By the numbers: Inspiring Confidence?

As circumstances change and as the status quo becomes untenable, the question rises: Is this the right leadership for the times?

Netanyahu survey_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Netanyahu survey_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
AS PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL’S 32ND GOVERNment, Benjamin Netanyahu has led the country for just over two years. That’s about half the official election cycle in Israel (which is four years) and approaches the average life span for Israeli governments (which typically survive for 2-3 years). Currently, it seems that Netanyahu’s coalition is solid and will hold, at least for the foreseeable future.
But while political maneuvering can keep a government in power, it does not necessarily provide the public with a sense of confidence that the government is meeting the challenges facing the country.
Netanyahu assumed office in 2009, after Israel had suffered through a decade of intifada and wars. He probably hoped for a sleeper term. The Israeli public, too, seemed to wish that the newly established quiet would become a status quo that would last forever. And so, leadership and public aspirations seemed to match.
But recent events have been closing in so fast that it’s hard to keep up. The deep changes across the Middle East, rising pressure from Israel’s best friends abroad, the looming possibility that the Palestinians will unilaterally declare the establishment of an independent state in September, and, most recently, the Obama-Netanyahu showdown – all of these indicate that the status quo which existed over the past decade is no longer a reality.
As circumstances change and as the status quo becomes untenable, the question rises: Is this the right leadership for the times?
Social grumblings reflected in various surveys have begun to indicate that Israelis are, indeed, feeling critical of their government. In March 2011, I conducted a survey (n=500), which showed that over half of Jewish Israelis (56%) believe Israel is going in the wrong direction; just over one-third (36%) felt the country was moving in the right direction. Three consecutive surveys (December 2010, January 2011 and March 2011), conducted by Camille Fuchs (a professor of statistics at Tel Aviv University) for Israel’s Channel 10 TV, showed the prime minister’s ratings to be in decline– to the point where just 32% of the public expressed satisfaction in his leadership.
Yet these data do not seem to herald a crisis for the prime minister. Most surveys over the last two years have showed the electoral map to be quite stable, largely reflecting the 2009 election results. And Israeli responses to Netanyahu’s recent trip to the US have certainly been positive: a survey conducted on May 25 just after his address to the joint houses of Congress and conducted by the Dialogue Rsearch group (also headed by Fuchs), reveals that the visit stemmed, at least temporarily, this downward trend and even reversed it – 51% of the public expressed satisfaction with the prime minister and only 36 percent did not. And some 46% of the respondents felt pride at Netanyahu’s appearance in Congress.
Certainly, these results should please Netanyahu. But it will take time to know if they reflect long-term trends or are merely a temporary “blip.” Indeed, a different survey following the speech to Congress, conducted by TNS, the Teleseker research company for the Hebrew daily paper “Maariv,” showed that while Netanyahu is still ranked as the most suitable person to be prime minister, the ratings are still fairly low (37% for Netanyahu in contrast to 28% for Kadima leader Tzipi Livni). And fully 57% said Netanyahu ought to have explicitly agreed to President Obama’s framework for an agreement.
The basic interpretation of this data holds that while the public has plenty of criticism of the current leadership, people don’t seem to expect much more – nor do they think anyone else is capable of providing something better.
The Jerusalem Report survey this week, therefore, sought to understand not only if respondents are critical of the government, but also why they are critical. Instead of asking about specific policy areas, we tried to find the source of the discontent, by pinpointing what leadership qualities the public feels are the most lacking.
The survey question read: “Thinking about the current government in Israel, what would you say is the main problem with its performance?” There were six options. The first three involved general qualities: The government has no vision for the state; the government responds and does not initiate (policy); and the government does not make decisions. The next answers provided people with the option of a political critique: The government is too left-leaning or the government is too right-leaning. The final option was, “I have no critique of this government.”
Indeed, 19% of the respondents are apparently satisfied with the current government. But 44% of the Jewish public believes that the government is simply not capable of deciding how to lead. Another 8 percent believe that the government does not have a vision for the country – which, in itself, could be a reason for non-action.
