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News Analysis: Israeli Public Views Netanyahu Doing Well Halfway Through His Term

Jerusalem (Xinhua): A new poll published in the Israel daily Ha’aretz over the weekend says that Israelis are lukewarm about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance as he approaches the halfway mark of his second term.

However, while the United States and the international community might be looking for progress in the peace talks with the Palestinians as a metric of Netanyahu’s success, Israelis have other priorities.

Analysts told Xinhua that Israelis feel the most important factors are security and the economic situation, both of which are relatively good at the moment.

According to the analysts, Netanyahu was given good grades for managing to stay in power for as long as “the average lifespan of an Israeli government which is 18 months,” despite the official term being four years.

Since Netanyahu came to power in 2009, Israel has not been engaged in any major military confrontations with its neighbors, and although much of southern Israel has come under fire rocket by Gazan Palestinian groups in the last week, few experts believe that the situation will escalate into an Israeli ground offensive as it did during operation Cast Lead in December 2008.

On the economic front, Netanyahu was successful in navigating the economy through the global recession without drastic impact, and last year racked up political credit for succeeding in getting Israel aboard the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), both moves seen as boosting economic strength. However, Bank of Israel Governor Prof. Stanley Fisher took much of the credit for these two developments.

Political Paradox

Prof. Tamir Sheafer of political science department at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem told Xinhua that, when the Israeli public grades their leaders, they are primarily looking at the security and economic situation.

According to these measures, Netanyahu had done a good job up until the past two week which saw the violent escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza in the south, and the first major bombing attack in Jerusalem since 2004 that left one person dead and dozens wounded, some severely.

Sheafer said that the progress in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians can’t be used to determine how successful Netanyahu has been as prime minister.

“The problem here in Israel is that when things are calm, a big portion of the public, although supporting an agreement with the Palestinians, doesn’t feel any urgency in this area,” Sheafer said.

However, when the situation is more unstable as it is now after the bombing attack in Jerusalem and the continued rocket fire from Gaza, the politicians on the center and right tend to argue that now is not the time to advance the peace talks.

“Until now there hasn’t been a single Israeli prime minister who enjoyed an increase in his public standing because he was moving quickly forward with the peace process,” Sheafer said.

He added that over the last 20 years the Israeli political map has undergone a transformation which has left it in a paradox, in which the voters have moved to the right, as apparent in the increased number of seats in parliament.

On the other hand, the parties have moved to the left, Sheafer argued, pointing to Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech of 2009 in which he for the first time voiced his conditional support for a two state solution, a statement that 20 years ago only would have been made by a left wing parliamentarian.

Success Measurement

Dr. Michael Feige, from the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that judging Netanyahu’s performance is very much a question of where one stands politically.

“There is criticisms from the left that he hasn’t done that much when it comes to the relations with the Palestinians,” Feige told Xinhua, adding that “but everyone knows he is for the status quo, and in that sense he has been quite successful.”

Netanyahu was previously the prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Feige said that while he isn’t a supporter of Netanyahu’s politics, one can say the Netanyahu’s second term is an improvement as he is now better at keeping his coalition government together and being able to maneuver through crisis.

In Israel’s 120-member unicameral Knesset legislature, there is no lower threshold for how many votes a party requires in order to get allocated a seat, which can result in a very fragmented political scene.

Due to this fragmentation, Israeli governments are always broad coalitions, in order to obtain the 61 or more seats that are needed to control the Knesset. The downside of having a broad coalition is the challenge of trying to keep everyone satisfied. Sometimes both major parties within the government, and its ministers may have a different agenda than that of the prime minster.

According to Prof. Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University’s political sciences department, Netanyahu is “a lefty on a right- wing ticket.” He believes that the prime minister’s greatest achievement was not bringing about a new war.

“If one compares Netanyahu to his predecessor Ehud Olmert, who was considered to be pro-peace and reportedly offered the Palestinian 96 percent of the West Bank, Netanyahu has done a better job,” according to Doron.

Doron mentioned that Israel hasn’t been engaged in a war for the last two years, while it fought two battles during Olmert’s term in office: the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead in 2008 against Hamas in Gaza.

“The other consideration that should be weighed in a few months time, is the future of the individual members of parliament,” Doron said.

He explained that, since the country is moving closer to the next election as part of the election cycle, some politicians are becoming inpatient and may start preparing themselves for re- election by trying to stand out from the crowd, singling out parliamentary opposition to government policy, and supporting strikes by organizations opposed to the government’s policy.

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