The Knesset approved Benjamin Netanyahu's return as prime minister last night amid allegations that his new government is bloated, convoluted and unprepared to deal with Israel's many problems.
According to a survey for Haaretz, the public is not giving the new government a grace period, perhaps because it has so many ministers and deputy ministers, or because so many of them have dubious portfolios.
The problem could also be the friction that accompanied the government's formation; two key cabinet members are suffering embarrassingly low support ratings. Netanyahu, who dreamed for a decade about returning to the Prime Minister's Bureau, will have to work hard and fast to show he is productive.
The most striking result of the Haaretz-Dialog poll, conducted under Prof. Camil Fuchs of the statistics department at Tel Aviv University, is the extent of the public's dissatisfaction with the new government. Less than a third of those surveyed said they are satisfied with Netanyahu's government. More than half, 54 percent, are dissatisfied with the new government.
During his speech at the Knesset Tuesday, Netanyahu said his government was formed to deal with two of Israel's biggest challenges ever: defense - including Iran's nuclear program - and the economic slowdown. But most of the people surveyed said the new government is not prepared to respond to those challenges.
On defense issues, the participants were divided, probably because of the presence of incumbent Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the government. On socioeconomic issues, the vast majority said the government will not be able to provide the right answers, despite Netanyahu's reputation as "Mr. Economy." There might also be concerns that Netanyahu selected a finance minister with no experience in economics - Yuval Steinitz.
Netanyahu recognized the trouble he was in for appointing Steinitz, and tried to minimize the damage. At the Knesset, he announced that he would be acting as a kind of super finance minister. This is probably not enough. Netanyahu, who is very sensitive to public opinion, will have to undermine further the authority of his good friend to prove to the people that the economy is being handled from his office, not from an office nearby.
The public believes that two of the cabinet's senior ministers are not suited for their jobs. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman received the support of only a quarter of participants in the survey. Most believe that Lieberman should not represent Israel abroad.
Finance Minister Steinitz received 22 percent in his favor, compared with 27 percent against. More than half the respondents said they simply do not know what they think of him - they do not know who Steinitz is.
While Steinitz is an unknown to some, everyone seems to know Lieberman all too well. The result is that two leading ministers have poor approval ratings their first day in office.
Compared to these choices, Defense Minister Barak does well. He enjoys stellar support in the survey: Two-thirds of the respondents say he is appropriate for his job. Before Operation Cast Lead, Barak had only half his current support.
Ironically, Barak, at least for now, is the most popular minister in the government. He is the public-relations asset that Tzipi Livni was in Ehud Olmert's government. Cleary Netanyahu knew what he was doing when he went out of his way to give senior jobs to top Labor MKs so they would join the coalition.
Barak may be pleased with the support for him as defense minister, but the survey shows that Labor has suffered a serious blow to its image, particularly because of the way the party joined the coalition. According to the survey, if elections were held today, Labor would lose a third of its voters, which corresponds to four seats in the Knesset. In the February general election, they won 12 seats and received another as a result of an agreement with left-wing party Meretz.
What is important here is a question asked to voters of all the parties. Only in Labor's case were the survey's participants clear: They would not vote for Labor if elections were held today.
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