JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew home Wednesday to face a tougher, less adoring crowd than the cheering legislators in Washington. Awaiting him were Israeli voters — and a tight election in less than two weeks.
According to polls carried out by Israeli TV news channels Wednesday, the day after his high-stakes speech to Congress, Netanyahu’s address had only a modest influence on the Israeli electorate.
Israel’s Channel 2 news said Netanyahu’s Likud party had increased its likely support by one seat in the parliament. On rival Channel 10, Likud had gained two seats to tie its main challenger.
In answer to Channel 2’s question — “Did the speech strengthen or weaken support for Netanyahu?” — 44 percent of those surveyed said it strengthened support, 43 percent said it had no influence and 12 percent said it weakened support for the premier.
Israeli political analysts had predicted that Netanyahu and Likud would probably see at least a small bump in support after he warned U.S. lawmakers to reject President Obama’s draft deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Many Israelis said it was a strong address about an important topic, although many also acknowledged that TV images of rapturously applauding members of Congress wouldn’t hurt his reelection bid, either.
It is too soon to know whether any electoral boost that Netanyahu gains from the speech will be sustained.
The real scrum of the election has just begun.
Likudniks are hoping the boss’s address to Congress will pull them ahead of their main challenger, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, and his running mate, former justice minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who are running under the banner of the Zionist Union.
Herzog and the Zionist Union plan to hammer away on the theme that Netanyahu’s address to Congress may do nothing to change the Iran nuclear deal but has spoiled relations with Washington.
Israeli newspapers and TV were filled Wednesday with images of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) looking vexed during Netanyahu’s address. “I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech — saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States,” Pelosi said afterward.
For the past month, the Zionist Union and Likud have been running neck and neck in opinion surveys, with a small, flickering advantage for the Zionist Union.
Camil Fuchs, a veteran Israeli pollster at Tel Aviv University, said that in the past, Netanyahu has always gotten a bump in job-
approval ratings after he gives a tough speech in English, whether at the United Nations or before Congress.
“Warm applause is very good” for poll numbers, Fuchs said.
This time, he said, may be different. He noted that Netanyahu went to Congress under a cloud of controversy, given the very public spat between Obama and the prime minister over the speech and its timing.
“Nobody here cares about Obama and his feelings. But they do care about Israeli relations with the United States,” Fuchs said, citing consistent polling that shows worry about whether Netanyahu is endangering ties.
As lunchtime crowds came to shop and eat at the old central Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s supporters described his address in Washington as a master class in oratory.
“He did what he set out to do. He convinced the Congress to make a better deal with the Iranians,” said Chaim Levy, a retired builder sitting with his chums at a pensioners’ club in the market, where retirees gather daily to play cards, drink tea and sneak a smoke.
Levy called the speech “one for the history books.”
His friend Nissim Armoza interrupted to point out that Netanyahu went to America to warn that “if Iran gets the bomb, there will be another Holocaust.” Heads nodded.
The card players were die-hard supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud party. Armoza said: “We don’t care what Obama thinks. He’s a Muslim who wants to destroy Israel.”
Netanyahu critics said they thought the speech would benefit Netanyahu in opinion surveys this week.
“Will it help? Of course it will help,” said Ori Vaknin, an artist who runs after-school programs for children and was enjoying a lunchtime espresso in the market.
“I don’t like it, but what can I do?” he said, rolling his eyes when asked whether he had watched the speech. “I didn’t really watch. He never says anything new. All the time, repeating himself.”
A couple of Israeli university students were celebrating completed exams with a beer and a glass of wine at an outdoor table. Guy Cohen, an economics major, said, “The fact that he went to speak shows that Bibi is strong.” Israelis commonly call Netanyahu by his nickname “Bibi.”
Regardless, Cohen said, he will probably vote for a candidate and party a bit more to the right than Netanyahu.His friend, Yael Markovitch, a law student, said the large number of undecided voters might be swayed by news of the strong speech, but she wasn’t sure.
Israeli news media on Wednesday appeared obsessed with what American pundits and politicians thought of Netanyahu’s speech, just as many in Washington were interested in how the speech had played in Israel.
“Traditionally we see a Likud bump for two or three weeks after a big Netanyahu speech,” said Jeremy Man Saltan, an analyst and blogger associated with the right-wing bloc. “But this is the first time we have a major Netanyahu speech this close to an election.”
Saltan said that with the election so close, “the news cycle is on steroids . . . and it will be interesting to see how long Netanyahu's speech remains on the front page of Israeli papers.”
“For most people in Israel, the speech was something that they did not watch live but they picked it up from the news afterwards. I don’t think that it will have a dramatic impact,” said Jonathan Rynhold, an expert in U.S.-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
Rynhold guessed that the speech might pull some voters from the hard-line right toward Likud, as well as bulk up Netanyahu’s support among Likud voters, but that it might not move the center left or those still undecided.
Upon landing in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said he was heartened by the response he had received in Washington, adding that both Democrats and Republicans “now better understand why this is a bad deal and what the proper alternative is.”