Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can rest easy after reading the results of the latest Haaretz-Dialog poll: Not only does he trounce all his rivals on the question of who is most fit to lead the country, but an absolute majority of Israelis reject the aspersions cast on him last week by former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin.

Judging by this poll, Netanyahu is the only candidate with a realistic slot of becoming prime minister after the election slated to take place in another four months.

Asked which candidate is most suited to hold the job, 48 percent of respondents said Netanyahu. That is considerably more support than the other three candidates received put together.

His closest rival, Shelly Yacimovich (Labor ), got only 15 percent support. Next came Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu ) with nine percent, and finally Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) with six percent. That is a blow to Mofaz, who has been presenting himself as Netanyahu's only realistic rival.

The prime minister's strong showing on the suitability question, combined with all the polls showing his Likud party winning about 30 Knesset seats, prove he knew what he was doing when he decided last week to call early elections.

Facing no serious rivals, he had no reason to wait; the last thing he wanted was to endure another summer of social protests.

This was not the only finding in the poll that went Netanyahu's way: An absolute majority of respondents, 51 percent, disagreed with Diskin's claim that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are "messianics" who can't be trusted to deal wisely with the Iranian nuclear issue. In contrast, only 25 percent agreed with the ex-Shin Bet chief's unflattering description.

Netanyahu and Barak can justly interpret this as public backing for their handling of the Iranian issue to date. Diskin, however, ought to be asking himself whether perhaps he sank too low by speaking so contemptuously of the two ministers ("messianics from Caesarea and the Assuta project," a jab at their wealth ). He may thereby have shot himself in the foot.

Netanyahu would have preferred the upcoming election to be held in mid-August, but he knew this was unrealistic. Nevertheless, he scheduled it as early as possible: September 4, immediately after the summer vacation, when many Israelis go away. How much attention will all those vacationers be paying to the election campaign? Good question.

Next week, the 18th Knesset will dissolve, two weeks after it began its summer session. The 19th Knesset will convene in mid-October, immediately after the Sukkot holiday, which is apparently when the new government will be sworn in. And according to all the polls, without exception, the new prime minister will once again be Netanyahu.

Five weeks after his landslide victory in the Kadima leadership primary, Mofaz has not yet managed to catch fire with the general public. Even though he has a far more distinguished record than any of the other candidates, having previously served as defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, only a negligible proportion of Israelis see him as suitable for the most important job of all.

Yacimovich, in contrast, is a Knesset member who has never held a cabinet portfolio or attended a cabinet meeting, who has no background in security and has never picked up a red telephone at any hour of the day or night. Yet she managed to garner almost three times as much support as Mofaz did.

Moreover, all the polls published this week - including that of Haaretz, which will be published tomorrow - show Yacimovich's Labor Party replacing Kadima as the largest party in the center-left bloc. Kadima is currently fighting just to retain second place ahead of Lapid's new Yesh Atid party.

Asked for comment, Mofaz told Haaretz that "Netanyahu sought to hold elections as early as possible mainly because of us, because of me. He didn't want to give me time to get organized."

He also said he would work to persuade Tzipi Livni, the woman he ousted from Kadima's helm, to rescind her decision to quit the Knesset and recommit to the party. Yet at the same time, he criticized her behavior. "I would have expected a Kadima leader who lost to roll up her sleeves and help this enterprise called Kadima, not to resign and play the critic from outside."

The poll was conducted on Tuesday among a representative sample of the Israeli public, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University's statistics department.

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