The Middle East Channel

So what do Israelis think of it all?

Friday is weekend newspaper day in Israel, and when the political waters are stormy that’s normally an occasion for the big papers to tell the public what their fellow citizens think with some new polling data. This week was certainly not without its political turmoil in Israel, and this sabbath’s papers did not disappoint. The ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Friday is weekend newspaper day in Israel, and when the political waters are stormy that’s normally an occasion for the big papers to tell the public what their fellow citizens think with some new polling data. This week was certainly not without its political turmoil in Israel, and this sabbath’s papers did not disappoint.

The leading circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth and the more high-brow Ha’aretz both carried new surveys delving into the U.S.-Israel spat and how it is impacting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Israel Radio (Reshet Bet) released its more minimalist numbers yesterday.

Bits and pieces of this have been reported in the English language media, including the Ha’aretz headline, "Most Israelis see Obama as fair and friendly," but we are not aware of a more comprehensive translation of this new data regarding Israeli public attitudes. So here it is – with only a little editorializing.

Bottom line – opinion, unsurprisingly, is divided on whom to blame and what next, with sympathy for the position of the Obama administration polling higher than might have been expected. Netanyahu has been hurt by this-noticeably though not dramatically-and there is a suggestion that the right-ward shift in Israeli opinion is beginning to be reversed when the consequences of the right’s policies for U.S.-Israel relations are brought into sharp relief.

The polling numbers are divided into thematic categories below, and the more in the local, political weeds parts of the surveys have not been translated (it might be entertaining to discover, for instance, that only 8 percent of Israelis know which position Deputy PM Dan Meridor holds in the government, but it is of little consequence on this side of the pond).

1. U.S.-Israel relationship

Yedioth: "Can Israel exist securely without the support of the U.S.?" Yes-28 percent; No-68 percent.

Ha’aretz: "Do you think Obama was exploiting the building in Jerusalem to try and bring down the Netanyahu government?" Yes-31 percent; No-55 percent; Don’t know-14 percent.

Israelis value and understand the importance of the U.S. relationship to Israel and most are instinctively uncomfortable when the relationship appears in any way wobbly, especially when their own government might be behaving in an irresponsible manner. Early this week, Yedioth ran a several article feature on how a deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations could negatively impact Israel, including in terms of the economy, security, and diplomatic cover in the world.

When Netanyahu was first prime minister in the late 1990’s and when Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister in the beginning of that decade both were seen to cause ruptures in the special relationship, and both lost subsequent elections in part though not exclusively as a consequence of that. Jeffrey Goldberg in his blog has claimed that Obama is trying to bring down the Netanyahu government – Israelis apparently don’t see it that way.

2. This week’s disagreement:  who was to blame; to freeze or not to freeze

Haaretz: "How would you define PM Netanyahu’s management of this episode – responsible or irresponsible?" Responsible-42 percent; Irresponsible-37 percent; Don’t know-27 percent.

Yedioth: "Who is to blame for the crisis with the U.S.?" Israel-35 percent; U.S.-37percent.

Israel Radio: "Who contributed more to this crisis between the U.S. and Israel? Mainly Barack Obama-41 percent; mainly Benjamin Netanyahu-37 percent; both of them equally-7 percent

Israel Radio: "Do you think the American government’s response toward Netanyahu and Israel was…"Justified and at a correct and appropriate level-17 percent; Justified but totally exaggerated-31 percent; Both unjustified and exaggerated-43 percent.

Haaretz: "Some say that Israel needs to stop building in Jerusalem until the conclusion of negotiations with the Palestinians, others say that Israel needs to continue building in all of the city even if the cost is tension with the United States. What is your position?" Keep building in all Jerusalem with cost vis U.S.-48 percent; Stop building in Jerusalem through negotiations-41 percent; Don’t know-11 percent.

Yedioth: "Should the construction in East Jerusalem be frozen as well? Yes-46 percent; No-51 percent.

Yedioth: "Should Netanyahu extend the construction freeze in the settlements?" He should extend the freeze-44 percent; He should stop the freeze-46 percent.

It can be considered somewhat eye-opening that the numbers are so evenly split on responsibility and blame, and on whether to build or not in East Jerusalem – especially given everything we had been previously told about how little trust Israelis place in Obama. Israelis are not rallying behind their prime minister in great numbers. That such high percentages would support an East Jerusalem freeze is perhaps most striking. Jerusalem is, of course, a particularly contentious issue and the freeze position has almost zero support in the Knesset (the number of Zionist members of Knesset who express support for an East Jerusalem freeze can be counted on less than one hand). The Israeli public is well ahead of its elected officials on this score.

