Now entering his eighth year as prime minister, longer than any Israeli leader except David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no doubt plans to beat the Old Man’s 13 years in power. To do that, the third-term Netanyahu will have to be reelected at least once more, a task that may be growing increasingly difficult, according to a new Times of Israel poll.

While Netanyahu still leads the pack of leading Israeli politicians in public opinion, with a relatively high favorability rating of 51% (down 2% on our poll last year), his political future is fraught with complexity.

First, four years into Netanyahu’s latest premiership, an increasing number of Israeli voters say the country is moving in the wrong direction. In fact, it is only among voters for Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance that a majority said they believe Israel is heading in the right direction. Supporters of every other party, including some of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners, mostly — and increasingly — believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.

Second, Netanyahu’s job-performance rating has declined. When asked how they rated his performance as prime minister, 34% of voters give him a positive rating while 61% give him a negative one. This is a worse rating than in our survey last year, when he got 39% positive and 57% negative. This drop in the prime minister’s job-performance rating is centered among right-wing voters. While performance ratings among left and center voters are almost exactly the same this year as last, on the right Netanyahu dropped from 68% positive and 31% negative last year to 49%-51% this year. Among Likud-Beytenu voters, his job approval rating fell from 87% to 70%. Among Orthodox (dati) voters, a positive 64%-34% rating fell to 49%-50%. Even among those who express favorable views of Netanyahu, his job-performance rating dropped from 69% positive to 31% negative last year, to 57%-42%.

Netanyahu's job approval rating has soured. (credit: Stephan Miller)

Netanyahu’s job approval rating has soured. (credit: Stephan Miller)

Third, while Netanyahu remains personally popular, that popularity is waning among his right-wing base and growing among self-identified “left” and “center” voters, pointing to a move to the center that some might welcome, but that might not bode well for his reelection chances as leader of the right. Indeed, the survey found that he is rapidly losing support among religious Jews and even among his own party’s voters.

Last year’s Times of Israel poll, conducted ahead of the January 2013 elections, saw 51 percent of likely voters saying the country was moving in the wrong direction, and 35% that it was moving in the right one, a strong negative perception that led to the deflation of the incumbent Likud party’s strength in the Knesset to just 20 seats.

A year later, the situation has worsened dramatically for the ruling party. While a similar 52% of likely voters say the country is moving in the wrong direction, those who feel it is moving in the right one dropped eight points to 27% — a drop focused heavily among young voters and those who self-identify as “right.”

The most dramatic swing took place among young people aged 18 to 24. Last year, young voters were about evenly divided between the pessimists (44%), who said the country is moving in the wrong direction, and the optimists (48%). That optimism evaporated, according to the latest survey, with pessimists accounting for a whopping 71% of young voters, and optimists just 11%. Such a dramatic shift, driven heavily by disillusionment among young men, suggests a deep anger and desire for change that might easily lead to another round of public protests against the government, as was seen in 2011 during Netanyahu’s previous term.

How Israelis see the direction of the country. (credit: Stephan Miller)

How Israelis see the direction of the country. (credit: Stephan Miller)

Perhaps more worryingly in the short term for Netanyahu, a similar, though less steep, shift toward pessimism has taken place among the self-identified ideological “right” — the largest block of voters and the base of Netanyahu’s strength.

A year ago, fully 58% of voters who described themselves as “right” viewed the country as moving in the right direction, with just 26% saying it was moving in the wrong direction. That figure has reversed, with 37% responding optimistically and 47% pessimistically about the country’s direction.

In the last elections, the “right” was the only block that had a net positive perception of the country’s direction. Today, it has joined the “left” and “center” as pessimists.

This shift is borne out among several key constituencies that have repeatedly helped sweep the Likud to power in the past 30 years — residents of Jerusalem, national-religious or Orthodox (dati) Jews, haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Sephardi (or mizrahi) Jews.

