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Poll Gives Netanyahu Positive Marks Despite Rift with US

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Israel's new right-wing government is about to complete its first 100 days in power, a period marked by tension with Washington over how to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. But the Israeli public is showing cautious support for the nation's new leader.

A poll marking hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first 100 days in office gives him positive marks despite a deepening dispute with the United States over Jewish settlements. Mr. Netanyahu enjoys a 49 percent approval rating, according to the poll published in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. That is much higher than his dovish predecessor Ehud Olmert, who offered major territorial concessions to the Palestinians. 

Mr. Netanyahu also scored 18 points higher than the woman he narrowly defeated in February elections-former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a strong advocate of Palestinian statehood.

Under U.S. pressure, Mr. Netanyahu reluctantly endorsed the concept of a Palestinian state last month, but with tough conditions that were flatly rejected by the Palestinians.

David Stern, a man on the street here in Jerusalem, supports the prime minister's cautious approach.

"I don't actually expect that there will be a Palestinian state, not because of Israel's recalcitrance but because Palestinians don't seem to really want it," he said. "They want a state instead of Israel, not a state alongside Israel."

Mr. Netanyahu's support for settlement expansion has strained Israel's all-important relations with Washington.  But Israeli analyst Mitchell Barak says the prime minister has managed to walk a tightrope between U.S. pressure and the demands of his nationalist coalition partners.

Barak says Mr. Netanyahu has made concessions: Israel says it will not build new settlements, but will only allow "natural growth," and there are plans to dismantle about two dozen illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank.

"So that was a very big step-I think unfortunately that the U.S. didn't see it as such a big step. And he was able to get his coalition to agree to that and to not attack him. So from that point of view I would give him a good score," he said.

The Israeli public is divided on the settlement issue: The poll showed that 46 percent of respondents support continuing construction in the West Bank even if it means a confrontation with the U.S. - 44 percent were opposed.

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