3. President Obama’s standing in Israel

Only the Ha’aretz poll explored the broader issue of how Israelis view the current U.S. president, and it picked up on a story this week in which Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother-in-law very publicly accused Obama of being an anti-Semite.

"There are people who claim that President Obama is an anti-Semite – do you agree or disagree?" Agree-27 percent; Disagree-56 percent; Don’t know-17 percent.

"How would you define the way in which President Obama relates to Israel?" To the point (or "fair" in the Ha’aretz headline translation -51 percent; Hostile-21 percent; Friendly-18 percent; Don’t know-10 percent.

The numbers hardly hit a historical high note for an American president, but largely accord with what this New America Foundation poll found late last year and further put to rest the misreported and essentially spurious "single digit approval rating" meme that some Republican and pro-Israel right wing sympathizers continue to promote. A minority but a numerically noteworthy one in Israel clearly do not like or trust the president and are willing to use the anti-Semite label.

4. How does this affect Netanyahu’s standing?

Haaretz: "Are you satisfied or not satisfied with the performance of PM Netanyahu?" Satisfied-42 percent; Not satisfied-44 percent; Don’t know-14 percent.

Yedioth: "Does the government, in its decisions and its behavior, represent you?" Yes-31 percent; No-64 percent.

Yedioth: "Does Netanyahu lead the government, or do his partners lead him?" He leads-41 percent; He is led-47 percent.

Israel Radio – "In terms of leadership ability, to what extent is PM Netanyahu suitable to being Israel’s prime minister?" Very suitable-16 ½ percent; Suitable enough-27 percent; Not so suitable-26 percent; Not at all suitable 25 percent.

Yedioth: "Who is most suitable to serve as prime minister?" Benjamin Netanyahu-41 percent; Tzipi Livni-33 percent; Ehud Barak-11 perecent.

Ha’aretz: "Who is most suitable to be prime minister?" Benjamin Netanyahu-36 percent; Tzipi Livni-26 percent; Avigdor Lieberman- 9 percent; Ehud Barak-6 percent.

The Yedioth poll also has numbers that show Israelis would much prefer Kadima to be in the governing coalition in place of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu (Lieberman’s party). These approval/suitability numbers are not good for Bibi, and he is on a downward trend in terms of his personal ratings (will try to update this later with comparative numbers over time, but they are down). Netanyahu has taken a knock from this latest episode.

The flipside is that Israelis are still not convinced that Opposition Leader Livni is suited for the top job. Part of that is no doubt that she has simply never been prime minister, but it also shows that she still has some convincing to do. Ehud Barak is irrelevant as a leader of the Labor Party but extremely useful to Netanyahu internationally as an apparent legitimizer of the government’s "pro-peace" credentials – not surprising then that Barak is reportedly joining Netanyahu and will be in all of the meetings during his U.S. visit next week.

5. And its impact on Israeli electoral politics

Yedioth: "If Knesset elections were to be held today, how would you vote?"

Kadima-32; Likud-29; Yisrael Beiteinu-13; Shas-10; Labor Party-8; Meretz-6; United Torah Judaism-6; Hadash-4; United Arab List-Arab Movement for Renewal-4; Balad-3; National Union-National Religious Party-3; Jewish Home-2.

(Israel Radio did a similar poll, but they included as an option a non-existent party that is thus far only being talked about and that would be led by popular TV and media personality Yair Lapid. The non-existent party polled sufficiently high – 14 seats as to categorize that poll under the heading quirky rather than serious).

In many ways, this is the big news – it is the first poll for some considerable time that has the center-left back in play as a potential governing alternative by approaching the magical Israeli political number of 61 (the Knesset has 120 seats). It may prove to be a one-off but if not, this begins to get interesting.

Israeli politics basically divides into the following blocs: right/far-right/religious right versus center/center-left/Arab-left. These are of course generalizations but the division into two blocs, right versus center-left along these lines, is the defining one in Israeli politics and in forming governing coalitions. In the last election, the split was right 65-center-left 55, and since then the numbers have trended further rightwards. This recent poll had the split at 70-50 to the right. This weekend’s numbers swing back to a competitive 63-57 divide.

6. Finally… Iran

Yedioth: "Will the current Netanyahu government attack Iran?" Yes-24 percent; No-65 percent.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is one of the Middle East Channel’s editors.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project, the previous director of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation, and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.