Two weeks after Hamas’s deadly attack on Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are likely preparing to wage a massive ground assault in Gaza. Though many Israelis support such a move, they don’t necessarily trust Netanyahu to carry it out — or have their future security in mind.
Prior to the October 7 attacks, Netanyahu’s right-wing government was already deeply unpopular among large swaths of society. A plan to degrade the ability of the Supreme Court to push back on laws passed by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, sparked massive national protests out of concern that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition would pass increasingly hardline laws with no mechanism for opposition. Now, his government is being held at least partly responsible for the massive security failure that enabled the attacks.
According to public opinion polling conducted a little more than a week after Hamas’s attack and shared with Vox by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), “20.5 percent of Jewish Israelis and 7.5 percent of Arab Israelis stated this time that they have trust in the government, while in June these numbers were 28 percent and 18 percent, respectively.” That’s a 20-year low, according to IDI.
Some of the highest-ranking officials in the government, including the head of the armed forces and the security services, have taken responsibility for the lapses and blind spots that allowed Hamas to kill at least 1,400 Israelis and kidnap 200, mostly civilians.
“The Military Intelligence Directorate, under my command, failed to warn of the terror attack carried out by Hamas,” Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, head of the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence unit, said in a letter to IDF personnel. “We failed in our most important mission, and as the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, I bear full responsibility for the failure.”
But Netanyahu himself has thus far failed to apologize or take responsibility for his government’s failure to carry out its primary task — to protect Israel’s citizens. Furthermore, the government’s strategy in Gaza and its war with Hamas remains unclear.
Israel’s military response — and the future of Gaza — is still being determined
Nearly two weeks after Netanyahu declared war on Hamas and 360,000 IDF reservists reported for duty, Israel’s military response — other than to make sure Hamas is “crushed and eliminated” — is as yet unknown, as is the government’s plans for Gaza once it achieves that objective.
In the past, Netanyahu has opted for airstrikes as retaliation against Hamas, rather than bloody and costly ground invasions.
According to a 2017 research brief by the RAND Corporation, Israel has the military capability to wipe out Hamas, but doing so could perhaps be riskier than not, given that an even more extreme organization could come into power — or that Israel could end up responsible for governing the territory itself. “As such, Israel’s grand strategy became ‘mowing the grass’ — accepting its inability to permanently solve the problem and instead repeatedly targeting leadership of Palestinian militant organizations to keep violence manageable,” RAND researchers wrote.
That strategy is no longer satisfactory given its ineffectiveness and the enormous breach of the Israeli public’s trust following October 7. There is support for a ground invasion, per a limited poll from the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv; 65 percent of Israelis believe it’s the correct response. However, according to polling from IDI (which has a maximum sampling error of 4.04 percentage points), only 43.5 percent of those polled believe the government has a clear plan for the next phases of the war.
A ground operation could be incredibly difficult and costly both for Palestinians in Gaza and for the IDF, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained:
Clearing and holding this kind of environment poses an immense challenge for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Their soldiers would need to move very slowly with limited air support, intentionally putting their own lives at risk — or else risk absolutely massive civilian casualties. Success also requires good intelligence, but the fact that Hamas managed such a horrific surprise attack on October 7 suggests that Israel’s understanding of militants in the Strip — including their defenses — may be much weaker than widely appreciated.
As Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Vox, “We’re closer [to a ground invasion] in the sense that it is coming. Israel taking some time to prepare and define some clear objectives is a good choice and one that could ultimately save not only Israeli but also Palestinian lives.”
As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Saturday, the IDF has already begun launching airstrikes in northern Gaza to prepare for the ground invasion.
Perhaps even more of a challenge, though, is what happens once the ground invasion is over.
As the Times of Israel reported Tuesday, National Unity Party head Benny Gantz and Knesset member Gadi Eizenkot, both of whom are part of Netanyahu’s emergency unity security cabinet, have demanded an exit plan from Gaza should a ground invasion go through.
“Given the stated goal of destroying Hamas, both the Israeli government and the IDF must consider how the war ends as well as how it is conducted,” Kevin Benson, a retired US Army colonel and an adjunct scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute, wrote in a recent piece. “The Israeli government knows, or should know, what force can and cannot do.”
After such a failure on the part of the state, how can Israelis get behind a government they’re so angry with?
They’re not, exactly. The same Ma’ariv poll that indicated support for the ground invasion showed an abysmal lack of support — 28 percent — for Netanyahu himself. Forty-eight percent of respondents thought Gantz, part of the newly formed unity government and a former defense minister, would make a better prime minister.
Gantz and other moderate, experienced members of the unity government did instill a bit more trust in the state’s response to the crisis, Shany Granot-Lubaton, an Israeli protest leader living in the US, told Vox in an interview. “I’m happy that they’re there — it’s a life-risking moment and I feel better that more people who I trust are sitting around the table,” she said.
But even more moderate and experienced voices have to contend with hard-right ministers such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — not to mention Netanyahu himself. “I think they should have replaced this government and not get into a unity with [Netanyahu],” Granot-Lubaton said.
Ideally, “the unity government provides a basis for solidarity and offers a ‘timeout’ from the usual political struggles, enabling crucial decisions to be made in line with a broad national consensus,” Assaf Shapira, director of the political reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote in an October 10 piece.
“It’s about bringing in people who were chief of staff, and who were not involved in the current disaster,” Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the New York Times last week. “They are not responsible for it, so they can help to get out of it.”
In the wake of the attacks, some 360,000 reservists — Israel’s largest mobilization effort — reported for duty. Just months ago, many of those reservists said they would refuse to serve if the government’s controversial judicial reforms became law.
“The government isn’t really a government, it’s more a vehicle for the creation of the mini war cabinet,” Sachs said. It can only make decisions related to the war — and it’s “pivotal” for that purpose, Sachs told Vox.
Many civilians who participated in this summer’s protest movement have pivoted to form a system to support people displaced from the towns and villages devastated by the October 7 Hamas raid. They collect food and clothing for the displaced and coordinate medical care, as well as gather information about hostages and identify people still missing after the attack.
“You see the protest movement is literally running the country right now,” Granot-Lubaton said. “We see Brothers and Sisters [for Israel, the civil aid group] have their headquarters down south, they’ve been saving people from their homes … because the government didn’t do their job.”
Families of the hostages presumed to be in Gaza have been notified that their loved ones are among those kidnapped, but there has been no government effort to inform the families about what is being done to help rescue their family members, Yardena Schwartz reported for Foreign Policy on Friday.
Though trust in the government is at a low point, IDI polling shows that Jewish Israelis do feel optimistic about the future of the country despite the war — perhaps in part because of this solidarity movement.
“There isn’t even one minister that we say that we can trust,” Granot-Lubaton said. “There isn’t even one office that is doing what we are expecting them to do — not the health system, not the social security system, not the defense system — no one is doing their job, and people are feeling so scared.”
Update, October 24, 10 am: This story, originally published October 21, has been updated to include new polling from the Israel Democracy Institute.