a war. We're not doing Afghanistan, and we're not doing Iraq. We're destroying a conventional force, and we're bringing down a government. We understand that we can't destroy Hamas as an idea and that there will remain an insurgency. But we're trying to create a different base in Gaza. I think that if you consent to part one of what Israelis want, then you will have a lot of leverage over part two.

Jon Alterman: But it almost sounds like a one-two punch, that the first is to become more permissive of Israeli military goals and then become much less permissive of an unwillingness to move toward American-Arab political goals afterward.

Jonathan Rynhold: Absolutely. That's exactly what I'm saying. I'm saying the bottom line for Israelis is the security stuff. So, if you're very good on that, and your demands are in areas that don't directly affect security, it will be a lot more difficult for the right in Israel to make their case. And a tired Israeli public will potentially remember Joe Biden and what he has done in this war. It will offer them some hope because the Israeli public right now doesn't see any hope that things could get better. If you can allow them to say to themselves, "Well, we've got rid of the main problem and here is a potential way forward, which is not that dangerous. We'll control the security situation on the outside. We control the border with Egypt. Let's see if Fayyad can do what he did in the West Bank in Gaza. Then we don't have to worry about all the extra extremism that's happened in the West Bank."

And if I'm Palestinian, I can still say, "It's the Palestinian authority." I could still say that "Abbas and Ramallah, they decide all the foreign policy. They do all the negotiations.” And, the Biden administration has always said, “We want you to recommit to a two-state solution, but we see it as over the horizon, not in the next five minutes."

So that's something I think the Israeli public can hear, but only after Rafah is done because otherwise, the feeling is that this is ‘instead of.’ And the overwhelming feeling in Israel is, "First we have to win this."

Jon Alterman: How would an American government hold the Israelis to phase two after they complete phase one, especially if Biden may not be there to enforce adherence to phase two?

Jonathan Rynhold: If it's Biden, what he has done, that I thought was really smart, is that he made the distinction that I'm talking about by continually supplying Israel with the weapons that America thought were needed. Some that they thought were too much, they didn't supply, but that didn't stop Israel from being effective. On the other hand, he sanctioned the most extreme settlers. That was very smart because what it said is, "I'm helping you on security, the thing that most of you care about. But we're a democracy, and the reason that we're supporting you is because you're a democracy. That's the reason we're supporting Taiwan, that's the reason we're supporting Ukraine. That's the reason we're on your side against Iran. So, you need to understand we're not going to indulge you on that stuff, but you also need to understand we're going to protect you whatever on the other stuff."

It's like saying, “We want to make sure the Palestinians have a decent life." This is not a problem in Israel. Nobody is going to say they shouldn't have a decent life. The problem is always the fear of them building up military power and then attacking Israel, eroding the Israeli public's morale, or creating a sense of a war every day and a threat around every corner. I think that strategy of saying, "A two-state solution but only one that's safe for Israel. We're only asking you not to have more settlements, and we’re supporting you on the security.” I think that strategy is the sweet spot.

What you have in President Biden and indeed President Trump, should he want, is a president with about as much capital in the bank as you can have. And a prime minister, if it's Netanyahu, who is shaking on these things. And the fact that this current government is offering the ultra-orthodox exemptions from the army is making mainstream Israel extremely angry at this government.

If they don't have an enemy to punch, people start looking at what they're doing and then they don't look quite so good. The ability to play that, I think, is the best way for America to influence what goes on in Israel.

Jon Alterman: Jonathan Rynhold, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Jonathan Rynhold: My pleasure, thank you very much.