Renewal of Peace Talks Shores Up Netanyahu's Popularity; Lapid's Ratings Drop

According to this week's Haaretz-Dialog poll, 56 percent of respondents think Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister; Labor's Yacimovich is next in line with 15 percent and Finance Minister Lapid has an embarrassing 7 percent.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

A royal infant was born in Britain this week, in elegant style. In Israel there was a different birth this week, that of renewed peace negotiations, but it took place amid typical Middle Eastern anguish and sourness. Twenty years after the Oslo Accords were signed, years in which we experienced little exaltation, much terror and the assassination of a prime minister − another attempt, maybe the last, will be made next week, in Washington, to restart the engine that’s rusting away in the garage between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

A Haaretz-Dialog Institute poll conducted on Tuesday, under the supervision of Prof, Camile Fuchs, from the Department of Statistics at Tel Aviv University, finds the nation deeply skeptical. About 70 percent of respondents say they do not believe a peace agreement will be achieved, and some 60 percent do not believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu truly intends to divide the land into two states, ours and theirs. But a majority ‏(55 percent‏) say they will vote for any agreement the prime minister makes with the Palestinians, compared with 25 percent who would vote against.

For the time being, Netanyahu gains something just by talking about resuming the process. In the present poll, the proportion of those who say they’re satisfied with his performance as prime minister – 45 percent – is the same as those who are dissatisfied. By contrast, in a poll some two months ago, Netanyahu had a “deficit” of 14 percent ‏(53 percent dissatisfied, 39 percent satisfied‏). There’s a tailwind − and that’s during a period in which deep budget cuts are about to become law.

The critical number regarding Netanyahu, from his point of view, is the proportion of respondents who think he is best suited to be prime minister. That stands at 56 percent, leaving the next in line, Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich, in the dust behind him, with 15 percent. In third place is Yair ‏(“I will be prime minister in the next election”‏) Lapid, with an embarrassing 7 percent.

History has placed Netanyahu in a unique position. In the eyes of the public, he alone is capable of reaching an agreement, however painful, with the Palestinians today. The center will be with him, along with the moderate right and, of course, the left. The deal he struck to free captive soldier Gilad Shalit, which catapulted Netanyahu to the peak of his popularity, proved that the majority of the public is ready to accept a stomach-churning price for a worthy cause.

Early next week, the government will be asked to approve the release of veteran prisoners, pre-Oslo murderers. The ministers of Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu will vote against, and Likud ministers, who are dying to vote against, will have to grin and bear it.

In a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction this past Monday, after Netanyahu completed his survey of recent events, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar asked how many prisoners are going to be freed − 82? Maybe 102?

“Not everything is a subject for discussion,” the prime minister replied.

“But you were the one who raised the issue,” Sa’ar protested. He also had another question: “Is it true that the Palestinians declared that they will not go to Washington [for talks] if the government does not first approve the prisoner release?”

“Let them not go,” Netanyahu snapped.

The MKs and ministers noted that neither of Sa’ar’s questions had been answered.

“I want to congratulate the prime minister on his achievements,” Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz piped up, his words dripping with sarcasm. “No prisoners will be released before the negotiations; there will be no construction freeze [in the settlements]; there is no announcement that the basis for the talks will be the 1967 lines. If this is true, why is Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] going into negotiations?” Netanyahu gave him a long stare and mumbled something. Then he vented his wrath on Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, who was fiddling with his smartphone. “I can’t do that, because I don’t have a phone,” he scolded Erdan. “But even if I had one, I wouldn’t busy myself with it while others are talking.”

Apropos Palestinian prisoners, Abbas recently told someone, “Netanyahu owes me 20,000 prisoners, so why is he making a fuss over 120?”

Why 20,000, Abbas’ interlocutor asked. “He gave Hamas 1,000 prisoners for Gilad Shalit,” the Palestinian president explained. “In the past few years, 20 Israeli soldiers have entered our territory and we returned them all within an hour. If we had kept them, we could have got 1,000 of ours for each soldier.”

