Netanyahu Surging in Polls, but Scandals May Take Toll

Recent reports of alleged corruption at the prime minister’s residences haven’t dented his popularity in Haaretz's latest poll.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, February 1, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, February 1, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

With the election just over 40 days away, the current electoral picture sees Likud gathering steam; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu widening his lead over his main rival, Isaac Herzog; the three ultra-Orthodox parties stabilizing at about 18 seats, similar to what they had in the previous Knesset; and the centrist parties have collectively lost four seats. In short, Netanyahu would undoubtedly be Israel’s next prime minister.

Dialog poll for Haaretz

The poll, which was conducted on Sunday under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs with a representative sample of 514 respondents, confirmed what logic and political experience have long since taught us: When diplomatic and security issues dominate the agenda, Netanyahu benefits, even if there’s plenty of public criticism of his handling of these issues – as there has been over his upcoming trip to Washington to address Congress on Iran.

As long as socioeconomic issues continue to be absent from the headlines, the Likud party chairman and his friends can start planning his third consecutive term as premier (and fourth overall).

So far, it seems the recent reports of corruption and hedonism at the prime minister’s residences haven’t made much impression on the voters, even though most respondents to the Haaretz poll said police should investigate Sara Netanyahu’s alleged pocketing of bottle-deposit refunds that should have gone to the state.

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that the affair hasn’t yet penetrated the collective consciousness and, once it does, it will then influence public opinion. The other is that the excessive media coverage of the issue, to which Likud has responded with a fairly effective strategy of crying persecution on one hand and lashing out at the media on the other, has caused Netanyahu’s base – right-wing voters who hate the hostile media – to rally around him.

The new poll shows Habayit Hayehudi losing two seats to Likud (which would see it with a projected 14 seats). This can be attributed to several factors: the media assault on the Netanyahus, as explained above; the fact that diplomatic and security issues have dominated the media over the last week; and the farce that ensued when Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett parachuted soccer star Eli Ohana onto the party’s slate, only to have Ohana withdraw days later when confronted with the outrage of the party’s rank and file.

In any case, the picture painted by the poll is that there would be a rightist/religious government led by Netanyahu, together with Habayit Hayehudi, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party (a projected 8 seats), and presumably also Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which is liable to have only half as many seats as it did in the last Knesset (the new poll gives it 6 seats).

Another alternative, as always, is the formation of a broad government with Herzog’s Zionist Camp as Likud’s main partner but without the fringe parties, and of course without a rotation of the prime minister’s job.

A few other comments regarding the distribution of seats: First, Yisrael Beiteinu’s slide in the polls seems to have halted, at least for now. If anyone was dreaming it would fail to get enough seats to enter the Knesset and disappear, that dream apparently won’t come true.

Yesh Atid’s poll results continue to be deceptive. The party rises and falls with each new poll and each different pollster. This indicates both that its voters are a hard electorate to survey, and that they themselves haven’t yet firmly settled how they’re voting. In the last election, Yesh Atid soared from 12 seats to 19 over the space of a single week – the final week before the vote. A similar phenomenon, in which voters make up their minds only shortly before Election Day, could happen again; the only question is which direction they would move in.

Shas is also no longer in danger of disappearing, as some polls had predicted it might at the height of the crisis sparked by former chairman Eli Yishai’s departure from the party to form Yahad. Yishai himself has since hooked up with the extreme right, including the Kahanist Baruch Marzel, thereby guaranteeing himself another Knesset term and membership in Netanyahu’s coalition. The Joint List, featuring three Arab parties, would get 12 seats if elections were held today, up from 10 in the previous poll.

When respondents were asked a series of questions about a head-to-head contest between Netanyahu and Herzog, the former won handily on almost every parameter, including suitability to be prime minister, and ability to handle Israel’s diplomatic and security problems. On ability to handle Israel’s economic problems, the two tied – but that’s an issue on which the opposition parties haven’t yet been able to focus public attention.

Moreover, on every issue aside from his handling of the economy, Netanyahu actually increased his lead over Herzog compared to the last Haaretz poll, conducted three weeks ago. Most astonishingly, when Haaretz asked whom respondents thought would be the next prime minister, only one out of four (21 percent versus 58 percent) chose Herzog. In other words, even many center-left voters don’t foresee a Herzog victory.

One final comment: A plurality of respondents didn’t think Netanyahu should address Congress on Iran (46 percent to 40 percent). Most think Netanyahu’s speech will do nothing to keep Iran from going nuclear (56 percent think it will make no difference; 11 percent think it will hurt; and 19 percent think it will help). Most also don’t buy Likud’s whining about how overseas organizations are mobilizing to help Zionist Camp topple Netanyahu (34 percent to 45 percent).

But despite all that, the poll shows Likud as the biggest party in the next Knesset, and Netanyahu, by a large margin, as the leading candidate for prime minister.

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