Can critique of Iran strike by security figures change Israeli public opinion?

Will Diskin crack Netanyahu’s “good for security” armor?

A review of public surveys on the Iran issue shows that even prior to the damning critique on Friday by Yuval Diskin, former head of the Internal Security Agency, the public already diverged sharply from the leadership’s policy: Survey after survey, as I wrote in March, showed that only a minority – somewhere between 19 percent and 31 percent – favors a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. The majority – at least half (here’s a similar survey in Hebrew), and up to nearly two-thirds (Hebrew) – is against a unilateral attack.

There are a few reasons why Diskin’s words could open a crack in the myth among the public that Netanyahu is good for security: First, Diskin voices the public’s basic divergence with government policy, as stated above. Second, Diskin joins a growing list of senior security figures who have expressed reservations about an attack, and that’s hard for the public to ignore. Third, commentary and speculation from some of the most influential (and most importantly, non-left wing) opinion-forming columnists in the Hebrew press have largely defended Diskin’s integrity.

At the very least, Diskin’s words and their reverberations could raise reasonable doubt in the public mind about Netanyahu’s competence on security. If so, citizens may then re-visit their own positions, instead of placing unqualified trust in the government. And if the public looks at itself, here’s what it will see (this revisits the polls I wrote about in March):


      • Just one-fifth of all Israelis (22 percent) – and only 19 percent of Jews – believe that a strike would delay the nuclear program by five years or more. All the rest believe it would delay it only by one to five years (31 percent). Some think it would actually accelerate the program (11 percent) and one-fifth (19 percent) say it would have no effect at all. (Telhami)
      • Half the population believes that the ensuing conflict would last months or years; nearly half believes it could strengthen the Iranian government; and almost 70 percent (actually, a full three-quarters among Jewish respondents) believe that Hezbollah would join a retaliatory effort by Iran. (Telhami)

One newer survey showed quite different results – and it’s one of the more biased reports I’ve seen, by the usually-respectable Camil Fuchs (who polls for Haaretz). The survey was conducted on behalf of the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an outfit which helped found NGO Monitor, is headed by Dore Gold and has Gerald Steinberg (the head of NGO Monitor) on its list of fellows. The respondents are Jews only; remarkably, the sample contains a disproportionate number of ultra-Orthodox (see the survey information notes, below). The survey stated hawkish positions and asked people to agree or disagree, rather than presenting two opposing views and asking them to state a preference. According to the data:


      • When told that “The only way to stop Iran from becoming nuclear is through a military strike,” 60 percent agreed (37 percent disagreed).
      • When told that “Israel will pay a higher price for living under the shadow of an Iranian bomb than it will for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities,” 65 percent agreed (the question did not clarify whether the attack would be unilateral or in concert with any other actor).
      • But when asked to compare American versus Israeli military capacity to substantially harm Iran’s nuclear program, the gap becomes apparent even here: 87 percent agreed that America has this capacity, compared to 66 percent who agreed with relation to Israel.

Close monitoring is needed, but the public has spoken clearly against an Israeli unilateral strike and knows categorically that it will cause a major, protracted war. Personally I’d be happier if the numbers showed more doubts about a military strike in general.

But when surveys prior to Diskin’s critique repeatedly show Netanyahu and Likud running high, affirmed again by a survey published today in the pro-Netanyahu daily paper Israel Hayom (a classic case of shoddy poll reporting, free of sample size, description and dates), and the New York Times called Netanyahu’s popularity “all but impenetrable,” it’s clear that the venting of economic frustrations last summer never touched the current government. A crack in the armor of Netanyahu/Barak’s security defense (of themselves, that is) is probably the only thing that stands to chip away at their support.

 Survey Information:


    • Telhami: Survey authored by Professor Shibley Telhami at University of Maryland. Dates: February 22-26, 2012. Sample: 500 adult Israelis, national representation (Jews and Arabs); error: +/- 4.5%
    • Truman: Survey authored by Professor Yaacov Shamir as part of the Israel-Palestine poll project at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University. Dates: March 11-15, 2012. Sample: 600 adult Israelis, national representation (Jews and Arabs), interviewed in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian; error: +/- 4.5%
    • Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: Authored by Camil Fuchs, March 2011 (no precise dates given). Sample: 505 Jews, no margin of error given. Sample critique: the demographics show that 15% of the sample self-defined as Haredi (ultra-orthodox), the most right-leaning group in Israel – and the group with the highest support for an attack. I have never seen statistics from the Central Bureau of Statistics or in any survey I’ve conducted that shows their number higher than nine percent. The report says the numbers in the analysis are weighted according to CBS data; but since Haredim invariably under-respond to surveys, the sample is quite hard to explain.

Correction appended: Nearly half the Israeli public believes a strike on Iran would strengthen the Iranian government, not the Israeli government as originally written.