Ups and downs

On Saturday evening, Finance Minister Yair Lapid got his predecessor, Yuval Steinitz, kicked out of a meeting of the security cabinet, on the grounds that he had no place in a security-policy discussion. Current Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Steinitz can take consolation in the fact that the public thinks his successor is an even worse finance minister than he was. Only one-quarter of those who participated in the Haaretz-Dialog poll said they were satisfied with the performance of Lapid. Not only is he failing to gather legitimacy as a candidate for prime minister, he is also not getting credit for economic leadership during a crisis that is not of his making.

The creeping erosion in Lapid’s status is having an effect on his party, too. The poll gives Yesh Atid 16 Knesset seats, if an election were to be held today, three fewer than it now has. Yacimovich’s Labor Party is ahead of it. Yesh Atid soared to 26-28 seats in surveys conducted shortly after the election, but according to Prof. Fuchs’ latest analysis, only 64 percent of that party’s voters say they would vote for it again. Among the theoretical defectors, 9 percent say they would vote for Yisrael Beiteinu, 10 percent for Labor and 17 percent don’t know. What they do know is that their future does not lie in Yesh Atid. Even those who are sorry they voted for Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party are not considering a vote for Lapid. About half are moving toward Yacimovich.

The Labor primary will take place in November, with about 60,000 registered party members eligible to vote. Among Labor voters, about half of those polled in this week’s survey think Yacimovich deserves reelection as party leader; in second place is MK Isaac Herzog, though he has only half the support that Yacimovich has. Two other potential candidates, MKs Eitan Cabel and Erel Margalit, are far behind. Yacimovich may not be an easygoing back-slapping type, but apparently people among her constituency think she is a leader. Amir Peretz’s defection to Hatnuah was the best thing that ever happened to her.

For Meretz, something new and good is in the works. In the Knesset election, the party with the distinctive voice doubled its strength, from three to six MKs. Half a year later, the polls give the party nine seats. Meretz is actually the only successful political brand today. After the election, people may have said, “I voted Bibi,” “I voted Shelly,” “I voted Tzipi.” They didn’t say, “I voted Zahava,” but rather, “I voted Meretz.” But it’s perfectly clear that without party leader Zahava Gal-On − irritating, a nag, but straightforward and brave − it’s unlikely that Meretz would exist today. At the current rate, and despite past election debacles the party suffered, under the leadership of Yossi Beilin and Haim Oron, Meretz is apparently capable of repeating the historic achievement it scored under Shulamit Aloni, in 1992, and winning 12 seats again.

Double bind

Municipal elections are fast approaching, and Netanyahu has a problem in Jerusalem. The candidacy of Moshe Leon, the accountant from Givatayim, against the incumbent mayor, Nir Barkat, was forced on the prime minister by his No. 2 in Likud-Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. Behind Netanyahu’s back, Lieberman forged a coalition that will support his pal Leon. The coalition consists of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the city’s Haredim, and the strongman in the local Likud branch, Dudu Amsalem, who has a long score to settle with Barkat.

To say that Netanyahu is not enthusiastic about Leon is less than an understatement. As Netanyahu sees the situation, in common with many others, Barkat is a successful manager who has done good things for his city in the past five years. He even dedicated a strange intersection at one of the city’s entrances in the name of the prime minister’s late father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu. In his policy approach, Barkat is Netanyahu’s identical twin. And as an entrepreneur and a wealthy high-tech businessman, he is certainly the prime minister’s cup of tea.

If Netanyahu supports Leon, and Leon wins, the new mayor will not be beholden to the prime minister but to Lieberman. If Netanyahu supports Barkat, there will be a major rift in the Jerusalem branch of Likud, and the premier will also find himself at odds with his political partner in Likud-Beiteinu. So at the moment he is not getting involved, and is keeping mum.

