Israeli and American political and media scrutiny and focus on US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US-Israel relationship, and Iran’s nuclear drive has been intense of late, thanks to the row surrounding Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to a joint session of the US Congress. Amid the headlines and commentary, one important voice has not been heard – that of the Israeli voter.
The Times of Israel addressed these issues in its new survey, conducted last week among a representative sample of 824 Israeli adults who indicated that they were very likely or somewhat likely to vote in the upcoming Knesset elections. The survey found Israeli voters have an increasingly negative perception of Obama, and decreasing faith in him to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.
Asked whether they trust the US president to ensure Iran not get the bomb, an overwhelming 72% do not, compared to 64% in our January 2014 survey.
Israeli voters give Obama a 33% favorable and 59% unfavorable rating, The Times of Israel’s survey also shows. Still, the president’s favorable and unfavorable ratings (33%/59%) aren’t much worse than those of several of Israel’s politicians such as Moshe Kahlon (45%/32%), Netanyahu (41%/54%), Isaac Herzog (38%/43%), or Naftali Bennett (38%/52%). Obama is on par with Yair Lapid’s current rating of 34% favorable and 59% unfavorable, and has a better perception than Tzipi Livni (29%/64%) and Avigdor Liberman (31%/61%).
Voters’ current perception of Obama is more negative than his 33% favorable and 50% unfavorable rating in last year’s Times of Israel survey. The growth in the negative perception of Obama has come as his perception among Israeli voters has become more ideologically pronounced, with a rise in favorability among self-identified left-wing voters and drop in favorability among self-identified right-wing voters. Self-identified right-wing voters, a group that makes up 48% of likely voters, have a strongly negative perception toward Obama, with 20% giving him a favorable view and 72% an unfavorable view.
The Likud campaign and Netanyahu’s advisers could perceive a dispute with Obama, who is disliked by so many of the voters that Netanyahu is reaching out to, as something that is politically beneficial.Netanyahu’s speech to Congress revolves around precisely such a dispute, being specifically billed as a speech on Iran. When likely voters are asked whether they trust Obama to ensure that Iran does not achieve a nuclear weapon, distrust has only grown.
Our poll found that only 21% of voters agree with the statement “I trust US President Obama to ensure that Iran does not achieve a nuclear weapon,” while 72% did not agree, an increase of 8% in those that do not trust him since last year’s Times of Israel poll.
Across all ideological groups, a majority does not trust Obama to ensure that Iran does not achieve a nuclear weapon. Among undecided voters, the distrust is slightly deeper, with 17% saying they trust Obama and 76% saying they do not. Even among those voters who said they had a favorable opinion of Obama, 45% said they trusted him on Iran and 47% said they did not. Arab-Israelis were split evenly, with 42% saying they trusted Obama and 42% saying they did not.
To Netanyahu’s chagrin, however, the Iranian threat is simply not the most important issue to voters in this election – a fact that was true ahead of the last elections as well. When asked to choose the most important issue for the government to address among six options, just 10% of voters chose the Iranian threat. Among undecided voters, just 9% said the Iranian threat.
Voters are overwhelmingly concerned about economic issues. The Likud campaign may communicate the Iranian threat as the most important issue, but it will be speaking a different language from the voters.
While Netanyahu clearly has the upper hand in an argument with Obama regarding Iran, despite it not being at the forefront of voters’ minds, there are many in the media both in Israel and internationally who have attempted to portray the issue less about Iran and more about the US-Israel relationship. When the issue is framed about the US-Israel relationship, Netanyahu is at a stark disadvantage. When voters are asked who they most trust to safeguard the US-Israel relationship from a list of five leaders, about as many say Herzog (30%) as do Netanyahu (31%), with 19% of voters not identifying a specific leader.
Further, a look at undecided voters paints a more troubling picture for Netanyahu. Among this group, 24% say they most trust Netanyahu, 27% say Herzog, and 34% don’t identify a specific leader when it comes to safeguarding Israel-US ties.
To review, Israeli voters aren’t particularly warm to Netanyahu. They are even less warm to Obama, but they are no more negative to him than they are to many of their own politicians. Israeli voters do not trust Obama to ensure that Iran does not achieve a nuclear weapon – and their distrust is growing, but the Iranian threat is not a top issue for them. Politically, Netanyahu would be wise to frame communication around his speech to the US Congress as solely about Iran, because fewer than a third of voters see him as the most trusted leader to safeguard the US-Israel relationship.
The survey was conducted February 1-3, 2015, among a representative sample of 824 Israeli adults who indicated that they were very likely or somewhat likely to vote in the upcoming Knesset elections. Respondents who indicated that they were less likely or not at all likely to vote were not included in the survey sample. 44.7% of completed surveys were directed to landline home phones, 33.5% to mobile phones, and 21.9% were conducted via online panels, helping to compensate for the high percentage of Israelis who do not have regular landline phones. 10.1% of respondents were Arabic speakers surveyed in Arabic, and 10.9% were Russian speakers surveyed in Russian. The findings are rounded to the nearest whole digit. The margin of error is +/-3.41% with a 95% confidence level.
This is the third in a series of articles that The Times of Israel is publishing on the basis of the poll. The survey was formulated by The Times of Israel and the author, from political consultancy firm 202 Strategies. Our survey is the most accurate publicly available poll to date, having questioned a relatively large sample of 824 likely voters — as opposed to the Hebrew media’s norm of 500 eligible voters.
Stephan Miller, cited by Campaigns and Elections magazine in 2008 as “James Carville’s young protégé,” is an American-Israeli public opinion research analyst and communications strategist and a former adviser to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who has worked on campaigns in 10 countries across four continents.