Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister for eight years, and no doubt plans to continue serving for as long as voters let him.
That may be a while, what with his 51% favorability rating and 52% of Israeli voters saying they don’t see an alternative (more than plan to actually vote for him). But it’s important to remember that the Israeli political system is notoriously fickle and fluid.
Now, one year after the election, The Times of Israel surveyed likely voters – both past voters and newly eligible ones – for their views on who might be Israel’s next prime minister, come the day.
On the right, the bloc that has controlled the country for most of its recent history, the highest favorability rating among potential Netanyahu replacements went to defense minister and former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon.
With an overall rating across the political spectrum of 49% favorable and 28% unfavorable, Ya’alon’s popularity extends deep into the Israeli political center. Among self-described right-wing voters, he wins a 67% favorability rating, while among those in the center he still manages a respectable 55%. Almost two-thirds (64%) of those who gave Netanyahu a favorable rating also gave that rating to Ya’alon, while even among those unfavorable to Netanyahu he managed to win over some 37%.
Indeed, Ya’alon is the only politician who scores high favorability ratings among both centrists and those to the right of Netanyahu. His popularity among Jewish Home voters is remarkable – with a 73% favorable rating even among those who favor Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, and 71% favorability among the Orthodox (dati), a group that leans heavily rightward and tends to support Jewish Home.
That broader appeal suggests Ya’alon not only stands a chance to win over the post-Netanyahu right, but would likely draw new voters to Likud from both the center and far-right.
However, if he is to succeed Netanyahu at the helm of the Israeli right, Ya’alon may have to shore up his support in his own party. While he enjoys sweeping support on the right generally, among Likud-Beytenu voters his favorability is just 59% — a majority, but not a consensus.
Next in line is Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose overall favorability trails Ya’alon’s at 41% favorable to 50% unfavorable. Liberman’s main difficulty in becoming premier won’t be the number of supporters he can garner, but the stiff opposition to him from some quarters.
There are strong indications he is seen by many voters as a natural continuation of Netanyahu. He is 61% favorable among self-described right-wing voters, not far off from Netanyahu’s 70%, giving him a good start among the latter’s base. But Liberman’s support does not extend far beyond the right. Among centrist voters, Lieberman drops to just 34% favorable. Among those favorable to Netanyahu, 65% are favorable to Liberman, but he receives just 18% favorable among those who are unfavorable to Netanyahu.
Similarly, fully 67% of voters who give Netanyahu a positive job performance rating as prime minister give Liberman a favorable rating, compared to just 30% among those who give Netanyahu a negative job rating.
Most importantly, Liberman is the most popular politician in our survey (after Netanyahu himself) among Likud-Beytenu voters, with 80% of the party’s voters giving him a favorable rating, only seven points below Netanyahu’s 87%.
As noted, however, Liberman is also the most polarizing of the figures polled, at least among different ethnic groups. Some 15% of the 802 likely voters polled in the survey were interviewed in Russian, and 10% in Arabic. Liberman received a whopping 85% favorable rating among those interviewed in Russian… and exactly 0% among those interviewed in Arabic.
Besides Ya’alon’s and Liberman, the survey tested opinions about Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Home Front Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon. While Shalom and Sa’ar enjoy relatively high popularity in their party, Erdan and Danon, despite their reputation as promising new leaders for the party, remain relative unknowns, even on the right.
Shalom is respected, with 59% favorable rating on the right and 56% among Likud-Beytenu voters — strong numbers, but trailing far behind Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Liberman.
Gideon Sa’ar, meanwhile, no. 2 on the party list and often referred to as a potential heir to the Netanyahu throne, is relatively unknown among likely voters, with a favorability rating among all voters of 42% to 26% unfavorable. A full 20% of voters did not have an opinion of him and 10% said they had never heard of him. Among Likud-Beytenu voters, Sa’ar is 51% favorable, while more than a third of the party’s voters do not have an opinion or have never heard of him.
Erdan and Danon fared even worse. Fully 38% of voters, and an even higher 41% of voters on the right, say they have never heard of Erdan. Another 18% say they don’t know whether they are favorable or unfavorable to him. Though he is popular among party activists — he is third on the Likud’s Knesset list — many of the party’s voters don’t know him, with 50% saying they’ve never heard of the home front defense minister.
