Poll: Israeli Jews oppose a unilateral strike on Iran

Most Israelis do not back the Prime Minister and Defense Minister’s call for a pre-emptive strike on Iran, but most won’t do much to oppose it either. Here are some numbers and thoughts on why. 

Just one-quarter of the Jewish public (27 percent) in Israel supports a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, according to a new Peace Index survey from August 7-8, focused mainly on Iran. Fully 61 percent of the 516 Jewish respondents are against such a strike, with over one-quarter strongly opposed – even a majority on the right is opposed (51 percent).

If Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak truly hope to rally the public for war, they are not succeeding. Barely one-third (33 percent) expect them to actually carry out attack, while 56 percent do not. Fifty-seven percent are convinced that the duo is bluffing and posturing.

Worse still for Netanyahu and Barak, a strong majority of the Jewish public doesn’t even trust them to make the decision: the survey, run by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, shows that barely over one-quarter (28 percent) are convinced by Barak’s message that Israel must act “before Iran attains nuclear capability.” When given a choice, 57 percent chose instead to believe the senior security echelons, who oppose an attack; even the self-identified right is split dead even on which figures to trust.

Perhaps Netanyahu’s single greatest failure on this issue is that the Israeli public rejects his cherished baby, the existential threat. Poor Netanyahu: For three years, he has been hammering away at the theme that Iran equals the holocaust of the Jewish people. He has recited this at every opportunity, almost to the exclusion of anything else. He is nothing if not “on message.”

But the Israeli public merely displays resilience:

When presented with the proposition that Iran’s nuclear program cannot be stopped, and Israel must formulate its defense strategy on the assumption that it is no longer the only nuclear power in the region – in other words, reconciling itself to a nuclear Iran – an absolute majority of 60 percent agreed; only 35 percent disagreed.

To be sure, Israeli Jews would be far happier if Iran’s program would be stopped, and do not trust Western diplomatic efforts; 70 percent feel that Israel cannot rely on US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s promise that Iran will not have nuclear weapons. Three-quarters believe that a strike coordinated with the U.S. has a high chance of seriously delaying the Iranian nuclear program.

Given how skeptical the Jewish public is about the effectiveness of international diplomatic efforts, the lack of support for Netanyahu and Barak’s approach is, well, striking.

Actually it’s amazing is that despite the near-obsession of Netanyahu, Barak and the press, there seems to have been no movement of public opinion at all in recent months about Iran. Surveys I gathered this spring showed practically identical numbers. This is from April:

…The public…diverge[s] 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.

Here are my educated guesses about why such majorities of the Jewish interviewees aren’t excited about an attack.

  • It won’t work: A majority of 55 percent said there were very low or moderately low chances that a strike will significantly delay the nuclear program; just 36 percent gave somewhat high or high chances.
  • It’s not Osirak: It would be natural to compare the Iran debate to Israel’s strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. The general mantra in Israel is that our crack defense establishment does what’s right even (and sometimes especially) when it’s not politically correct, the world condemns us, and everyone’s secretly happy in the end. But we don’t hear much about Osirak lately. That’s because there’s a big difference: Iraq did not go to war with Israel following the strike and there were not 500 or even 300 Israeli casualties, in return for moderate-to-low chances of a mere delay in nuclear armament. 
  • It’s the economy, tembel (stupid): In focus groups about various political issues I ran a few weeks ago, Iran hardly came up. People did talk at great length about daily economic hardships, like the cost of day care for the kids: “It’s crazy, it’s like another salary. For me, that’s everything at this point. Sure, there’s the security thing and the Iranian threat, but I get up and go to work and that’s what bothers me,” said one participant.  The way our brave leaders quake at the thought of trimming the defense budget, preferring instead to gouge the middle class, is wearing thin.

That leaves the eternal paradox: if people don’t support the policy, why don’t they actively oppose it? Despite noble attempts to hold Facebook-driven anti-war demonstrations all week, just a handful attended.

Here’s my opinion about why: First, the security mystique reigns supreme. Although people don’t like the idea of a strike, I hear many saying “there are things we don’t know” – as they nod their heads and accept the mysterium tremendum. (Personally, I think that if the government expects me to rally round a war it starts, I deserve to know why that war is right for the country. A possibility of a 1-2 year delay is not sufficient. I want a list of concrete benefits – a long list.)

Second, the Peace Index shows that Israelis don’t place much faith in the other (international, diplomatic) options.

Third, the social protests proved to many that the government does not listen to people. So why bother? That’s what some friends wrote on Facebook this week. And that’s exactly what this government likes to hear.