Both in Israel and the U.S., Peres Is Loved and Beloved

It's been a good week for Shimon Peres, with the president being honored with the Medal of Freedom in America and receiving the Israeli public's top approval rating among national leaders.

President Barack Obama planned to take to the stage at the end of President Shimon Peres' AIPAC speech and embrace the Israeli, who had showered him with great praise. Obama's people reminded him he had to make an entrance congruent to his own status and thwarted the plan. There was no hug, but from the stage he festively promised Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

There are no greater experts on Israeli politics than the Americans. Two weeks ago, they read with satisfaction the headline in Haaretz attributing to Peres opposition to an independent Israeli attack on Iran. Ten days went by and in the middle of last week Peres arrived in New York, seated himself in an armchair in Barbara Walters' studio, complimented Obama and expressed appreciation of his commitment to Israel's security.

Shimon Peres - Reuters

This information reached the Oval Office instantaneously. The next day, Peres appeared before about 1,100 people at the 92nd Street Y, in Manhattan. There, too, he was unstinting in his praise of Obama. And this too reached Obama in real time, while he was being hosted in a private home in New York at a campaign fund-raiser.

In his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Peres described Obama as Israel's greatest friend, and said the security cooperation between the two countries during the current administration is as tight as it's ever been. Afterward the two presidents met for a private conversation, about which there are no details, but presumably Obama heard from Peres what he wanted to hear.

In Obama's speech to AIPAC, he made mention twice of another Israeli leader: Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The first mention of Barak was when Obama named him as one of the three Israeli prime ministers, past and present, who have recognized the idea of a Palestinian state (along with Peres and Netanyahu ). The second was more significant: "I understand the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak and all of Israel's leaders." That was an example of elegant but clear stirring of the Israeli political pot by an American president.

Obama met with Barak a few days before his speech at AIPAC. They sat together for an hour and discussed Iran. There is no knowing what was said in that conversation, but presumably if Obama had heard from Barak messages similar to those he heard from Netanyahu, he would have been less gracious toward him. This, however, is only an assumption belonging entirely to your correspondent.

The following day, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appeared at the pro-Israel lobby's conference. He too devoted a special part of his remarks to his and the administration's cooperation with Ehud Barak. "We talk," said Panetta. "We argue. We eat. We are family."

Nothing with the U.S. administration happens by chance. In Israel, the thinking tends to be that Barak is the main person who is pushing for, dragging toward and cooking up an Israeli attack on Iran. Could it be that in America they are thinking that, at the moment of truth, it will in fact be Barak who will block it?

Labor MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer thinks so. "Wait and see," he says. "Contrary to everything people are thinking, Barak is in fact the moderate and balanced person with respect to Iran."

Livni sinks without trace

As at every Purim, we have checked the approval rating of 16 of the country's leading figures. They are ranked in order of popularity, factoring in both their approval and disapproval ratings. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima ) has tumbled to the bottom of the list. Once the most popular woman in politics here but these days fighting for her political life, during the past year she has lost 33 percent of her public support.

Livni is competing with MKs Shaul Mofaz - her main rival - and Avi Dichter for the Kadima party leadership. However, this data, together with the projected Knesset seats for Kadima under her leadership (on the following pages ), sweeps from under her feet her main argument that "I am the real Kadima. I will bring you more Knesset seats. With Mofaz there will not be a Kadima."

Mofaz, too, is not looking like an electoral hit for Kadima voters. Altogether, things look bad for the party. What will happen after the primary scheduled for later this month? That is the big question.

If Livni's position in last place is the headline of the survey, the man in first place is an anti-headline: Peres. Shimon Peres. Yes. Again. Eighty-one percent of the public are satisfied with his efforts - an increase of 9 percent over last year. He has about two more years at the President's Residence in which to obtain 100 percent popularity. Less than that will not satisfy him. Only then will he know that he is loved - and, above all, beloved. True, he does round off corners and he often tries to please everyone. But he is the president. Not the prime minister, and definitely not leader of the opposition.

Second place is taken by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, in a rapid climb. A year ago he was at the start of his term in office. The public did not yet know him. Today, too, the public doesn't really know him, but it is already used to him. No one is able to judge whether he is a good chief of staff or a bad one. But he is the chief of staff. If we don't count on him, on whom can we rely?

