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Can the unity in Israel's parliament last as the war in Gaza goes on?


When we spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on this program last week, my colleague Steve Inskeep asked him whether Israelis are losing faith in his leadership.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, I can say that Israel is united today as never before. And my government is united. I called in a significant part of the opposition that heeded my call. We formed a unity government. My whole cabinet is united. And we're committed to doing three things - destroying Hamas, returning our hostages and assuring a different future in Gaza.

MARTIN: Well, as you can hear, he deflected the question. Shortly after the start of the war, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, approved a national unity government, which includes a broad coalition of Netanyahu's right-wing government and centrist opposition leaders. But voices to replace Netanyahu have grown within the opposition and also his own party. So we decided to put the same question we asked the prime minister to Yohanan Plesner. He's president of the Israel Democracy Institute. That's a nonpartisan think tank that aims to strengthen Israel's democratic foundations. He's with us from Jerusalem via Skype. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

YOHANAN PLESNER: Hi. Good morning, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So as this war between Israel and Hamas has entered its seventh week, what's your sense about how this conflict and Israel's response to it - Israel's military response - how do you - what's your sense of how they are perceived in the Knesset and among the Israeli public at large?

PLESNER: Well, the Israeli public is - I mean, the prime minister, in his answer to your - in the - in last week's interview, was right that Israelis are united. Israelis are united not behind his leadership but behind the IDF's effort to dismantle Hamas. There's about more than 90% trust and support for the IDF, and there's unanimous support for the overarching goal of both dismantling Hamas and bringing back the hostages. So Israelis are united about that. They're not united about the leadership of Mr. Netanyahu. Only about 22% of Israelis gave the prime minister a positive rating in his management of the war. So levels of trust in Mr. Netanyahu as a political leader are at an all-time low.

MARTIN: What about within his own party, the Likud party?

PLESNER: Well, the - sort of the common wisdom and generally the vibe in Israel - that we are right now in a war, a war that has been forced on us by a Hamas that massacred so many Israelis. And the overarching goal is dismantling Hamas, crushing its capabilities and ability to perpetrate such crimes in the future. Until that happens, politics will not kick in. If you - but what we are seeing behind the scenes is obviously - Mr. Netanyahu's popularity in the general public is at an all-time low. He lost about a half of his political base. And clearly, the sort of growing understanding is that once the war is over, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Mr. Netanyahu to hold on to his position as prime minister.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because, I mean, obviously, there's a desire for accountability for the security failures exploited by Hamas during the October 7 attack. And I also - you know, before the Hamas attacks, I think many people will remember that he was heavily criticized for changes in the judiciary to give him more political power. He was facing a trial into allegations of corruption. There were massive demonstrations about that. So is it your sense that Mr. Netanyahu has any political future after this war ends?

PLESNER: Well, there's a graveyard of commentators that predicted the end of Netanyahu's political - long political career. But, yes, you are right. Netanyahu was elected just a year ago, in November of last year. And the main project of his government until October 7 was the judicial overhaul that was largely unpopular within the Israeli public, not only in the broad public but also among his own Likud supporters. About a third were opposed to it. So his government went into this security crisis very unpopular. And now its popularity and especially his persona as Mr. Security, Mr. Stability has fallen apart. And in this sense, we expect political changes after the war. But we are united in the need to end this war successfully and bring down the - Hamas as a governing entity of Gaza.

MARTIN: Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute. Mr. Plesner, thank you so much for sharing these insights with us.

PLESNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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