Orthodox voters went from a very positive view of the direction of the country, with 62% saying the country was moving in the right direction a year ago, to a sharply negative view with 28% viewing the country moving in the right direction, amounting to a huge collapse in the optimism expressed by this group. Ultra-Orthodox voters, who now find themselves in the rare situation as members of the opposition, went from a plurality of optimists (46% to 35%) to a huge majority of pessimists (9% optimistic to 66% pessimistic).

The perception of the country’s direction has changed dramatically among Jerusalemites and Sephardi Jews as well. Jerusalemites went from a 48% right-direction and 43% wrong-direction outlook a year ago to 17% and 64%, respectively. Self-identified Sephardi Jews went from a relatively optimistic 47%-36% to a dramatically pessimistic 27%-60%.

Alone among voters who identified with a particular party, Likud-Beytenu voters are holding on to an optimistic view of Israel. Likely voters who say they would vote for Likud-Beytenu if there was an election today have an overall positive outlook on Israel’s direction, with 49% saying Israel is moving in the right direction and 31% that it is moving in the wrong direction.

But that may be a small consolation when Likud-Beytenu political planners examine the undecided voters, who break heavily toward the pessimistic view of Israel’s direction by a factor of 20% to 54%.

It is important to note a few critical caveats related to interpreting public opinion. Netanyahu oversees a country, and a party base, growing increasingly pessimistic about the country’s future and, less dramatically, about his own performance. That is rarely a stable situation for an incumbent premier. On the other hand, the sharp shift in opinion in so short a period and the concentration of the shift on the right suggest it may be due not to distrust of Netanyahu himself, but, for example, in the right’s skepticism of US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in the past year.

The shift to the center

In that context, it is important to note that Netanyahu’s favorability rating — 51% favorable to 43% unfavorable — has remained relatively high for an incumbent politician, and almost unchanged since last year’s rating of 53% favorable and 41% unfavorable.

Netanyahu's favorability rating changed little between January 2013 and January 2014. (credit: Stephan Miller)

Netanyahu’s favorability rating changed little between January 2013 and January 2014. (credit: Stephan Miller)

Yet even these positive, apparently stable numbers belie a significant underlying shift leftward. A year ago, just 8% of self-identified left-wing voters were favorable to Netanyahu, while 86% were unfavorable. That negative rating has softened somewhat, to 20% favorable and 67% unfavorable. Meanwhile, among self-identified right-wing voters, 87% were favorable and 10% unfavorable to Netanyahu one year ago. That enthusiastic support has also dampened, to 70% favorable and 29% unfavorable.

The figures among various religiously defined groups show a similar shift. Netanyahu’s favorability has risen among self-identified secular voters, from 45% favorable to 50% unfavorable a year ago, to 54%-44% respectively. This improvement came at the expense of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox support. Orthodox voters’ once-enthusiastic support (81%-14%) has softened to 66% favorable and 33% unfavorable. The largest drop came among the sidelined ultra-Orthodox, who went from a 68% favorable rating last year to just 29% this year, and a 22% unfavorable view last year to 59% this year.

Finally, Netanyahu’s support among his own voter base has begun to slip. Last year, he won no less than a 99% favorability rating among Likud-Beytenu voters, a figure that has weakened somewhat, to 87%. While his voters still show remarkably strong support for his continued service, a drop of 12 points in a single year should raise alarms.

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The survey was conducted December 26-31, 2013, among a representative sample of 802 Israeli adults who had voted in the past or were too young to vote in the previous election, but are eligible to vote now. 70.8% of completed calls were directed to landline home phones and 29.1% to mobile phones, helping to compensate for the high percentage of 18-34-year-olds who do not have regular landline phones. 10.2% of respondents were Arabic speakers surveyed in Arabic, and 15.6% were Russian speakers surveyed in Russian. The findings are rounded to the nearest whole digit. The margin of error is +/-3.5% with a 95% confidence level.

This is the second in a series of articles that The Times of Israel is publishing this week on the basis of the poll. The survey was formulated by The Times of Israel and the author, from political consultancy firm (202) Strategies, with field work conducted by Shvakim Panorama. Our survey is the most accurate publicly available poll to date, having questioned a relatively large sample of 802 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 protege,” 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 nine countries across four continents.