President Shimon Peres will end his seven-year term as Israel’s head of state in July, just days before his 91st birthday, and the race to replace him is already heating up.
All but one of Israel’s nine presidents have been politicians, since the body that elects the president, the 120-member Knesset, has preferred to place one of its own in the position. As part of a sweeping survey of Israeli public opinion, The Times of Israel asked the voting public, rather than the Knesset, who among the leading contenders for the post it thought should be the country’s ceremonial head of state.
But the top response from those polled, drawing fully one-third of votes in a field with seven candidates, was Shimon Peres himself. And that was despite the fact that voters were informed that the law would have to be changed to allow Peres to seek another term.
In second place was former Knesset speaker MK Reuven Rivlin, at 22% of respondents, followed by former Labor party chairman and defense minister Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer (11%), Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (8%) and Likud cabinet minister Silvan Shalom (6%). The last two candidates, former foreign minister David Levy and former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik, both polled under the 3.5% margin of error.
Another candidate, 2011 Nobel laureate in chemistry Daniel Shechtman, announced his candidacy on January 17, after the poll was taken.
Israel’s presidency is largely ceremonial, though the president has some measure of influence in helping to form the governing coalition after an election and can pardon imprisoned criminals.
That detachment from the political arena may explain why views on the presidency were surprisingly unvaried across the ideological spectrum. Peres, a former Labor party prime minister, came in first place among self-identified voters from the left, center and right, garnering 29%, 33% and 33% respectively. He was even the favorite, at 37%, among Likud-Beytenu voters.
Only in the second-place slot did political identification seem to play a role, with the right and center favoring the Likud’s Rivlin, and the left their former leader and defense minister Ben-Eliezer.
Among left-wing voters, Peres took 29%, Ben-Eliezer 22%, and Rivlin 19%; 20% said they did not know. In the center, it was Peres 33%, Rivlin 21% and Ben-Eliezer 13%. And on the right, Peres 33%, Rivlin 25%, Sharansky 12%, Shalom 10% and Ben-Eliezer 5%.
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 third 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.