The Likud ministers looked glum as they arrived at the Prime Minister's Office on Monday for their weekly meeting. In the intimate gathering they felt free to speak freely, before going upstairs and voting en bloc - apart from Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon - in favor of the economic hammer blows.
The finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, outlined the measures required to fill the hole in the current, 2012, budget. He lauded the fine state of the economy and the policy being pursued by his ministry. Bottom line, he said: Our situation is better than that of many countries (like Spain and Greece, Greece and Spain - and, oh yes, Italy ). He did not forget to mention the global credit-rating agencies, which are threatening to lower Israel's rating if the country doesn't restrain itself.
The first to spot the logical flaw was Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. "A message that says 'Our situation is good' accompanied by economic cuts doesn't work," he said. "The public will find it hard to understand why it is being asked to pay if things are so good ... You have to explain [that], as happens in every family when expenses exceed income, you need to balance the family budget by cutting."
For his part, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor assailed Steinitz from a different direction. "You are presenting these measures as something easy, reasonable, almost not felt. That is a serious mistake. You have to tell the public honestly that these are harsh steps because we face a harsh situation. And not be afraid to say that additional tough measures might be needed."
Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan recommended that Netanyahu and Steinitz remind the public that this government cut VAT and income tax, but there is no choice but to raise them: "Instead of making things tough for the middle class and the weak groups, the money should have been sought from the strong, by imposing property tax on lots, inheritance tax and by canceling the exemption from capital gains on apartments bought as investments."
Michael Eitan, the minister for the improvement of government services, did not like Erdan's suggestions: "If we propose taking from the rich, if our policy resembles that of [Labor Party leader] Shelly Yacimovich, then voters will cast their ballot for her and not for us."
The results of this week's Haaretz-Dialog poll - conducted on Tuesday under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs from the department of statistics at Tel Aviv University - show that Eitan's gut feeling is right. When people are angry at Netanyahu and Likud because of the economy, they consider voting for the other side: Yacimovich and Labor. A few weeks ago, when the public wanted to signal the prime minister that his approach on replacing the Tal Law (drafting the ultra-Orthodox ) was not to its liking, support for Yair Lapid and his fledgling Yesh Atid party surged. Since then, Lapid has lost four potential seats.
On the morning after the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu urgently summoned people from the three television channels. In his interviews he adopted some of the propaganda tips put forward by Sa'ar, Katz and Erdan. Yonit Levy, from Channel 2, reminded him that he had once urged his ministers "to be Kahlons" - to follow the example of Moshe Kahlon - and asked why he wasn't listening to Kahlon now. Netanyahu swallowed hard.
The prime minister's confidants view Kahlon as "the first to desert" the sinking ship. In a variation on the remark attributed to adman Reuven Adler - "No one ever regretted an interview he didn't give" - Netanyahu can now say, "No one ever regretted a compliment he didn't give."
King Bibi is in trouble - relatively speaking. Many politicians would be happy to trade places with him, even now. His entanglement with the secular public over the replacement of the Tal Law and the economic blows he is inflicting have exacted a serious electoral price, as reflected in the Haaretz-Dialog poll. However, even when Netanyahu becomes the brunt of the voters' anger, the Likud-right-Haredi bloc still holds on to the majority of seats in the Knesset. The center-left bloc, at its best, is still unable to shatter its regular glass ceiling of about 44-45 seats.
The clear conclusion from the poll is that on no account must the Likud run an election campaign based on a socioeconomic agenda. And it follows that Netanyahu has no reason in the world to advance the elections. On the contrary: He now has every reason to delay them and come up with a different agenda, preferably a political-security one.
The budget for 2013 must reach the government by September and go through the parliamentary grinder by December. That budget will land more hammer blows on Israel's citizens. Netanyahu has to decide: Either there is no budget and elections are held at the beginning of 2013, or there is a budget and elections will be held as required by law at the end of October 2013.
This week's poll reflects the intensity of the public protest and anger against Finance Minister Steinitz and the economic "super-minister," Netanyahu. Until a month ago, we heard the two boasting about a stable economy, growth, low unemployment. And suddenly: Crash! That's why the Likud has lost ground in recent months and has only 25 seats in this poll.
That is also why Netanyahu, for the first time since forming his government in April 2009, is at a low point with a 60 percent disapproval rating. His previous lowest approval rating in Haaretz polls, which are published regularly, was 54 percent. In May this year he had a one-percent gap in his favor (46 percent satisfied, 45 percent dissatisfied with his performance as prime minister ). At the beginning of July he was at minus 10 percent (51 percent dissatisfied, 41 percent satisfied ). Now 29 percent more of those asked are dissatisfied with his performance than are satisfied (31 percent ). He always used to say that when a leader slips below a 50 percent approval rating he is in trouble.
The anger at Netanyahu is also reflected in the poll question of who is best suited to be prime minister. A month ago, 47 percent of those asked thought he was the one. That has now fallen to 29 percent. Next in line is Yacimovich, with a 16 percent suitability rating.
But that is nothing compared to Steinitz. Our treasury boss is at minus 48 percent in terms of public satisfaction with his performance (67 percent are dissatisfied vs. 19 percent satisfied ). And in a list of candidates considered best suited for finance minister, he is in last place, with five percent. Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer is the ultimate finance minister in the eyes of the public, despite his public advocacy of the recent measures. Steinitz implements and is castigated; Fischer supports and is liked.
Fully 86 percent of respondents don't believe Netanyahu's mantra that, even after the economic measures, most Israelis will have more money in their pocket. As it happens, Netanyahu is right in this case: The cellular-phones reform, free education from the age of three and other reforms have improved the financial status of the middle class. The cuts will eat into that. Citizens don't like it when the government sticks its hand in their pockets while it explains how great everything is.
Three more things...
1. For the first time, says the poll, Ehud Barak's Atzmaut Party gets enough votes to enter the Knesset, with two seats. Here's a theoretical scenario: Atzmaut wins three and Barak gets to decide who the next prime minister will be (and under whom he can work as defense minister ): Netanyahu or Yacimovich.
2. The Tal Law saga has created a serious problem for Netanyahu with the secular public. In this poll, 20 percent of the secular public is satisfied with Netanyahu, as compared to 41 percent of the Haredi public. The Haredim can honestly say that he is the first Haredi prime minister.
3. Support for Netanyahu among the secular public plunges even further on the question of suitability for prime minister: 18 percent of secular voters think he is suitable as prime minister, but Yacimovich gets 27 percent from this sector.
Crime and punishment
After three years and four months of harmonious working relations and total interdependence between Netanyahu and Barak, Barak came out against the boss for the first time. "The economic theory of Netanyahu and Steinitz is bankrupt," he was quoted as saying by TheMarker, after the prime minister and the finance minister both rejected outright the economic alternative he presented in the cabinet meeting.
To punish Barak and his ministers for voting against the economic measures, Steinitz slashed the defense budget by NIS 100 million - which was restored two days later. In return, the Atzmaut representative on the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, MK Shachiv Shnaan, voted for the cuts. Relations between Barak and Netanyahu quickly got back on track. On the major issue these days, Iran, they are in perfect sync.
In private discussions, Steinitz said he restored the slashed funds only after Barak and his faction resumed their good behavior. According to Barak, it was only after Steinitz agreed to return the money that had been cut from the Defense Ministry and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry that he ordered Shnaan to vote in favor of the economic measures in the committee.
Israel's citizens can rest easy. We can rely on those at the top.
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