Popularity crashing, but Netanyahu still leading political pack — poll

As early election talk ramps up, survey shows Likud garnering 24 seats, though PM far less popular than during summer war

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Israeli parliament on the 'Jewish state' bill, November 26, 2014. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Israeli parliament on the 'Jewish state' bill, November 26, 2014. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Voters are half as enamored with Benjamin Netanyahu as they were just a few months ago, but the prime minister would easily cruise to an fourth term at the helm of the country were elections held today, a survey published Sunday showed, as talk of new elections continued to swirl.

According to the poll, published by the Haaretz daily, Netanyahu’s approval rating has dropped to 38 percent, down from 50% in late August as a military campaign against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza came to a close, and dramatically down from 77% on August 5, in the midst of the 50-day war.

Only 35% of the 535 people polled last week thought Netanyahu was the most suitable candidate to be prime minister, whereas a similar survey at the end of August, just after a ceasefire ended Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, gave him 42% backing. The next-highest-scoring politician, Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, drew just 17% support in Sunday’s poll, followed by Avigdor Liberman (8%), Yair Lapid (7%) and Naftali Bennett (6%).

Over a quarter, some 27%, said they don’t know who they would most like to see lead the country.

The survey came as talk of early elections has ramped up surrounding a threatened coalition crisis over passage of a bill that would enshrine in law Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu has vowed to pass the measure over the vocal opposition of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Lapid, who together could pull 25 seats out of the government, collapsing the coalition.

The coalition is also fraying over a tiff between Netanyahu and Lapid over the finance minister’s plan to pass a tax-free housing bill, which is threatening to hold up the budget.

While Netanyahu has said he does not seek early elections, he reportedly told associates that it is “impossible to govern” with the Yesh Atid party, Israeli news site Ynet reported Sunday.

The survey found that were elections held now, Likud would remain at the top of the heap, and even looked to gain seats. The poll was envisioning a situation in which former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, who announced a break from politics before the 2012 elections, goes ahead with his recent declaration to form his own party rather than returning to the Likud.

Last week Kahlon held a founding meeting for a proposed faction that was attended by 350 supporters at a seaside hotel, although neither the party’s name, nor details of its likely candidates, were given.

If elections were held, the Likud would score 24 seats in the Knesset, six more than its current representation, while a party led by Kahlon would win 12 seats, the survey found.

Yesh Atid, currently the largest faction with 19 seats, would slide to just 12 and Livni’s Hatnua party would drop from six to four seats.

However, the national-religious Jewish Home party would boost its presence from 12 to 16 seats. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party would lose two places and hold 11 Knesset seats.

The opposition Labor Party would also lose strength, going from 15 seats down to 13.

The numbers showed that Netanyahu would be able to form a coalition without Labor, Hatnua, or any of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

The survey, conducted by the Dialog Institute, had a margin of error of 4.1%.

Netanyahu is reportedly set to decide on whether to call for early elections later this week.

Netanyahu might use a preliminary parliamentary reading on Wednesday of the “Jewish state” bill as a platform to launch his election campaign, Haaretz reported last week.

The bill, which would enshrine Israel’s character as a Jewish state in Israel’s de facto constitution, has come under harsh criticism from Livni and Lapid, as well as opposition lawmakers, President Reuven Rivlin and his predecessor Shimon Peres.

Critics say the law is undemocratic to Israel’s Arab and other minority populations. A stormy cabinet meeting on the bill at the beginning of last week saw Livni accuse Netanyahu of backing the legislation in order to try and pry apart the coalition so that he can call elections.

Among those who participated in the recent survey, 41% said they believed Netanyahu was backing the bill as a political move to gain right-wing votes, while 40% responded that the prime minister’s intentions were truly aimed at reinforcing Israel as Jewish national state. Some 19% were undecided as to what Netanyahu’s intentions were really about.

Another poll published last week by Israeli financial daily Globes said Likud has been losing popularity in recent months, and the paper advised the party to “go for an early election, and quickly.”

Asked by pollster Rafi Smith which party they would vote for if an election were held now, the answers predicted that Likud would win 23 seats in the 120-member Knesset, slightly lower than the 24 it scored in an October survey but dramatically down from 31 in a July Globes poll.

That poll, which predicted that Kahlon’s new party would win nine seats, did not give the number of respondents or the margin of error.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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