Smiles and rot

Last Thursday, a day before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the reopening of Israeli-Palestinian talks, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett called the prime minister to ask whether a news agency report − to the effect that the talks would begin on the basis of the 1967 borders − was true. Netanyahu made it clear to Bennett that this was not and would not be the case, and that his bureau had issued an official denial.

Shortly afterward, the economy minister’s bureau issued a press release stating that if the negotiations were founded on the 1967 lines, Habayit Hayehudi would not remain in the government “for one second.” There were smiles in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. On Saturday evening, at the security cabinet meeting, Bennett corralled Netanyahu and asked him for a commitment that a national referendum would be held to approve an agreement. Netanyahu promised him there would be.

The next morning, at the weekly cabinet meeting, the prime minister repeated the declaration on camera. In response, Bennett issued a statement asserting that he insists on a referendum, otherwise his party will vote against the budget. Bennett’s threat was aimed mainly at Lapid, who until then had been hesitant about supporting a referendum. But in the Prime Minister’s Bureau there were more smiles.

Bennett and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, also from Habayit Hayehudi, asked for and received unequivocal assurances from Netanyahu that construction in Judea and Samaria will continue, even if it is limited. That did not prevent Bennett from issuing another statement, to the effect that if construction does not continue, etc., etc.

Bennett picked up these gimmicks in Netanhayu’s bureau, during the period in which he was the prime minister’s chief of staff. In private conversations, Bennett admits that the resumption of the political process is good for Israel. As the economy minister, he can see the advantages. “There will be construction,” he told someone in his faction this week, “natural and proper construction. There will be restraint in this respect, too, but if it is not outrageous, we will be able to live with it.” He is insisting on a referendum, he explains, “in order to prevent a fratricidal war.” It will be convenient for Bennett to remain in the government as long as an “insurance policy” − in the form of a referendum − is hovering over the negotiations.

The bitter pill that Bennett had to swallow on Wednesday, when both of his candidates for chief rabbi lost, is sweetened by the results of this week’s Haaretz-Dialog poll: 15 projected seats for Habayit Hayehudi, three more than its current Knesset representation. ‏(The poll was conducted before the election of the chief rabbis.‏) The tensions between the two parties that comprise Bennett’s faction do not seem to be frightening off voters. On the contrary: Habayit Hayehudi is picking up votes from Shas.

The next general election may still be far off, and the seats in the polls are virtual, but the defeat suffered by Bennett to Shas MKs Aryeh Deri and Ariel Atias in the rabbinate elections is very real. This week it emerged that what Bennett has yet to learn, Deri has certainly not forgotten. The religious services minister ‏(who is also Bennett‏) had hoped to take control of the religious establishment and foment a revolution in it. He failed. He will have another shot in six months, in the election for the chief rabbinate’s council.

The rabbinical elections are among the most underhanded invented by the devil. Compared to them, an election in some obscure border town, with all the bizarre traditions it might entail, is a model of democracy. MK Herzog, who has been involved in three rabbinical election campaigns, describes them as “the biggest brothel in Israeli politics.” And this is the civilized, polite, gentlemanly Herzog, the grandson and namesake of Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, who was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi after statehood, until his death in 1959.

“It’s not surprising that the element of sex and the element of bribery always enter these elections, along with the money, big money,” Herzog says. “It’s a corrupt, false, process, tainted by deep rot. There is no threat and no dirt that is not hurled in the campaign. That process has to undergo a major tikkun,” he says, using the term for healing or repairing the world.

The Good Old Days: Lapid and Netanyahu during the previous government.Credit: Emil Salman
This survey of 511 respondents was conducted on July 22 by the Dialog Institute, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, with a 4.3 percent margin of error.Credit: Reuters
This survey of 511 respondents was conducted on July 22 by the Dialog Institute, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, with a 4.3 percent margin of error.Credit: Reuters
Naftali Bennett. Insists on a referendum for a peace accord.Credit: Emil Salman

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