Netanyahu gains popularity as peace talks collapse

The prime minister’s personal popularity goes up, while the Likud and Habyait Hayehudi gain seven more seats between them if elections were tomorrow. The Left loses four seats. Coalition troubles aside, ‘peace’ remains electorally toxic. 

The biggest losers from the collapse of the peace talks are the pro-peace parties, a Haaretz weekend poll suggests – a finding unlikely to delight those hoping Netanyahu would swap his hard-right coalition partners for more moderate ones.

According to the poll, conducted soon after the peace talks went into a spiral due to a cancelled prisoner release and the newly announced settlement building plans – Kerry’s “poof” moment – Netanyahu’s personal approval rating went up from 40 percent to 45 percent since mid-February. His faction, Likud-Beitenu, would get five more seats if elections were tomorrow (37 seats instead of 32 in February). Habayit Hayehudi, openly annexationist and home to Construction Minister Uri Ariel whom Kerry indirectly blamed for scuttling the peace talks, would get 15 seats instead of 12.

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The main centrist block in the coalition, Yesh Atid, which neither did nor said anything of substance about the peace talks, manages to keep to the 14 seats it had in February, and the popularity of its chairman, Yair Lapid, improved a little bit from dismal to appalling (from 18 percent in February to 25 percent today). Lapid is still the most unpopular figure in Israeli politics (67 percent think he’s doing a lousy job as finance minister), with Yesh Atid continuing to be the Liberal Democrats to Netanayahu’s Tories – enablers and disposable lightning-rods.

Secretary of State John Kerry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, September 15, 2013 (State Dept. Photo)
Secretary of State John Kerry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, September 15, 2013 (State Dept. Photo)

If anyone thought this was an opportune moment for the opposition parties to raise the Oslo flags once more and ride triumphantly into power / join demurely at the tail of Netanyhu’s train to the White House lawn, the  slump in popularity of all the remotely pro-peace parties would suggest otherwise: “pro peace” remains the single most toxic brand in Israeli politics. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua goes from five seats in the February poll to three today (half of the six seats it actually has now), while Kadima is mercifully wiped out of existence – from two seats to none. Labor loses a seat (15 from 16 in the previous poll,) as does Shas (from 10 seats to nine.)  Even the steady rise of Meretz, the only dovish party to see a consistent rise in the polls since the election, appears to have been checked for now, as it slumps back from 10 seats in the previous poll to nine (but still gaining on the six seats it has today).

To cap it off, the men the poll names as most  popular in Israeli politics are the man of no influence over public opinion and the man with no publicly known opinion – President Shimon Peres  and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz,  respectively. As Peres is not expected to ever run for public office again (one hopes), Gantz has been the great benefactor of the poll, with much speculation about his political future this weekend. Gantz is known precisely for not having ever taken a stand on anything whatsoever, and his very appointment came as a compromise after an epically compromising, House-of-Cards-style dirty war between patrons of a dovish and hawkish candidates for chief of staff. Gantz was deemed to be neither; his lack of notoriety is in itself notorious, and helps more and more in Israel mistake him for a saint. So whatever his future might hold (Gantz is set to retire in 10 months, but would need to wait three years before he can run for office), it seems fair to assume he’ll continue the strategy most Israelis seem to prefer in relation to the peace talks.

Chief of staff Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen /
Chief of staff Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen /

None of the above means, of course, that Netanyahu is unassailable. Israeli politics are rarely moved by public opinion polls alone or, indeed, by public opinion. (Recent legislation helped take care of that.) Netanayhu is at one of his weakest points, because his entire third premiership is built as a balancing act between the rightist and center-right blocks in his coalition, keeping both busy enough with the peace talks not to go after his own throat; Livni is a particularly useful buffer, and if she was to retire, the very delicate balance could well start unraveling; or, worse still, with Iran receding further and further as a real threat and the peace talks no longer keeping his rivals occupied, public opinion might well turn to the one issue where Netanyahu is indefensible – the socio-economic front. But whoever tries to snatch leadership away from Netanyahu will put ending the occupation as their very last talking point – and will do their best to keep it off their to-do list altogether. At least until external pressure turns Israeli heads once more.

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