Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is losing altitude, according to the Haaretz-Dialog poll published here. The results show that, for the first time in a year, a majority of the public is dissatisfied with his performance and questions his suitability as prime minister.
This is purely personal, not party-related. Likud under his leadership is actually stronger: If elections were held today, the party would get 35 Knesset seats, eight more than its current total and 23 more than it received in 2006. Netanyahu took a broken, shattered party that had been split and decapitated by the predecessor of his predecessor - i.e., Ariel Sharon - and brought it back to life. No one can take that away from him.
Every few months, this poll, conducted under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs from the Department of Statistics at Tel Aviv University, checks the prime minister's political health. Since his election, Netanyahu had been in pretty good shape. There were always more people who were happy with him than those who were not, generally with an 8-10 point spread in his favor. In the new survey, though, that situation has changed. When it comes to suitability for the premiership, Netanyahu still ranks ahead of his rival, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. But the gap is narrowing: Not in her favor, but to his detriment.
Two reasons for this leap to mind. One is the "Sara effect." In the past three weeks, Netanyahu has been buffeted by negative, embarrassing reports about his domineering wife and about him personally, as well as about how he is dealing with her and about developments in his bureau.
But the main reason for the drop in his popularity is his decision to freeze construction in the settlements - something no right-wing prime minister before him ever dared to do. The dry facts tell the whole story: Netanyahu is losing support among right-wing voters (though not in the Likud). At the same time, he is gaining popularity among the center and the left. The voters on the right side of the political spectrum are disappointed with him. They still backed him after he declared his support for the two-state solution, but once he took a concrete step they started to turn a cold shoulder.
After almost a year in the opposition, Tzipi Livni remains the only significant political alternative to Netanyahu among the three large- or medium-size parties - even though Kadima almost slipped through her fingers; even though she is in the midst of a struggle against the party's No. 2, Shaul Mofaz; and even though Kadima's impact as an opposition power is negligible.
Fully 89 percent of Kadima voters prefer Livni over Mofaz. This finding shows how cut off he is from Kadima's voters (or, in this case, from the party's registered members, who determine its leadership). If Mofaz stays in Kadima, runs and defeats Livni, he will transform the party into something completely different from what it is today - he will make it a pale copy of Likud.
But in the poll, Kadima loses three seats to Labor, which has nine sweet seats, as opposed to six in the last Haaretz-Dialog poll, in November (and 13 in the last election). The reason: internal wrangling in Kadima. But the new data also indicate that half of Kadima's voters - 14 Knesset seats - would consider voting for a new party led by journalist and television presenter Yair Lapid.
Lapid also would draw many people from Labor and Meretz: In total, based on this survey, nearly a quarter of the country's voters would likely consider giving Lapid their vote. At the moment, he is in a dream spot for a wannabe politician. He is the presenter of the most watched current-events television program on Friday night; he writes a column in the country's most widely read weekend newspaper magazine; he is perceived as a victim because of the proposed "Lapid bill," a move by his opponents to block him from running in the next elections; he is gaining points from the well-publicized troubles of Kadima and from the built-in wretchedness of Labor; and he has just published a book about his late father, which became an instant best-seller. All he has to do now is rescue two babies from a burning house and nothing will be able to keep him from being elected prime minister.
On his way into the political arena, Lapid has to keep in mind the experience of one person: Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former chief of staff. Before he ran in the late 1990s, at the height of his popularity, the polls gave a party headed by him 20-plus seats. But the moment he actually entered politics there wasn't a mistake that he didn't make. Lipkin-Shahak ended up as No. 2 in the Center Party, whose six seats faded away in the twinkling of an eye. Lapid would do well to give him a call before he takes a commercial break and doesn't come back.
Shimon Peres had Yitzhak Rabin (and vice versa) as his right-hand man. Afterward he had Ehud Barak. Ariel Sharon had Benjamin Netanyahu. Each of those prime ministers had a "natural" successor, someone who was considered - by the political arena, his party and the media - as the one and only possibility. Netanyahu has no one, no No. 2.