Third place is shared by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. In the current survey, both have improved to an identical extent the grade they received last year: from 60 percent support a year ago to 66 percent today. They are maintaining a high ranking mainly because of their consistency. Fischer is a gentleman, a professional without personal or political interests apart from safeguarding the Israeli economy, as he interprets it. Rivlin is a rare breed of politician: a gut Likudnik since birth, a man of the Land of Israel who, time after time, does not hesitate to disobey the orders of his movement, and the commands of his faction, and to vote against bills that would deny the rights of the Arab minority in the country, and of the citizenry in general. For three years now he has been running an impossible Knesset fairly and without favoritism.

Just like 2003

The survey of projected Knesset seats published here gives the Likud headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - if a national election was held today - a number similar to the number raked in by Ariel Sharon when he headed Likud in 2003: between 35 and 37. (Sharon's Likud won 38 seats. )

The Likud-right wing-ultra-Orthodox bloc is also at a peak: between 71 and 74 Knesset seats. This would be a dream situation in which Netanyahu would not necessarily have to go with the ultra-Orthodox, who have become the people's pet whipping boy. He would be able to choose any partner at his convenience: Kadima, or Labor or Yair Lapid, or Yisrael Beiteinu, or some of them. The rest would then come along at clearance-sale prices.

It would be easier for Netanyahu to donate several thousand voters to Barak, who will lead his Atzmaut faction into the election for the 19th Knesset, than it will be to reserve a place for him on the next Likud list. Atzmaut does not yet appear on the map of Knesset seats. But according to Prof. Camil Fuchs' analysis, with another teeny tiny bit of effort, maybe we will yet have the pleasure of seeing Barak at the head of a faction of three MKs in the next Knesset. And most probably as defense minister in the third Netanyahu government.

And after all that, only a quarter (26 percent ) of the public supports an independent Israeli attack on the nuclear installations in Iran. The public is hinting heavily to Netanyahu: An Israeli attack on Iran without American agreement and assistance could cost him the election. It looks like there is a contradiction here, though. Fifty percent of the respondents reply to a separate question in the survey that they trust him and Barak with their handling of the Iranian issue (as opposed to 38 percent who do not trust the pair of them ).

Exactly two months have gone by since Yair Lapid vacated his presenter's chair at Channel 2 and officially entered the political swamp. The polls, including a January 9 Dialog survey supervised by Prof. Fuchs for Channel 10 News, then predicted 14 to 17 Knesset seats for him. Within two months, however, Lapid has already lost half of his potential seats and is trending downward.

Where's the love going

A few more comments on the Haaretz-Dialog approvals survey, which was carried out at the beginning of the week under the supervision of Fuchs from Tel Aviv University's statistics department.

In fifth place is Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen. At the end of his first year in the position, the man whose face is not known to the public, and whose activity is certainly not known, has been accorded a place near the top of the list. What can be concluded from this? That the Israeli, with his gut feeling, figures that someone is investing his time and risking his life so that citizens on the home front can lead a relaxed life. This someone is the head of the Shin Bet, who represents the organization as a whole.

In seventh place is the recently retired president of the Supreme Court, Justice Dorit Beinisch. A year ago, 16 percent more Israelis were satisfied with her than were unsatisfied. This year, days after her retirement, she had doubled the difference in her favor to 32 percent. The public loved Beinisch, and now that she is gone, the public loves her even more.

Eleventh place went to Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, a very big improvement relative to last year. What does this show? That the abundance of scandals recently - the Natan Eshel harassment affair, and the saga involving former national security adviser Uzi Arad - have not damaged Netanyahu's standing. It is important to note that most of the respondents in this survey were contacted by phone before the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, and before Netanyahu's atomic duck speech before AIPAC.

At number 12 is Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The time that has elapsed since the Barak-Askenazi wars has benefited the least popular defense minister in recent decades. From the bottom of the list and with a deficit of 33 percent in the public's opinion in 2011, Barak has climbed up to a more respectable spot, and a negative deficit of only 1 percent. In effect, it's a tie between those who are satisfied and those dissatisfied with his work as defense minister. Not only the distance from Ashkenazi but also the distance from the Labor Party, which had been like a millstone around his neck (and the party's ), have improved his situation. Apparently Barak's nadir is behind him.

In 13th place is Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, who lost a lot of altitude during the past year. He was hurt by the social protest last summer. He tried to hitch a ride on it recently, by means of the strike on behalf of contract workers, but that didn't help him. With the approach of elections for the Histadrut leadership, he has declared six or seven labor disputes. He has also become identified with the bullying behavior of the railroad workers. Riding on the back of labor disputes might help him get elected to head the Histadrut again, but it is not a recipe for popularity.