Why Netanyahu is ahead
Netanyahu is popular with the public because he is perceived as a leader with a message, ready to fight for his views.
Kadima, Labor and Likud are just like the cellphone companies. Just like Orange, Cellcom and Pelephone, the three largest parties also sell the same product, and the general public is finding it difficult to tell them apart. Even with regard to the main issue dividing Israeli public opinion today - control over the territories - there is no real difference among the candidates' stances. Their slogans and styles may be different, but all the candidates are pragmatists and will adjust their policies to the exigencies of the day: If they pressure us, we will withdraw; absent any pressure, we will stay in the settlements.
Under such circumstances, marketing relies on differentiation, even if it is forced. Cellular telephone companies have made a tremendous effort to develop an image separate from their product, so consumers will be able to tell them apart. Every one in Israel can identify the orange, the purple and the blue of the three big cellular competitors, not to mention the length of pop star Ninet's hair as she skips between companies. But what does any of this have to do with sending and receiving telephone calls?
In a free market, the prices of products reflect the expectations of the buyers. In the political market, approval ratings do not reflect an assessment about past conduct, only the expression of expectations and hope for the future. This explains why Ariel Sharon enjoyed tremendous popularity at a time when hundreds of Israelis were dying in suicide bombings and the economy was teetering on the verge of collapse. People believed Sharon would extricate them from the predicament, and therefore backed him, irrespective of the changes in his policies. Ehud Olmert did not become unpopular because of his failure in the Second Lebanon War, and not even because of the investigations against him. The public simply lost its faith in his ability to govern.
In order to gain support, politicians must differentiate themselves from their rivals and meet the changing expectations of the public. A simple, catchy message is better than a complex political manifesto or a detailed rehashing of past glories. No one remembers the previous term in office, and how the glowing star quickly turned into a failed leader. The basic product of politics, the ability to rally a coalition to stay in power and execute policies, interests the public almost as much as the way cellular companies split their antenna frequencies. Olmert excels at political management, but did not radiate hope for the future. That is why he fell.
Benjamin Netanyahu leads in the polls not because the public has good memories of his problematic tenure as prime minister or his role as head of the opposition to a government the public is fed up with. Fact: Tzipi Livni holds a central role in this government, and she is nearly as popular as Netanyahu. Netanyahu was barely noticed as head of the opposition during the past two years. His criticism of Olmert was less than active. On the investigations of corruption at the top, Netanyahu said nothing, probably out of concern that he was going to be reminded of his own stays at luxury hotels, first class tickets and friendship with powerful men. Nonetheless, Netanyahu is leading in the polls over his rivals. How does he do it?
Netanyahu is popular with the public because he is perceived as a leader with a message, ready to fight for his views in an environment of political deal brokering. Time and again one may recall Netanyahu's failures as prime minister, the infighting in his bureau and his problematic memory. But all this is nothing compared to his clashes with the elites as prime minister and the way he stood up to the Histadrut labor federation, the banks and the social lobby as finance minister. Although he is part of the establishment, Netanyahu markets himself successfully as a radical who represents change.
Livni also set herself apart, as a different kind of politician representing novelty and freshness. After all, her call on Olmert to respond to the first Winograd report is remembered, but not her decision to stay in his government. Her lack of popularity in the Knesset cafeteria is a positive sign for the public: It is as if she is above the deception, the illegalities in signing up party members and the appointment of cronies. As the sole woman among the candidates, and the youngest, her rapid rise from anonymity to the top through seven ministries, is seen as a brilliant career and not as insufficient experience - as her rivals claim.
Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz are behind in the polls, despite their vast military experience, which is supposed to be the ticket considering rising anxiety over an Iranian bomb. However, they have failed to differentiate themselves. What is Barak's message? What exactly does he represent? The public is not impressed with the record Barak prides himself on, and not because of his failure at Camp David, but because the public has little expect in the way of a future with Barak.
Meanwhile, at the head of the Mofaz campaign lies the promise of establishing a government with the current Knesset. This may be good for the political allies and for the MKs, but not for the public, which prefers new elections between Netanyahu and Livni and is finding it difficult to understand what would follow Mofaz's rise to power.
In the end, there are minor differences between the four pretenders to the premiership. In the end, the least popular leader might function well at the Prime Minister's Bureau. But they should all learn from Olmert's fall not to ignore the views of the public and that successful marketing of a leader is no less important than managing a country and maintaining a coalition.