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Israelis think Benjamin Netanyahu is doing a pretty bad job on foreign policy

Netanyahu at the UN.
Netanyahu at the UN.
(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Israelis are very unhappy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's foreign policy. A new poll from the Israeli think tank Mitvim shows that 60 percent of Israelis disapprove of his government's performance on foreign policy — nearly double the number who did so in the same poll last year.

The poll, first reported by the Jerusalem Post's Lahav Harkov on Thursday, asked 600 Israelis to rank the government's foreign policy performance on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 is bad, 5 is neutral, and 10 is very good. Sixty percent of Israelis responded with a rating between 1 and 4 — varying degrees of "bad." Last year, the figure was only 34 percent.

Another way to look at this is the average response. Last year, the mean response among Israelis was 5.29, or slightly better than neutral. This year, the average was 3.96, clearly in "bad" territory. Here's why Israelis are so unhappy with their foreign policy — and why their anger might not actually hurt Netanyahu all that much.

This is about two things: America and Iran

Obama And Biden Meet With Israeli PM Netanyahu At White House
Obama and Netanyahu meet.
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What happened? The answer is fairly clear: Netanyahu got in a giant fight with the United States over the Iran deal, and lost.

The US is Israel's biggest ally, and Israelis are very sensitive to the tone of their relationship with the US. Netanyahu clashed repeatedly with his American counterparts, both with Bill Clinton when he was prime minister in the '90s and with Barack Obama during the president's first six years in office.

But 2015 was really the year the Netanyahu-Obama relationship collapsed, and Iran was the key cause. Netanyahu pushed hard against the Iran deal and meddled in American domestic politics to try to block it.

He gave a speech before Congress orchestrated by Republicans, behind Obama's back, in a deliberate attempt to undermine Obama's support for the deal in Congress. He all but registered as a lobbyist against the deal when there was an (ultimately doomed) effort by congressional Republicans to torpedo it. In essence, Netanyahu sided with the Republican Party against the Obama administration — infuriating the Obama administration.

Israelis, of course, noticed this. Netanyahu's political opponents, particularly on the center and left, have bashed him for undermining the US-Israel relationship. Forty-one percent of Israelis said relations with the US were "not good" in Mitvim's poll — more than twice as many who said that in last year's poll.

To make matters worse, Netanyahu didn't actually stop the Iran deal. The deal is widely unpopular in Israel, and especially unpopular on the Israeli right. The Mitvim poll found that 58 percent of Israelis believe Netanyahu failed in his efforts to block a deal. No one was left satisfied with the way Netanyahu's foreign policy went down on the top issues of 2015.

So it makes sense that a huge number of Israelis would swing against Netanyahu's foreign policy: He's essentially failed everyone. "This isn't surprising at all," Michael Koplow, the policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, says of the poll results. "He hasn't gone far enough to mollify either the hawks or the doves, and he sits somewhere in the muddy middle. And nobody's happy."

The silver lining for Netanyahu

netanyahu
Netanyahu after his March 2015 election victory.
(Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

If there's one piece of good news in the poll for Netanyahu, it's this: He's still the most trusted Israeli leader on foreign policy.

Mitvim asked the poll respondents which Israeli leaders stood out on foreign policy issues; Netanyahu came in first, with 21 percent citing him as the standout. Two right-wing members of the Knesset, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, tied for second with 17 percent. The leader of the opposition, the Labor Party's Isaac Herzog, received only 5 percent of the Israeli public's endorsement.

So despite an objectively awful foreign policy year for Netanyahu, Israelis still see him as their country's best choice for dealing with the world. That illustrates just how little faith Israelis have in their current crop of political leaders.

"This is the same reason [Netanyahu] keeps on getting elected: People think there's no other viable alternative," Koplow says. "It doesn't mean that people are happy with him. They just don't see anyone else who's going to do a good job."