A majority of voters, 54%, said they had never heard of Danon or had no opinion about him. More worryingly for him, a similar figure, 53%, of Likud-Beytenu voters said the same — 29% that they had never heard of him and 24% that they didn’t know whether they are favorable or unfavorable to him.
On the left
The main challenger to right-wing rule is Labor party chief Isaac Herzog, who currently serves as chairman of the opposition.
Herzog has generally favorable numbers, but nowhere near enough to seriously challenge the leading figures on the right. While his favorable rating is tilted to the positive — 41% to 23% — more than a third say they’ve never heard of him or had no opinion about him.
Naturally, Herzog enjoys a higher rating among self-described left-wing voters — 61% favorable — though that’s lower than Netanyahu’s (70%) among the more numerous voters on the right.
Like Ya’alon, Herzog appears to have room to grow. He enjoys a 53% favorable rating among centrists and 43% among undecided voters. These are optimistic indicators, to be sure, but he will only win the premiership if he manages to galvanized huge numbers of those favorable votes, including raising the support in his own camp, to actually cast a ballot for him in the next contest.
No compelling third way
The rising stars of last year’s election – former media personality and current Finance Minister Yair Lapid and former settler leader and current Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – are losing ground even among their own constituencies, and are unlikely to offer Netanyahu a serious challenge in a future election.
Lapid’s generally favorable assessment from voters has flipped dramatically, from a positive balance of 45%-31% in the weeks leading up to last year’s elections, when he raked in 19 seats, a huge showing for a centrist party, to an abysmal 30%-58% today.
His support among centrists, thought to be his primary base, dropped precipitously from 66% favorable to 44%. Undecided voters, who were responsible for his surprise rally in at the ballot box in January of last year, were especially well disposed toward him, favoring him by 56%-17%. Today, just 31% of undecided voters are favorable to Lapid while a huge 57% are unfavorable.
And among actual voters who chose Yesh Atid in the election, Lapid’s favorability is 65%, far lower than Netanyahu’s 85% and Bennett’s 88% from their respective voters, suggesting Lapid’s actual electorate may be more fickle at the ballot box than the other party leaders’.
Bennett’s image has also tarnished over the past year, dropping from 41%-26% favorable rating among all likely voters, with 33% saying they didn’t have an opinion or had never heard of him, to a heavily unfavorable figure of 31%-48%.
Surprisingly, this drop is led by voters in his own electoral base. Among self-described right-wing voters, his favorability dropped from a jealousy-inducing 66%-8% prior to the last elections to 40%-44% today; among the self-identified “very right,” from a whopping 84%-9% to 41%-44%, and among Orthodox (dati) voters, his party’s ideological home, from 79%-4% to 50%-39%.
Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, though a former foreign minister and prime ministerial candidate for Kadima, has been sidelined by Kadima’s collapse. Yet the justice minister’s popularity has actually grown in the past year. Her favorability rating increased from 38% last year to 41% now, a move largely fueled, surprisingly for the government’s chief peace negotiator, by support from the right. Among right-wing voters, her favorability rating rose from 19% to 30%, while in the center it fell slightly from 56% to 54%, and on the left from 50% to 45% today. But if she had any doubts, her future apparently does not lie inside her former Likud home, as Likud-Beytenu voters show a majority who dislike her, with 39% favorable and 55% unfavorable.
The wild cards
The popular former Likud cabinet Moshe Kahlon enjoys the sort of broad appeal often seen in the leaders of emerging new centrist parties. Kahlon is famous for breaking the monopoly like pricing schemes of Israel’s cellular phone companies, and there are few Israelis who dislike him. Yet with a favorability of 48%-16%, many have yet to form an opinion.
Importantly, though, his favorability crosses traditional political boundaries. He enjoys 45% favorability on the left, 57% in the center and 52% on the right, and 43% among secular, 60% among traditional (masorti) voters and 60% among Orthodox (dati) voters. He gets the same 50% favorability rating among both those who favor Netanyahu and those who do not. As centrist voters sour on Lapid and right-wing voters on Netanyahu, Kahlon is the best positioned among those tested in the poll to step in and take advantage of the resulting electoral vacuum.
Kahlon’s key challenge will be to gain ground among the large swaths of likely voters who are unfamiliar with him, including 48% of Likud-Beytenu voters, 28% of Yesh Atid voters and 33% of undecideds. He also fares far better among Mizrahi voters than Ashkenazi ones, with a 62% favorable rating among the former and just 39% among the latter.
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 fifth 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, 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 protegé,” 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.