Tel Aviv Diary: Netanyahu Loses His Security Edge

A burned vehicle is seen near the Lebanese village of Ghajar on Israel’s border with Lebanon on January 28, 2015. Maruf Khatib/Reuters

Israel is very tense this afternoon. There is a concern that the situation in the north could spin out of control and a third Lebanon war might be about to start.

On Tuesday four rockets were fired from Syrian territory at the Golan Heights. The missiles caused no damage, and Israel responded by destroying a Syrian army emplacement.

This morning two Israeli armored Humvees patrolling the border were attacked by Russian-built Kornet anti-tank missiles from Lebanon. Seven Israeli soldiers were in the two vehicles when they were attacked; all were either killed or wounded.

Israel responded with immediate artillery fire. However, it is expected that the full Israeli response will be greater. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed back to Tel Aviv to army headquarters to discuss the response.

Israeli soldiers carry a wounded comrade on a stretcher near Israel’s border with Lebanon on January 28, 2015. JINIPIX/Reuters

The attacks were a response to Israel's strike on a convoy of Hezbollah and Iranian officers last week near the border. No one in Israel believes that today's attack was the end of the story, but most likely it was one of a number of retaliatory actions that Hezbollah and Iran are planning.

This attack is one in a series of events that have taken place in the past few weeks, seemingly changing the public agenda from its focus on domestic issues to focus on issues of national security. Over the past three weeks, Israelis have witnessed the terror attacks in Paris, watched the attack on the Hezbollah/Iranian convoy in Syria, experienced the terror attack in Tel Aviv and been embroiled in the controversy over Netanyahu's planned speech to Congress on Iran, scheduled to take place a little over one week before the elections in Israel.

While that speech has been widely disparaged and may be, for the moment, hurting the prime minister's standing, it has still brought back into the public's consciousness the question of whether Iran will be able to get nuclear weapons.

All of these events should have strengthened Netanyahu's position in the upcoming elections. However, recent polling suggests this has not been the case. In fact, the lead that Labor has over Likud seems to be growing. Polls publicized for the first time on Tuesday night indicate that the center-left wing has a slight advantage over the right wing, and that if elections were held today, it is more than likely that Yitzhak Herzog would be the next prime minister of Israel.

Of course, the elections are still seven weeks away, and pollsters in Israel have been notoriously unsuccessful at predicting last-minute surges. That seems to happen in every election, as the undecided finally make up their minds and vote.

It would be useful to try to understand why Netanyahu, who is considered by most Israelis to be the most qualified to handle security matters, is not being helped by the supposed shift in public discourse. It should be noted that the same polls that show him most capable of handling national security matters also show him nearly the least capable person to handle the public's socioeconomic concerns.

A number of factors appear to be at work at the moment. First and foremost, although the news media has been dominated by discussions on security matters, the Israeli public still seems determined to cast its votes based on its socioeconomic concerns. Over the weekend, a poll came out showing that despite the events of the past weeks, over 50 percent of the Israeli electorate believes that economic issues will be key to voting decisions.

Hezbollah supporters wave flags of the militant Islamist group on January 28, 2015, in celebration in Beirut’s southern suburbs after the group fired a missile at Israeli military vehicles on the border. Khalil Hassan/Reuters

Non-Israelis are sometimes astounded by this factor. After all, those looking at us from afar most certainly wonder how people who live in cities that were attacked just this summer by barrages of missiles—a country whose destruction is still being called for by some—can worry more about economic issues than issues of survival.

The answer to that question holds the key to understanding these elections. To most Israelis, our security situation is just the way things are, almost like the weather. You can talk about it, but you really can't do much about it. So if many Israelis believe that, for the moment, there is no way to really affect the issues of war and peace in any meaningful way, and if Netanyahu is seen as more capable on the issue of security, then those issues are ultimately not that important at this time.

This summer the conventional wisdom was that the war would push Israelis further to the right, but that does not seem to be the case. Rather, this past summer's war has pushed Israelis more toward an apathetic view regarding issues of security (i.e., this is our fate and we will just have to "soldier on").

Of course, a further factor molding the current pre-election climate could be the rampant number of corruption and sexual scandals that have enveloped the government. Likud has held power for most of the past 38 years. After its nearly four decades in power, voters may be feeling that, despite whatever misgivings they might have about the opposition parties, it's just time for a change.

If the attack from Lebanon spins out of control, it's not clear how the election campaigns will be affected. Much can happen in Israel and the Middle East in the next six weeks, but however events unfold, the situation is not likely to be boring.

Media historian Marc Schulman is the editor of An archive of his recent daily reports from Tel Aviv can be found here.