The Haaretz pollsters asked about potential successors in Likud and Labor after the era of Netanyahu and Barak; the question was put to voters in general and not to the registered members who will choose the party's leaders. In Likud there are three potential heirs: Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. The three are almost neck and neck, both among the general public and among Likud voters.
Sa'ar, a young minister serving his first cabinet term, has leaped forward and is now positioned alongside Shalom and Ya'alon, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz faltering, well behind. In the face of Ya'alon's magnificent military record (he was chief of staff) and of the senior government posts Shalom held (foreign affairs, treasury), Sa'ar's success as education minister is highly significant.
Among Labor and Meretz voters, only one successor to Barak looms at this stage: Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog. He is well ahead of MK Shelly Yachimovich and Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman. Yachimovich, a fairly new MK, is doing pretty well - on the assumption that she and her colleagues will still have a party to lead.
The Labor Party shows a 50-percent increase - from six seats in the last poll to nine in this one. But the whole center-left camp has 48 seats, unchanged from the poll three months ago, whereas the right-wing bloc has 72 seats - also unchanged. In the current Knesset, the center-left bloc has 55 seats, as compared to 65 for the right. In short, a year after the elections, the right-wing bloc still remains dominant.
A lobby revived
On Tuesday afternoon, in the old lecture hall of the Knesset, the Land of Israel lobby was reborn. It was first established 22 years ago by Likud MK Michael Eitan. A right-wing parliamentary body, its main effort was devoted to tightening the settlers' hold on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Now, with Gaza gone, MK Zeev Elkin (Likud) and MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) decided to recreate the lobby. Elkin is the chairman of the Likud faction and the coalition, both of which are headed by a prime minister who declared his support for the two-state solution and ordered a construction freeze in the settlements. In the near future, Elkin will have to muster support for that policy among the coalition members, while heading a body that preaches against it.
The new lobby's basic principles include "strengthening Israel's hold throughout the Land of Israel and particularly in Judea-Samaria," "preventing any harm from befalling the settlement project in Judea-Samaria," "promoting legislation that will bolster settlement in those regions," and "refashioning the policy of the defense establishment for the benefit of promoting settlement in these regions." And so on.
In addition to a large number of MKs, the founding meeting was attended by all the leaders of the settlement movement, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and two Likud ministers: Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, who is also a member of the "forum of seven," the supreme body in the government. Both ministers expressed support for the lobby's principles, which are totally at variance with those espoused by Netanyahu. Begin even told the meeting: "In the months ahead, in the years ahead, we shall have to work together, and work together we shall."
Work for what? Against whom? Against what?
The other Likud ministers were no-shows, but sent touching messages of support. "Strengthening our hold throughout the Land of Israel and in the Golan Heights is a basic, existential and security need whose roots lie deep in history," one minister wrote.
"Even though I am not there with you, my heart is definitely with you. May you only increase and grow stronger," another poeticized. "We are there and we will remain there thanks to our forefathers," said another. "We must encourage settlement activity in all parts of the land," a fourth minister asserted. And so on.
In fact, the only two ministers who did not send messages were Netanyahu and Dan Meridor. One who did was Eitan, who founded the lobby in 1988. He wrote Elkin that he believes the lobby's goals are more compatible with those of the extremist National Union than with Likud and the coalition, that the lobby is misguided and that its views are in "thunderous contradiction" to Netanyahu's policy. "I suggest that you look for a different path," Eitan wrote.
MK Eldad didn't know in advance what Eitan had written. At the start of the meeting he solemnly informed those present that he would soon read the letter sent by the founder of the original lobby, Michael Eitan. Everyone applauded warmly. The letter was not read out. Who wants to be a party pooper?
After the meeting, the settler leaders made their way to the MKs' cafeteria. At the entrance, one of them ran into Ze'ev Boim, a former Herut and Likud man, but of late in Kadima. "Ze'evik, join us, be part of the lobby," the settler urged Boim.
"And what will we do there?" Boim asked.
"We will save the Land of Israel," the settler replied, and laughed loudly and long.
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