Roni Bar-On has been finance minister for about eight months. His performance, and his conduct, are essential to the health of the Israeli economy, which has never been better. Professor Stanley Fischer has been governor of the Bank of Israel for about three years. Every few months he raises or lowers the interest rate. His performance too is critical for the state of the economy. But when the public is asked to express an opinion on these two top economic officials, the contrasts are sharp: Fischer, the professional, is held in high esteem, whereas Bar-On, the belligerent politician, gets little credit and a lot of opposition.

The Israeli public does not like the politicians who run its life. It prefers academics or army officers. And if there must be politicians, then they should be old and harmless.

A Haaretz-Dialog poll conducted Tuesday under the supervision of Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University examined the public's opinions on the country's top 11 political, military, economic and legal figures. Only four received a satisfaction rating of more than 50 percent: President Shimon Peres led the poll, as always, followed by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Fischer and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. The latter was the most esteemed female politician, considerably ahead of Number 2, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - in part because she steers clear of controversy and makes a point of calling for national unity nearly every day.

Itzik's ranking is symbolic: She has recently been confiding to associates that she has her eye on the position of foreign minister. Or president. Whichever comes first. Considering the physical condition of the incumbent - who spends a considerable amount of his time at the funerals of people who are younger than he is - it would appear that there will be no vacancy at the President's Residence for several years.

After the trauma of the Second Lebanon War and former chief of staff Dan Halutz, Ashkenazi is perceived as the rehabilitator of the army. His Spartan aura, his avoidance of interviews and his endless seriousness put him in second place, behind Peres. Ashkenazi is the favorite of voters from all parties, except the Arab parties.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is also working to restore the battered army, is not sharing the glory enjoyed by his chief of staff; he is only in seventh place. His popularity in the polls is increasing extremely slowly, at an average of just 2 percent a month. Barak enjoys solid support from the centrist parties, Kadima, Labor and the Pensioners, and to some extent from would-be voters for Arcadi Gaydamak's new party. Support for the defense minister soared this week among Labor voters: In the poll conducted six weeks ago, 59 percent of Labor voters expressed satisfaction with Barak, compared to 38 percent who expressed dissatisfaction. These figures were 72 percent and 22 percent, respectively, in the latest poll.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not recovered his popularity since the Second Lebanon War. His support numbers are slowly climbing from poll to poll, but they are far from ensuring his reelection. After a relatively gentle final Winograd report, after his absolution from the accusation of "corrupt spin" concerning the ground operation, after the attack on the nuclear installation in Syria and the assassination of Imad Mughniyah (both of which have been attributed to Israel) - Olmert still has no traction.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was unfortunate in that the survey was conducted on the day the High Court of Justice approved the plea bargain with former president Moshe Katsav. Perhaps that is why Mazuz's ratings do not befit a public figure of his stature. In the age of Olmert and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, the country's legal system looks like a disaster zone. Mazuz is one of the victims. Ironically, he may also be partly responsible for the situation.

Friedmann, an Israel Prize laureate, was brought in by Olmert to put the Supreme Court in order, but he missed his moment. Not all of his reforms are worthy of condemnation - some are necessary, even essential - but his obsessive attacks on the Supreme Court and its president have sent him tumbling to the bottom of the polls. Of the three heads of the justice system, he earns the lowest grade.

The predecessors of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch presumably enjoyed greater public support, but they were not under nearly constant fire from the justice minister. Despite these attacks, Beinisch is the only one of the three whose supporters outnumbered her detractors in the poll. All she needs to do is outlast Friedmann - and a look at the voting pattern reflected in the latest poll seems to indicate that election day cannot be far off.

The sun is setting

At the start of the week, Barak met with the leaders of Shas - Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai and Communications Minister Ariel Atias - to ask them to bring their party to heel. "We don't work for you, we work for us," Barak told them; "I understand what you are doing but you also have to understand us."

Journalist Yossi Elituv published parts of this conversation in the ultra- Orthodox newspaper Mishpaha. "Don't place yourself against us, in the same corner as [Labor MKs Shelly] Yachimovich and [Ophir] Pines-Paz," they told him. "You made a gesture of reconciliation to the Sephardim; stay on that path."

In recent months, Shas has been pushing laws through the Knesset as though the plenum was about to catch fire. (This week it was the Internet censorship law.) As a survival tactic, Olmert has been showering them with goodies: the reestablishment of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the appointment of dozens of rabbinical court judges, responsibility for conversion, the Rabbinical Court law and the Internet law. Soon we will learn about the restoration of some of the cuts made to children's allowances, and greedy Shas is also demanding control of the Knesset Finance Committee. (Incidentally, in the poll only 6 percent of Shas voters expressed satisfaction with Olmert. If that's not ingratitude, what is?)

Moderates among the Haredim expressed fear this week that Shas will once again exhaust the patience of the non-religious voters and find itself out of the next government in favor of a party like Shinui (or perhaps Yisrael Beiteinu), which will gain the votes of the secular and the frustrated-immigrant.

In the meantime, it is Labor that is blinking in the spotlights and beginning to realize that something very bad is happening. Even the biggest cheerleader for the coalition seal, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, this week sent a letter to Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel, informing him that if things continue as they are, the coalition will fall apart.

At the meeting of Labor MKs early this week, Yachimovich said: "The sun is setting. We are in an election campaign, Shas is on its way out and we have to act accordingly."

Barak agreed with her: "Yes," he said, "the elections may be closer than we thought. We must come together on the issues that are important to us and our voters, above all the rule of law and matters of religion and state."

Afraid no more

Survey after survey, month after month, Likud has continued to claw its way upward in the polls, and now it is approaching the number of Knesset seats that Ariel Sharon achieved in the 2003 elections - 38. Party chair MK Benjamin Netanyahu would happily agree to getting 28 seats today - for real, not in a public opinion poll. Since the Second Lebanon War, the poll picture has been fairly static: Likud with around 30 seats, the rightist bloc obtaining a clear victory with a 70-MK coalition, and a center-left government headed by Labor or Kadima looking like science fiction. It is hard to see this map changing substantially in a four-month election campaign.

The new Likud, which polled the equivalent of 35 seats in the latest survey, is more moderate, more dignified and more restrained. This is not the Likud currently represented in the Knesset by 12 MKs who are the nationalist hard core. This can be seen in the respondents' attitude toward Beinisch: 49 percent support her, 31 percent oppose her. It is the clearest sign that Likud is once again a center-right party, as in Sharon's day. To this can be added the finding, published in Haaretz on Wednesday, that 48 percent of Likud voters support direct talks with Hamas on a truce and the release of Gilad Shalit. Netanyahu, an obsessive consumer of public opinion polls, is without a doubt aware of this. It is not by chance that he is talking up "an economic peace" and focusing on the issue of Jerusalem.

A note of caution: 41 percent of respondents declined to say how they would vote (The remaining responses were calculated in accordance with accepted survey methods). In fact, 48 of the 120 Knesset seats are unidentified, falling under the rubrics of "don't know" or "refuses to answer." This is a very high percentage of undecided voters.