'The Responsible Adult'

Israel's most popular public figure is President Shimon Peres. He reflects here on his metamorphosis from the country's most hated politician to the most loved.

"It's good to be a minister in the cabinet," Ariel Sharon once confessed, many years before he became prime minister. To judge by the latest Haaretz-Dialog opinion poll, however, it's better to be president, Mossad chief, Knesset speaker or Histadrut labor federation chairman - anything but a minister.

All the country's top office-holders enjoy more public satisfaction than dissatisfaction with respect to the way they are doing their jobs - except the prime minister, the defense minister, the finance minister and the foreign minister. Indeed, quite a few other ministers get better grades than these four do, according to the poll, which was taken earlier this month and supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University's statistics department.

Fischer, Peres, and Rivlin
Illustration by Amos Biderman

Each of the members in this quartet represents something most Israelis do not tolerate: Yuval Steinitz is still perceived as an unprofessional finance minister. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is too extreme. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, well, himself. And Defense Minister Ehud Barak, despite the fact that he is the most professional of his peers and the most knowledgeable about his ministry's affairs - he is the person people admired least.

And who is the most admired? For the second time in similar Haaretz-Dialog polls, President Shimon Peres beat them all. Affection for him crosses all camps, parties and sectors. Four months before he turns 88 (and ends his four-year term ), the man who not long ago was one of the most hated politicians in our country is still secure in his preferred status.

Seventy-two percent were satisfied with Peres's performance, according to the survey. Only 20 percent of those interviewed were dissatisfied with him, most of them from the Arab sector. A year ago in a poll, too, Peres was No. 1, with even better ratings (78 percent versus 15 percent ).

In the wake of yet another electoral disappointment, Peres once said Israel is the only country where people tell the truth in public opinion polls and lie at the ballot box. For his part, he has been tasting only the truth for the past four years.

Have you changed, or has the nation?

Peres: "At that time [when I made that comment] I was doing more things that seemed controversial. Everything that appeared problematic and divisive at that time is regarded differently now. The aviation industry was called a white elephant. The Dimona reactor was called a pipe dream. I was called an extremist over Entebbe. They said [the security relationship with] France was impossible.

"People also fought me once over every issue. The work with David Ben-Gurion was a gift from God, but everyone who wanted to take a shot at him but was afraid aimed it at me instead. Lots of times I was unjustly called a 'loser.' I may have been a bit ahead of my time."

A bit or a lot?

"Maybe a lot."

Could it be that you are popular because you've chosen the easy, statesman-like route and have distanced yourself from tough issues?

"Why? I'm still working on advancing the peace process, and I am saying that, everywhere. I back a Palestinian state and security for Israel. I'm well received everywhere. I was just in Spain and didn't hear a single world of criticism."

Maybe because it's you?

"I don't have anyone else to sell. I visited [U.S. President Barack] Obama and the reception was extraordinary. I also contributed quite a bit [there]."

Did you have a part in the recent U.S. statement against unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state?

"Yes, definitely. That was one of the points I brought up with the U.S. president and with the United Nations secretary general. World leaders respond positively to my requests."

Israel is in a very difficult situation abroad, facing what some people are calling a "diplomatic tsunami." Shouldn't you be working extra hard to prevent that?

"I'm doing what I can but I am not the prime minister and I'm not opposition leader."

A recent Haaretz editorial criticized you for your "futile trips."

"These aren't futile trips. Every trip always has practical results. I return from every trip with deals worth millions. Fuad [former Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer] told me I am Israel's No. 1 'exporter.'"

In our recent poll, all sectors of society like you, including the ultra-Orthodox (59 percent versus 27 percent ) and the religious (62 percent versus 33 percent ). At one time they shunned you.

"These results are amazing. The left made a lot of mistakes in the past. One of them was giving up on the ultra-Orthodox and the religious. I am trying to work differently."

Nevertheless, at one time you were very much hated.

"I was controversial. Nowadays I am still doing things but I don't have a political role. I am running after money like never before. I have the privilege of serving the nation - and that's all. I am trying to act like the responsible adult in a place where there are so many divisions."

Are you saying you are the responsible adult in a place that is lacking such figures?

"You said that, not me."

