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What Do Israelis Really Think about the Iran Issue?

Israel protest
Thousands of people march through Tel Aviv protesting against government budget cuts, Tel Aviv, Israel, 11 May 2011

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made himself clear: the Iranian regime and its nuclear project are the gravest threats facing Israel, and the government must do all in its power to oppose the deal currently under negotiation between the P5+1 and Iran. How does the Israeli public feel about the Iranian issue? What does the public think the government should do?

Polling from recent years tells a nuanced story. First, the public views the Iranian nuclear programme as a threat and does not believe that the Obama-led Iran nuclear negotiations, which, in April 2015, produced an understanding on the principles of an agreement, will neutralize that threat. In a February poll by the Times of Israel website, 72 percent of the public said it does not trust that Obama will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, an increase from 64 percent in January 2014. (The poll included both Jewish and Arab Israelis, which means that percentages among Israeli Jews would probably be higher.) This finding by the Times of Israel is consistent with years of polling that has shown steady public concern with the Iranian programme. At least three polls conducted in 2012-2013 found that approximately 75 percent of the public viewed a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to Israel.

Unlike Netanyahu, however, the public does not see the Iranian issue as the country’s dominant problem. A February 2015 poll by the Institute for National Security Studies asked respondents to name the gravest external threat facing Israel. The Iranian nuclear issue came in in only second place, with 21 percent citing it, as opposed to 32 percent who cited Hezbollah and Hamas (and smaller numbers naming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, international isolation, and ISIS/al-Qaeda). In a 2012 poll by the institute, respondents implicitly saw a loss of US support for Israel as a greater threat than Iran. Some 63 percent said Israel could successfully manage a nuclear Iran, while only 62 percent said the country could similarly manage the loss of US support. Other polls in recent years similarly found that support for an Israeli military strike on Iran carried out without support from the United States had dropped significantly.

The saliency of the Iran issue also suffers when Israelis are asked to rank it not only among external threats but also among internal issues. In its poll, the Times of Israel asked which issue had the most important claim on the incoming government’s attention. Only ten percent of respondents named the Iranian threat, compared with the 19 percent who cited relations with the Palestinians and the 48 percent who named economic issues as most critical. Despite sustained concern about Iran, much of the public views the cost of living and housing and socioeconomic gaps as more pressing.

The Israeli public, then, agrees with its prime minister in his basic position on the issue but disagrees with him about the issue’s relative importance. A strong majority views the nuclear programme as a negative development and a threat—even a serious one—to Israel’s security, but the public disagrees with Netanyahu on how urgent the Iranian issue is compared with other national priorities.

Both dimensions of public opinion have had an impact on Israeli politics and on government policy. On one hand, both the government and the centre-left opposition have agreed that Israel should object to the understandings of 2 April in Lausanne. Last week, the opposition Zionist Union released a document calling on the government to lobby Washington to tighten the Lausanne deal in the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement. In addition, the Zionist Union called for lobbying the Obama administration for advance approval for an Israeli military strike, should Iran violate the agreement. These positions may be at odds with the wholesale objections made by Netanyahu, especially his open attempt for a congressional veto of the deal. Still, they are far from an endorsement of the Lausanne deal and show uneasiness with many of the Obama administration’s negotiating positions.

On the other hand, while agreeing with Netanyahu in refusing to welcome the emerging deal, most of Israel’s political actors have little interest in it. The ongoing coalition talks, set to conclude before the end of April, have focused on every issue but Iran. Budgets, ministries, child stipends, control over religious councils—all these subjects have been raised. The core dispute is over which party will control the Planning Directorate, regulators who are responsible for zoning rules and property use. Reform of that body, were it to come, could open up real estate for building and thus ease the soaring cost of housing. That issue tops the Israeli public’s agenda. For the parties negotiating entry into the coalition, as for their voters, the Iranian issue is far from central.

The coming months will bring continued focus on the Israeli government’s angst over talks with Iran. The public shares the official concern but is worried even more about other matters.

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