Only 10% percent of respondents felt that the government is either too far to the left or the right. Of these, 4% said that it is too right-wing, and 6% said it is too left. This survey, like many others over the last few years, show that the youngest group (18-35) are twice as likely to accuse the government of being too left-wing (12%) – indicating more hard-line, right-leaning views among the young. The only other group in which a higher percent are angry with the government for being too left-leaning is the religious and Haredi community – together less than 20% of the Jewish population. Over one-fifth of this religious group felt the government is too far left. Other studies, however, have shown us that Israelis are very divided based on their general “left” or “right” worldview, whether on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict or issues of the Jewish state and the Arab minority). Yet, across this divide, there is a clear feeling that the government is not sufficiently competent. (Of course, it is possible that respondents were thinking of any leadership they can imagine in Israel today, and not solely of the current government – another reason why they may not be rushing to change the leadership.)
The largest portion of the sample, 28%, felt that the government simply does not make decisions. The second highest response was the 16% who said that the Israeli leadership is only responsive, but does not initiate. These two responses are slightly different, but they point to similar and related problems. Perhaps the government does not initiate, because it cannot make decisions – so what is there to initiate?
In sum, over half (52%) of the Jewish population feels that the main problem is neither left- nor right-leaning politics, but a lack of specific leadership qualities. And we saw very little of the usual variation according to demographics.
IT’S NOT HARD TO UNDERSTAND WHY THE GOVERNment is perceived as having trouble initiating and acting. The coalition partners are not natural bedfellows, with a hard right posse of the ultra-orthodox religious parties Shas and Torah Judaism hovering over the center-right Likud, topped by the ultra-nationalist but secular Israel Beiteinu, and the erstwhile Labor defector Ehud Barak.
And Netanyahu’s own advisors whisper tales to reporters about their boss’s infamous indecisiveness at a time when Israel’s leadership faces unprecedented historical developments and fundamental shifts in global paradigms. Like a deer caught in headlights, the government probably wishes it didn’t have to make choices at all.
But it does have to make choices, and the public knows this. On the Israeli- Palestinian front, the international community has been making it very clear that it will no longer provide diplomatic support to Israel’s ongoing occupationby- settlement policy. This has begun to penetrate the thick Israeli armor that has wishfully – or willfully – attempted to hold on to the status quo.
Although he promised not to impose an agreement, Obama’s speeches at the US State Department and AIPAC conferences showed that America is pushing for an endgame. Netanyahu’s responses were basically a strong continuation of his policies to date – policies which have led to diplomatic deadlock. That’s most likely to encourage continued Palestinian unilateralism in September, and Israel will be forced to decide what to do. Perhaps this explains the finding in the survey in “Maariv” that criticizes Netanyahu for not accepting Obama’s positions.
And there are burning issues on the domestic front, too, that require true leadership. Israel’s economic situation is always a colorful source of debate. In the past, it seemed that “everyone’s” bank account was overdrawn and that “everyone” was equally economically miserable. But now, Israel’s economy privileges high-tech professionals and traditional elites as the longtime poor become increasingly entrenched and the middle class finds itself in a futile Sisyphistic attempt to maintain its economic standing.
Our data indicates that the public feels that the government fails to offer clear, decisive initiatives on either of these two major fronts. In the absence of a strong visionary government, the Israeli Jewish public seems to have stopped looking to its government for strong leadership or a defining vision of the country. Surveys of Arabs indicate far greater discontent with the current direction – but, at the present, that population has little political influence.
So far, we see no evidence of an impending, Tahrir Square-like wave of demonstrations. Perhaps a non-initiating government that is not too likely to upset anyone very much creates an enervated, but stable, malaise. But on a deeper level, it might mean that the leadership of the country will be in the hands of others – the Knesset, or perhaps civil society. And it could be that Israel’s international standing and status will be determined by outsiders, and not by Israel itself.