Netanyahu - Ch. 10 - March 23, 2011
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to reporters before boarding a flight to Russia on Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Photo by Channel 10
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On March 31, Netanyahu's government will have been in office for two years. What do we have in our inventory from those two years? One important speech, at Bar-Ilan University. One construction moratorium in the territories. A failed attempt to jump-start diplomatic negotiations. Lots of slipups and issues related to conduct, plus a problematic bureau. We didn't have a war, thank God. Hardly any terror attacks, until these last two weeks. We didn't have Grad missiles in Be'er Sheva and dozens of Qassams every day in the area of the Gaza envelope. Until this past week.

According to the Haaretz-Dialog poll conducted this week, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of the Tel Aviv University statistics department, this is a government that is neither hated nor loved. Both parts of the public see the glass half empty: The left is disappointed with the government because of the diplomatic stasis, the racist laws that increase international isolation, and the country's generally bleak mood; The right is campaigning against the government, because of the only moderate rate of building in the territories, the bowing to U.S. President Barack Obama, and the same Bar-Ilan speech that in essence makes a Palestinian state "kosher."

Ostensibly, the right ought to be pleased: Netanyahu has not handed a single inch over to the Palestinians. He did not resume negotiations from the point at which they were stopped. He did not go back to the principles of the Annapolis summit. But the right is never pleased.

In terms of security, the past two years were the quietest in a decade, but the government apparently gets no credit for that from the public. And Israel's economy has proved its stability and strength: Growth is high and unemployment low, compared with other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the government gets no credit for this either.

The Haaretz-Dialog survey checked the public's attitude toward the government on the eve of its second anniversary. Asked how they compare their own subjective, general feelings about their situation today, relative to the first two years of Ehud Olmert's tenure as prime minister - when the Second Lebanon War was fought, a world economic crisis prevailed and the prime minister became embroiled in investigations - only a negligible minority of respondents said things are better now. Many more said the situation is worse, but the majority said their situation is "unchanged." Does it make sense that only 15 percent of Israelis say their situation is better today than back then? Or that 28 percent say their situation is worse?

We have seen such phenomena in the past. Sometimes when a government is dealing with an economic or security crisis, it wins broader public backing than in quieter times. Sometimes it is precisely a sense of emergency that augments citizens' support of and trust in a government. If so, perhaps the security escalations we are now facing will boost the ratings of Netanyahu and his government.

With the start of the second half of the Netanyahu government's tenure, there are increasing signs of frustration and revulsion dominating public discourse. The prime minister is apparently walking about in our midst feeling that he represents something sane, that is reconciling various interests insofar as possible. However, as time goes by, he comes across increasingly as someone who is incapable of fulfilling the wishes of the majority of the public.

To mark the middle of his term in office, the Prime Minister's Bureau has prepared a file laden with graphs and numbers, depicting the government's activity to date: economic growth, security, record levels of tourism, educational reforms, new housing plans, revolutions in communications and the cell-phone market, projects in the area of environmental quality and more.

At the Likud Knesset faction meeting this week, Netanyahu urged his fellow MKs to take pride in the achievements of his government. "This is a government that does things, not one that just talks. This is a government of many achievements. I can give you lots of reading material about this - I can give you entire books," said the prime minister. He didn't seem to have many takers.

According to this week's poll, if elections were held today, Netanyahu would not have difficulty forming a new government, either with the right-wing-ultra-Orthodox bloc that still has the highest number of Knesset seats, or with Kadima and Labor. According to the survey, the right-wing bloc would garner 68 seats today, three more than in the current Knesset. The center-left bloc would lose three seats relative to its situation today - it would have only 52 seats, 10 belonging to the Arab factions.

After a long period during which it lagged behind the Likud by three or four seats, Kadima, the main opposition party, has closed the gap. The current poll gives each of the parties 31 seats; both gain support relative to their size today. Kadima chair Tzipi Livni is also narrowing the gap with Netanyahu when it comes to suitability for being prime minister: He gets 44 percent support, she gets 35 percent, a gap of 9 percent. Two months ago, the gap between them was 17 percent: 48 percent for Netanyahu verses 31 percent for Livni.

Netanyahu himself attributes great importance to two electoral factors concerning the prime minister: the public's level of satisfaction with him, and his suitability for the position. With respect to the first factor, in this poll he falls below the level of 50-percent support, which in his view is necessary to make an incumbent prime minister feel secure in his chair: Only 39 percent are satisfied with him. In terms of the second factor, Livni is closing in on him. Of course this survey, by its nature, is accurate only for the moment when it was taken. This could change in the blink of an eye.

The poll also examined the status of the 10 cabinet ministers who by virtue of their positions have responsibility for the main areas of national life. Overall, the public gives positive grades to most of them. Here are the results, in descending order, reflecting the respondents' satisfaction with how well they function: In first place is Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, with 58 percent, and after him comes Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, with 51 percent - they are the only ones who crossed the 50-percent threshold. Following them are Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, 48 percent; Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, 46 percent; Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz; and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, at 41 percent - a considerable improvement in his status during the past two years. Following them are Netanyahu and his Interior Minister Eli Yishai, with 39 percent each; Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, 38 percent; and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, 37 percent.

And in last place on the list - guess who? Defense Minister Ehud Barak, "Mr. Security." Only 30 percent of the respondents - half the proportion that supported him at the start of this government's term - express satisfaction today with his functioning. And Atzmaut, his new faction, does not garner enough votes according to this poll to get into the Knesset at all.

The PM's datebooks

Raviv Drucker's instructive investigative report on Channel 10's "Hamakor" ("The Source" ) show, which disclosed the contents of Benjamin Netanyahu's secret datebooks, was broadcast just moments after the premier and his wife boarded the plane for a quick visit, of less than a day, to Russia. Anyone who wondered why Sara Netanyahu bothered to join her husband on such a very short trip to a gray and cold place like Moscow, may have gotten an answer on this show: Maybe, just maybe, someone made a conscious decision to keep the first lady away from the TV screen at that particular time.

Ostensibly, the report revealed a long series of ethical problems with overseas trips by the premier's family, both when Netanyahu served as a rank-and-file legislator, and was subject to the Knesset's ethical regulations, and when he was finance minister, subject to the strict rules applying to cabinet members. The diaries, receipts and invoices discussed detail how various organizations, nonprofits, charities, philanthropists and just plain billionaires (some with business interests in Israel ), participated over the years in financing the family's trips.

Netanyahu comes across in the report as someone who, to put it mildly, is not eager to pay for his wife's flights in first class. In his "private" datebooks, he rates his personal bankers by means of digits, asterisks and plus signs: The more marks by the person's name, the greater his wealth and thus, the greater his chances of being one of those given the privilege of doing well by Bibi and Sara. The Netanyahus' lifestyle, as depicted here, reflects something larger than life. It is completely cut off from Israeli reality, except maybe the one experienced by those in the country's top thousandth percentile - and probably not even all of them.

The Prime Minister's Bureau has told Haaretz that nothing untoward has been found regarding the premier's travels, and says that Mrs. Netanyahu's trips were paid for by herself, by organizations that invited her to lecture, or by members of her family. The invoices, however, tell a different story.

This whole situation will have to be examined, presumably by the state comptroller. Even if there are "only" matters of ethics at play here, we seem to have before us a heap of problems and transgressions that could cost Mr. and Mrs. Netanyahu thousands of dollars, out of pocket, which they will be compelled to return somehow to the state's coffers.