Lady of All She Surveys

Political pollster Mina Tzemah's life story is a microcosm of experiences from all over the political spectrum. And though she's basically made up her mind whom to vote for, she's still open to persuasion.

Will the revelations of corruption within the Likud affect Mina Tzemah's vote on election day? Will the "Queen of the Polls," as Yedioth Ahronoth has dubbed her, let the most recent disclosures affect the way she formulates her survey questions?

Mina Tzemah finds the question insulting. She is above all that. And she's not about to advise the Likud on how to proceed at this juncture, either. The party knows enough about distracting the public's attention to other matters without needing any of her advice. Maybe a few threats about the looming war with Iraq, maybe an operation or two in the territories. In the meantime, she's not ready to assert that the Likud's drop in the polls is a snowball that will continue to gain momentum.

At its peak, in her polls, the Likud was set to win 38 Knesset seats. In the most recent poll, [published last Friday, before this week's terror attack in Tel Aviv] that number was down to 31. Meanwhile, the number of undecided seats has risen to 20; some of the undecided voters are disillusioned Likud supporters who are now sitting on the fence, unsure which way to jump, if at all.

Three weeks from now, Tzemah will be standing behind the curtain in her Tel Aviv voting booth, trying to decide how to vote. Though she knows whom she'd vote for right now, she also knows that this is only a temporary decision. She describes her political outlook as "clear" but not "set in stone." Effective and aggressive persuasion could quite possibly change her mind.

Her own biography could provide a very representative sample of a whole spectrum of political views. Her connections with political figures from both the right and left serve to blur any clear-cut ideological characterization, and strengthen her standing as the national pollster. She tries very hard not to divulge any personal information that could hurt this status. She is angered when asked if her own political views color the way she formulates her survey. As far as she is concerned, on election day, the only important question is: How close was her prediction to the actual outcome? "I think I've voted for almost all the parties," she says.

One can only speculate about the extent to which her political views may have been influenced by the people she has met and by the upheavals she has experienced in her life. These days, she is generally considered to be "right-leaning." This image has arisen due to her friendship with the Shamir, Olmert and Milo families and her long friendship with Eliezer Zhurabin, owner of the Dahaf advertising agency, who has strong ties with some right-wing politicians.

For example, in the 1992 elections, Roni Milo was convinced of her sympathy for the national camp and figured that she had no reason to hide this. Before she presented the results of her polling sample on television, he whispered to Limor Livnat: "Mina Tzemah looks like she's in mourning. From the look on her face, I'd say we've lost big-time" ("My papers were out of order," she says, explaining that particular grimace).

For the sake of balance, she relates that a friend of hers who is a hard-core rightist always greets her by saying, "Here comes the PLO." She also asks that mention be made of her friendship with Yossi Sarid and Yair Tzaban.

It ain't over till

it's over

Tzemah lives in Tel Aviv, not far from the house in which she was born. Her mother lives three blocks away, not far from her former elementary school. Her former high school is also in the neighborhood, right near the polling station where she'll go to cast her vote. Lately, she's also started to renew old contacts with childhood friends.

Tzemah declines my request to hazard a written guess about the outcome of the elections on a piece of paper. Why ask for trouble? She vividly recalls the 1981 election campaign. Shortly before the elections, the Likud opened up a 22-seat lead over Labor; just a few months before, Labor had been leading in the polls by a good number of seats. "The game is over," Tzemah told a journalist at the time. And later felt like swallowing her tongue: The gap narrowed to practically nil (The Likud won, by just one percent).

Nothing is set in the current elections either, she says (last week, the Likud was ten seats ahead). All she will say is that it's been a "sleepy" campaign so far. About 20 percent of voters have yet to make up their minds.

What does the Likud need to do at this point to draw them in? The Likud has to present Arik Sharon as someone who will do a better and tougher job than Amram Mitzna of conducting the negotiations with the Palestinians that the majority of the public supports (out of a desire to get out of this lousy situation, not because of dovish views). And how should Mitzna react? He must convince the voters that he will be just as tough as Sharon.

Tzemah also says that Labor ought to be careful not to make excessive use of the corruption scandals now embroiling the Likud. Such a strategy would boomerang and bring voters back to the Likud. Labor should leave the whole corruption affair to the press, she counsels. To the leftist press? The public no longer perceives the press this way, she says. It believes the press is objective and equally eager to expose corruption in the right and left. And press reports definitely have an impact on the elections since they are not perceived as party propaganda.

Asked which major party is better served by the threat of war with Iraq, she says that Labor is right to portray itself as the party that is protecting the public from panic and calming it. Yes, war reinforces the nationalistic feelings that are usually associated with the right-wing parties, but if Sharon and Mofaz were to hold a press conference at which they presented their own peace plan, they'd win even more sympathy.

