Day 6

Israeli analyst says Netanyahu benefits from stoking regional conflict

Dahlia Scheindlin says Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't just benefit from conflict, he needs it to survive.

'The country has felt charmed' as PM gets credit for everything from security measures to Eurovision win

Senior White House Adviser Ivanka Trump and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stand next to the dedication plaque at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, during the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

For most Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as a leader who can protect them and their country, according to writer Dahlia Scheindlin.

"When it comes down to it, people see him as the person who can manage Israel's military security through a combination not only of force, but diplomacy," she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

As the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem this week, at least 60 Palestinians were killed in a confrontation at the border wall between Israel and Gaza.

It provided a sharp split-screen contrast on televisions the world over.

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts as others run from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest marking the 70th anniversary of Nakba at the Israel-Gaza border on May 15. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

But even before this week's violence, Netanyahu was navigating threats to his leadership at home and abroad — from the war in Syria to the possibility of being indicted on charges of corruption.

Under the circumstances, you might think a confrontation with Hamas would be the last thing he would want. But Israeli writer and analyst Dahlia Scheindlin says it might be exactly what he needs.

She makes the case in an article published this week in Foreign Policy magazine. Here's part of her conversation with Bambury.

Brent Bambury: Is it possible Benjamin Netanyahu is more popular in Israel today than he was on Monday morning before the deaths of 60 Palestinians?

Dahlia Scheindlin: It's sad to say that people dying led to the popularity of a politician, but it's not unlikely.

What we see is that whenever there is a crisis that involves national security — and for Israelis what happened at the Gaza border was an issue of national security — Netanyahu is generally seen as the person to handle it.

But I think we also have to remember that on Monday not only did over 60 Palestinians die, but there was a major policy victory for Prime Minister Netanyahu because he got his wish of having the U.S. move the embassy to Jerusalem.

Yes, but when tensions escalate in Israel, your argument is that Netanyahu's popularity grows under those circumstances. How does that work?

They see him as savvy, and they see him as a leader, and to some extent it distracts them from other daily life issues that bother them, including not least his very own corruption cases.

People participate in a candlelit protest against the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, in Mumbai, India, May 15, 2018. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Which are considerable.

Yes, but when it comes down to it, people see him as the person who can manage Israel's military security through a combination not only of force, but diplomacy.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the rest of the world gets news about Israel primarily with relation to the conflict. Now, when you think about the situation abroad and you hear mostly about the conflict you say: 'Why would Israelis continue voting for a leader who has not moved ahead on some sort of conflict resolution?'

But in Israeli life day-to-day there has been a situation on the ground, in place, for a number of years now where a very large portion of Israelis don't really have to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict moment-to-moment.

They know that it's not ideal and they know that, theoretically, the conflict should be solved. Many of them support solving the conflict, theoretically, but they have a collective, historic and fairly recent memory of peace processes that never went anywhere and that led to a lot of violence.

And they say you know what, better that we stay safe even if it's a little bit unfair and not ideal for the Palestinians.

When I read your article in Foreign Policy it was not completely clear to me whether you're saying he is simply benefiting from these fears and the tensions or whether he's actively trying to stoke them for his own purposes. Which is it?

I think that's really the question.

Many ... citizens and analysts alike over, not so much this week, but certainly the previous week when there [were] two Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria — and what seemed like a big show the previous week of this great intelligence coup in the theft of Iranian nuclear archives and possibly influencing Donald Trump to pull out of the deal — those things are unquestionably part of Netanyahu's agenda.

He's been on a long-term campaign against Iran for actually decades, so it's hard to say that he invented this because he needs to score popularity victories at home. Having said that he does have four investigations that involve him, and the police have recommended to the attorney general that he be indicted on various counts of corruption.

People walk on May 11, 2018 near the compound of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which will host the new US embassy, as posters praising the U.S. president hang in the street. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

So, why isn't that hurting him?

Again, because when it comes down to it I think, first of all, people see him as, like I said before, the person who manages security in the best way.

But the other thing is that I think we live in an age, not only in Israel but in other parts of the Western world, where people have maybe unprecedentedly low expectations for their politicians. Everybody knows that everybody is corrupt. I think that the public is not foolish on this.

I think from the Israeli perspective they're saying, you know: 'All things being equal, at least I'd rather have the politician that I think is tough against the Palestinians, best buddies with U.S. President Donald Trump — that makes me feel safer. And anyway, the economy's doing a little better and boy it makes me feel really good when Israeli startups get sold to major multinational companies and bring millions of dollars into the country's economy.'

And somehow all of that gets attributed to Netanyahu. I think this is the other important point that I tried to convey in the article, is that Netanyahu is not only possibly savvy as a diplomat or military leader or best friends with Trump, he has consolidated power in a way that many people find actually threatening to the foundations of Israeli democracy, including freedom of speech and independence of the press and independence of civil society which sounds bad, right? You would think people would say, why are you cutting down pillars of our democracy? 

Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to protest the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and on going violence in Gaza, in Lahore, Pakistan, Thursday, May 17, 2018. (K.M. Chaudary/Associated Press)

But it also has the reverse effect of making people give him credit for practically everything. So when Israel won the Eurovision contest last week ... you know, somehow or other — I can't explain to you exactly how the psychology works — but it seems like under Netanyahu over the last week the country has felt charmed. Now let me just point out that I am speaking in my hat as a public opinion researcher on behalf of the Israeli public.

I think that there is a minority of Israelis — I know there is from the numbers about one fifth, I would say — who are extremely critical of all the things I'm telling you, who believe Netanyahu is seriously damaging Israeli democracy, leading the country down a very dangerous and possibly irreversible road away from ever reaching peace with the Palestinians. But I'm giving you the perspective of why his polls continually favour him.

Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving prime minister in Israeli history and you say he's more beloved than ever. But is he really loved or has he simply found the formula for holding on to power?

A little bit of both. Actually what he is is polarizing. So his ratings tend to be somewhere in the mid-40 per cent range. And that [roughly] 45 per cent is a deceptive number, because what it is is polarizing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear our full interview with Dahlia Scheindlin, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.