In second place

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss is also very popular, according to the survey. The more he investigates politicians and exposes their disgraceful behavior, the more the public loves him. He is not perceived as investigating in order to annoy people. True, he is no small headline-chaser but he comes by those headlines honestly.

Supreme Court President Justice Dorit Beinisch has improved her standing somewhat this year (49 percent versus 33 percent ). Her rating parallels that of the institution she represents: Public support for the Supreme Court is rising, but still relatively low. The main objections to Beinisch come from the religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors.

Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer came in among the top three, as he did in the poll last year, with 60 in favor and 23 opposed; he had 74-percent support back then. Why has his glory dimmed somewhat? Two possible reasons: 1. His attempts to make mortgages more expensive apparently have angered young people; and 2. A year ago, in the midst of the global financial crisis, he was still considered Israel's main line of defense. Now, however, when Israel has emerged from the crisis in better shape than other countries, he is no longer seen as the sole savior.

Beating Fischer in popularity in a photo finish is Knesset Speaker Reuven (Ruby ) Rivlin (60 percent versus 22 percent ). A deputy to the president, this is also his place in the public opinion poll. He is lucky Gabi Ashkenazi is no longer chief of staff because then he wouldn't have come in second. Though he is most definitely on the right, Rivlin is still liked by the left. And though he leads the liberal camp in the legislature, the camp opposed to racist laws infringing on civil rights, he is not perceived as a cynic.

We held a survey on Prime Minister Netanyahu here less than a month ago. By chance, that was the day before the first investigative report on his trips abroad was aired. The latest poll shows that the investigation hasn't changed the opinion of his supporters.

The four members of the top brass at security and defense institutions are either new on the job or on the eve of demobilization. The poll results, in percentages: Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (46 satisfied as opposed to 16 dissatisfied ), outgoing Police Commissioner David Cohen (35 versus 31 ), new Mossad head Tamir Pardo (30 versus 18 ) and outgoing Shin Bet security services head Yuval Diskin (53 versus 19 ).

Gantz, who is still learning the ropes, gets a very high mark. Clearly this is due to the public's automatic esteem for his organization. The same can be said of the new Mossad head, Pardo, whom most of the respondents don't know.

The most positive rating goes to Diskin, outgoing Shin Bet chief. Apparently, the nation is grateful to him for the prophylaxis and the steep decline in terror. But if he follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Avi Dichter and goes into politics, he can forget about numbers like these.

Comeback kid

On the night of the 2003 Knesset elections, hours after the Labor Party dropped from 26 seats to 19 and Ariel Sharon's Likud went from 19 to 38, Labor chairman Amram Mitzna, the man with the dreamy look in his eyes, convened MKs and loyalists at party headquarters and urged them to sing: "Wake up tomorrow morning with a new song in your heart / Sing it out strongly."

Mitzna served as opposition head for a brief period and had little impact on the Knesset. In heart-to-heart talks he said he regretted having been tempted to leave the Haifa mayor's office, where he could get things done. He lasted a few more months in the position. Then he resigned, and like a true Zionist went south into the Negev to head a committee that was appointed to serve as the Yeruham city council. There he did great and wonderful things. Quietly and modestly.

Now all signs are indicating that Mitzna is about to return. The question is whether in Yeruham he acquired the tools, political instincts and qualifications to head an opposition party. In the best case, his will be the third-largest party in the next coalition. The life expectancy of Labor leaders is short. Mitzna may have changed, but his former home hasn't.

For now, he has not yet officially declared that he'll be running. Every day he hesitates, MKs Isaac Herzog, Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz gain supporters. Mitzna apparently has identified his rivals' weaknesses: Yachimovich is too young and she is all about social issues; Peretz is not the man he was in 2005 in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, or the man he was at the Histadrut; and Herzog has been weakened lately by his ethnic comments as revealed by WikiLeaks. And Mitzna has fewer enemies than they do. Mitzna may be envying the other comeback boys who returned to the Knesset in the last election, while he was still breathing Negev air - Likud MKs Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, and Yisrael Beiteinu MK Uzi Landau. All of them have done well in the 18th Knesset, all of them are cabinet ministers. So what do they have that he lacks?