She discovers the left

Mina Tzemah, 66, grew up in a moderately religious family, but attended secular schools (She still observes kashrut at home). Her father died when she was 11. Her mother celebrated her 100th birthday this year. She was a good student and excelled at sports (especially sprinting). Tzemah did her army service at the Psychotechnical Institute. After that, she studied statistics, sociology and psychology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The leftist chapter of her life began in Jerusalem in 1962. That's when she met literature professor Adi Tzemah and accompanied him to the United States where she completed her doctorate at Yale. When the couple returned to Jerusalem after three years, Dr. Mina Tzemah taught statistics and psychology at Hebrew University. In the student dorms, she met literature students A. B. Yehoshua, Yehoshua Kenaz, Menachem Brinker and Dan Pagis. It was in their smoke-filled rooms that the Movement for Peace and Security (Hatenu'ah Leshalom Vebitakhon) was founded. Tzemah says the group's activities did not extend much beyond getting passersby to sign petitions against the occupation.

She smoked her first and last hashish joint in Katmandu. The Tzemahs were in the company of "some Hare Krishna guy" and the cigarette was being passed around. "I just faked inhaling and got nauseous right away," she says. Nonetheless, upon her return to Jerusalem, the experience prompted her to do "a little study" in which she found that most people who say they've used hashish are only pretending to be real smokers. "I'm such a nerd," she laughs.

Her accurate prediction of the outcome of the 1977 elections is widely considered to have been her professional breakthrough, but this new chapter of her life actually began four years prior to that. For Tzemah, it was a year of personal, professional and political upheaval. Bored with theory, she wanted to get out of academe and go where the action was (these days, she says she misses the university). She separated from her husband, left the university, moved to Tel Aviv and went to work for the Modi'in Ezrahi research institute.

In 1977, she was the only one to predict the rise of Menachem Begin and the Likud to power. None of the major media outlets wanted to publish the poll that concluded that after 29 years, Mapai was about to cede control of the government to Menachem Begin. The only place the poll was published was in the small financial newspaper, Mabat, which was affiliated with the owners of Modi'in Ezrahi. Today, Mina Tzemah can hardly recall whether she was sitting in front of the television that night when Haim Yavin, anchor of what was then Israel's only television channel, announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, a revolution has occurred."

She moves to the right

The right-wing chapter of Mina Tzemah's life began two years later and started with a minor personal upheaval. In 1979, she joined the Dahaf advertising firm. The change of work place was accompanied by a little romantic spark: the beginning of her friendship with Eliezer Zhurabin, an owner of the agency. Though he never received much formal higher education, Zhurabin possesses keen political insight, and through her relationship with him, the formerly leftist student was exposed to a right-wing, bourgeois world.

The smoke rings from Roni Milo's cigars replaced the pipe smoke of Prof. Menachem Brinker, and the ideology of Yitzhak Shamir replaced that of Prof. Yehoshua Arieli. She wasn't big on cocktail parties, though: "I don't feel in my element at social events," she says. Despite her denials, one can only speculate today that this was when her political views started to approximate those of her new friends.

The celebrity chapter of her life began after the 1988 elections. That was when she and Prof. Yohanan Peres replaced Hanoch Smith as the elections forecaster for the nation's sole television channel, and was transformed from an anonymous pollster to someone who was often recognized by people on the street.

Mina Tzemah and television have had a mutual love affair. After 15 years of appearing on television as the national pollster, the public trusts that she knows what the outcome of the elections will be three weeks from now. "I only know the outcome a half-hour before everyone else," she sighs. Until then, she is so busy that she doesn't have time to get intoxicated with a sense of power that comes from having information that no one else has.

Yedioth calls her the "Queen of the Polls." "She is exalted above the people," wrote Ha'aretz television critic Rogel Alpher. "Her power is almost magical ... She is a superstar because of the way she appears before the cameras ... She plays her role perfectly."

"I do feel comfortable on television," she acknowledges. "I have a chemistry with the public."

This good chemistry seems to have infected her with the virus that sometimes strikes famous people and makes them mistake popularity for affection. It deceives those who are afflicted with it into thinking that the public is more enamored with their personality than with the public platform they have at their disposal (in Mina Tzemah's case - the newspaper with the widest circulation and the most popular news programs).

The virus also affects those who spend time in the proximity of politicians, witness them at their most pathetic, and say to themselves: I could do this, too. Four years ago, in an interview with Ma'ariv, Tzemah made an offhand remark about running for the Knesset in 2000. "Are you serious?" asked interviewer Orna Kadosh. "No," Tzemah quickly backed off, but then she added: "I think that I'm suitable for the job, but I'm not cut out for devoting myself to an election campaign."

Asked for her assessment of the public's attitude toward her, she replied: "I haven't done a survey, but I think that the public has a fondness for me. This may sound a little arrogant, but my impression is that the public has a positive attitude toward me."

It wasn't always so. In 1989, an angry group of people burned down the door of her home. The reason? A poll she published indicating that more than half of the public supports negotiations with the PLO. She was undeterred by this baptism of fire. She still feels that she has what it takes to be a member of the Knesset. "But wait, I'm not serious ... At my age and all, I don't really mean it." But she also says that her integrity, erudition and common sense would make her a good MK. And her positive relationship with the public would also be beneficial.

From a survey she conducted a year ago, she knows that the public "is terribly contemptuous of and angry at the MKs." She holds politician in a somewhat higher regard: "They say, `We want to contribute,' and they mean it, but I also see the aggressive side, and all the personal ambition."

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