Amos Biderman
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Details of talks with the Americans about a two-month freeze on settlement construction are being discussed among only a few, and the leaks about the meetings are anything but totally accurate. Still all signs are pointing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanting to refreeze settlement growth. The only question is what Israel will receive in exchange.

Netanayhu has no ideological problem with ordering the bulldozers halted in the territories. His main problem is political - at press time, he still lacked majority support in the cabinet for a freeze extension. Ministers have been full of emphatic declarations, verbal and written, favoring renewal of full-scale construction at the end of the 10-month freeze. The widespread feeling that Netanyahu wants to close a deal with President Barack Obama was reinforced this week by two developments. The first is Netanyahu's intention to bring up for a cabinet vote the proposed loyalty declaration-citizenship law on Sunday, a proposal cherished by Avigdor Lieberman and his party.

Netanyahu is not so naive as to think Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu will vote for a freeze as a quid pro quo. But the loyalty law issue will help Netanyahu deflect attention away from the freeze and toward his own pet project: the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. That demand pits Netanyahu against the left, which will compel his right-wing partners to rally around him.

The second reinforcement was published this week by Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth: Netanyahu's request that President Obama put his signature to the letter from his predecessor, George W. Bush, recognizing that settlement blocs will need to be annexed as part of a final-status agreement. Should this demand win U.S. approval, it will be presented as a monumental achievement.

According to a Haaretz-Dialog survey, conducted under the supervision of Tel Aviv University's Dr. Camil Fuchs, Netanyahu's popularity rating has dropped 12 points since the last poll, in June, and for the first time the majority disapprove of him. Lieberman's popularity has gone down 20 points. Ehud Barak, who was the most popular cabinet minister in June, in the wake of the flotilla affair, has lost 29 points in four months.

The three premier figures in the government, who represent much of the political spectrum (Netanyahu right, Lieberman far right, and Barak center-left ), have all taken a hit, at a time when the country's security and economic circumstances are not too shabby.

Netanyahu is viewed as a leader who has yet to decide who, and what, he is. He is losing ground on the right, which suspects him of being a closet leftist; and leftists think the prime minister does not have the stomach for bold moves.

Eighteen months after the establishment of his second government, Netanyahu has not initiated anything. All that he has done has been in response to international pressure. His Bar-Ilan speech (June last year ) and the settlement construction freeze were such responses. He still ranks first as the leader that the public wants to see promoting a peace process while also guarding the country's security interests; nonetheless, only 40 percent of the public supports him at this point.

Lieberman's popularity has dropped largely because of his atrocious performance at the UN General Assembly 10 days ago. The far right still supports him, but the center right wants nothing to do with him, not so much because of his positions, but rather because of his unstatesmanlike behavior. The public wants a statesmanlike foreign minister, not one who reads his own party's platform from the UN speaker's rostrum, at variance of elementary rules of protocol.

Over the past half year, Lieberman had started to win some points in the court of public opinion. He moved aside and allowed Netanyahu, Barak and Shimon Peres to take control of political diplomacy, without interference. The public appreciated that. Then, with one ill-considered UN speech, he harmed both himself and his party.

A well-placed political insider close to the foreign minister believes Lieberman wants to be Ariel Sharon. "His plan is to stop any prime minister from attaining a political agreement, to win the support of the right, to be elected prime minister, and then to forge an agreement that surprises the world," the source said.

'Mr. Security' stumbles

During the government's first year, Ehud Barak's approval rating as defense minister was upwards of 60 percent. The political arena felt that on the eve of his 70th birthday, with a track record strewn with failures, Barak had turned into "Mr. Security" and the government's respectable elder statesman. Most Likud, Kadima and Labor voters supported his work as defense minister.

Then came the public kerfuffle with IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the published excerpt from Ehud Olmert's forthcoming memoir, and open conflict with senior figures in his own party.

Though he might have been the victim of the Galant document affair, Barak did not really win any sympathy from it. Nor has he garnered support for his work as a diplomatic conduit to the Americans and Palestinians, or for his positive contribution toward trying to save the peace talks.

Image is everything. The public wants a security system that works like a well-oiled machine. When the machine starts to creak, the public takes sides. And when Barak and Ashkenazi come to blows, Barak is always seen as the bad guy.

When the government was established, Barak enjoyed the benefit of the doubt in the public eye, but he has lost this measure of latitude. Barak is making a valiant last effort to save the direct talks; his motivations stem both from his own ideological vision, and his personal interest in extricating himself from this popularity plunge. But his work on the peace talks might not be enough. Israelis rank him last on the list of leaders who can be trusted to protect Israel's security, after Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni and Lieberman.

While the public is dissatisfied with the government's top figures, the survey shows no surge of support for opposition leader Livni. Her party, Kadima, does gain four Knesset seats in the poll results, but such theoretical election results can fluctuate in both directions until the public actually enters the voting booth.

When asked whom they would want to lead the peace negotiation process, 25 percent of poll respondents choose Livni, as compared with 37 percent for Netanyahu. The fact that Livni was a well-respected foreign minister, and that she speaks extensively about peace issues, do not seem to boost her popularity.

As to the question about "who would protect the nation's security interests," the Kadima leader is preferred by 16 percent of the respondents. Livni has kept mum for a long time, supposedly to give Netanyahu some rope to wrap around his own neck. For now, at least, this has not happened. If Livni has reason to remain optimistic, it is because elections are still far off. Livni remains the sole electoral asset for the country's center-left.

The survey shows that the center-left's position is strengthening somewhat. Parties affiliated with this part of the spectrum would today win 53 Knesset seats. Nine of those belong to Arab parties. This means that no leader from this end of the spectrum would be able to forge a government coalition; he or she would need to include at least one right-wing party in a new government.

Political monkeying

If there is anyone in the State of Israel or its government who doesn't grasp how problematic political appointments have become, the case of Dr. Gabi Avital, ousted from his post as chief scientist of the Education Ministry this week, should prove instructive. The day after being fired, he worked the media, declaring in interviews that he intends to run for a Likud slot in the next Knesset elections.

He stated that the minister who dismissed him, Gideon Sa'ar, would be punished by the Likud rank and file, the same party members who did not vote for Avital two years ago, when he previously vied for a spot on the Likud list, and who gave Sa'ar a top spot on the party list.

Sa'ar might, in fact, warrant punishment - not for this dismissal, but, rather, for appointing Avital in the first place. Avital should have been fired as soon as his views were exposed (last February, in Haaretz ). He denied the theory of evolution, ridiculed global efforts to stifle climate change, spoke contemptuously about writers and used inflammatory language in reference to foreign workers and the Supreme Court. How did he hold onto the position for 10 months?

Avital's fate was clinched at the end of August, after he gave an interview to Shalom Yerushalmi, from Maariv, in which he once again expounded anti-Darwinist views. Sa'ar waited until the holidays were over, and then sent Avital packing. Sa'ar at least had the courage to admit that the appointment was a mistake.

Avital has a Ph.D., and is a lecturer at the Technion, but he is also a political activist who twice failed to be elected to the Knesset. When a figure like this is appointed to a public post, his views and intentions must be vetted, so that he does not simply use his position as a springboard to win a Knesset seat. He chose to be interviewed by Maariv even though he had written to Sa'ar last March that the ministry's positions, "as expressed by the education minister, are absolutely acceptable to me."

Refusing to resign, he waited to be dismissed. This time, his third attempt, he wants to appear before the Likud faithful as a victim - Likud members love victims.