As Israelis began the observance of Sukkot, a weeklong religious holiday celebrating the end of the harvest, talk on the streets was of travel plans and family visits. Many Israelis build a sukkah, an outdoor hut open to the stars, as commanded in the Bible, where they eat their meals — and where some even sleep — for the week. Hundreds of thousands use the off-time to visit national parks, with radio ads exhorting Israelis to clean up their garbage when they finish hiking and picnicking.
Just before the holiday, the Hadar mall in Jerusalem was jammed with last-minute shoppers. At the Aroma Café, an elderly couple took a coffee break and reflected on their prime minister, just back from New York, and his presentation to the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.
“He’s a nice boy who knows how to give a speech,” Frieda Green said. “I only hope he will do what he says.”
Netanyahu seems to share Green’s assessment of his performance at Turtle Bay, saying that the trip’s “two objectives — driving home the message on Iran and strengthening coordination with the Obama administration — have been met.” He also said his speech, in which he drew a red line on a cartoonlike drawing of a bomb, “reached hundreds of millions of people.”
Green said she’s mildly concerned by Iran’s growing nuclear program, but more caught up in worrying about her children and grandchildren. “That’s why we have a government — let them worry about it,” she said.
Her husband, Ezra, 79, said he has faith in Netanyahu.
“He’s the one in Israel who is best to be prime minister,” he said. “His speech to the U.N. was very successful. He spoke like a teacher to his students so that everyone could understand.”
Like all Israelis, they also have some criticism of their prime minister. “I think he exaggerated a little in his demands of President Obama,” Frieda said. “It’s not appropriate, and he should tone it down.”
“Especially when it now looks like Obama will continue for another four years,” Ezra added.
At another table, a group of middle-aged men said they’re more concerned by economic issues than with Iran.
“Netanyahu is strangling us with his taxes and the price increases in gas,” Chaim Vaknin, a taxi driver said. “At the same time, there’s nobody to replace him. I’m really disappointed in all of the politicians — they don’t seem to be doing anything to help us.”
Vaknin’s friend Avi Biton disagreed, saying, “Netanyahu is doing a great job and should be prime minister for another term.
The way it looks now, that seems increasingly likely. Israelis are set to go to the polls about a year from now, but if the Knesset doesn’t manage to pass the budget by Dec. 31 as required by law, those elections could be moved much earlier. But polls published this week show the government would not change much if elections were held today.
According to a poll commissioned by the daily newspaper Haaretz and executed by the Dialog polling organization, Netanyahu’s Likud Party seems set to win 28 seats, one more than in the July 2009 election and three more than the last poll, taken in July, indicated. Israelis vote for parties, not people. The proportion of seats each party receives in the 120-seat parliament is determined by the percentage of votes it garners. According to the Haaretz/Dialog poll, the center-left Labor Party would improve its representation from the 13 seats it earned in the last election to 20 today. The big loser would be the Kadima Party, which won 28 seats in 2009 but is predicted to win no more than eight in the next election.
The new polling supports the common belief that the Likud-right-ultra-Orthodox bloc is most strongly positioned to piece together a majority coalition of 66 seats and retain control of the government while the center-left parties are seen as not being able to amass more than 54 seats.
When it comes to Netanyahu personally, his approval rating has risen from 31 percent in the last poll, to 38 percent, with 53 percent saying they remain dissatisfied.
“If a U.S. president drops below 50 percent approval rating, he gets very concerned,” Yehuda Ben Meir, a public opinion expert at the INSS think tank, said. “Netanyahu’s rating has gone up, but he’s far from being popular.”
By comparison, current approval ratings for Barack Obama hover around 50 percent.
When asked in the Haaretz poll, “Who is more suited to be prime minister?” 35 percent said Netanyahu — more than Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Kadima Party head Shaul Mofaz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads a breakaway party, combined.
“Public opinion in Israel is very static and conservative — you need an earthquake to change it,” Ben Meir said. “Netanyahu remains popular with the right-wing and the religious community, and unpopular with the left.”
It also depends on whether the primary issues in the election are Iran or the economy. Israelis tend to support Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran, and polls show that a majority of Israelis believe that a nuclear Iran could represent an existential danger to the country.
At the same time, many middle-class Israelis resent the high tax rate, and prices continue to rise. In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding lower prices. If those demonstrations start up again, Netanyahu could be blamed for the higher prices and could suffer at the polls.