Even Before a Single Budget Cut Is Carried Out, Lapid Loses Trust and Affection of Much of His Electorate

As a Haaretz-Dialog poll taken earlier this week demonstrates, the finance minister's only ray of light is that his party, Yesh Atid, would score the same number of seats if the elections were held today.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

“Whether you agree with me or not, you know you can believe me,” Yair Lapid wrote in one of his recent posts on Facebook. Advanced autosuggestion. In no time at all, he had lost his major assets: the credibility and trust of the Israeli voter.

A Haaretz-Dialog poll − under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs from the department of statistics of Tel Aviv University − whose results appear here, was conducted at the beginning of the week amid the government’s budget discussions. Two months after the formation of the government, it seems that the novice politician Lapid is at a popularity nadir. No cut has yet been implemented, and Israelis will not feel the full brunt of the blow until August, when the budget passes the Knesset, and perhaps more tellingly around the family Rosh Hashanah meal.

Lapid has no reason to look toward a more hopeful future, according to the poll. Nothing good looms there for him. He has crashed across the board: 1. No one believes him, no one buys his statements about the present situation or his forecasts about the state of the economy a year down the line. 2. Even before the hammer blow has landed, much of the public feels that the time has come for a new round of social protest like that in the summer of 2011. 3. Satisfaction with the performance of the former golden boy is nonexistent; only 10 percent of respondents think he is suitable to be prime minister. For the first time in many months, Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich has passed him by in that category ‏(15 percent‏), though both have to swallow the dust Netanyahu leaves in his wake, with 52 percent thinking he is suited to his job.

Lapid’s only ray of light in the poll is the fact that it gives his party, Yesh Atid, almost the same number of seats it now has, were a new election to be held today: 18 vs. the present 19. However, after the January election, Yesh Atid had soared to a popularity level equivalent to 24 seats in the polls ‏(referring to those conducted by Prof. Fuchs‏). At the time, voters from Likud backed Lapid, but now they have gone back to their mother party. Lapid may well feel the impact of deserting supporters later in the year, when “Riki Cohen” and her working friends buckle under the burden.

In addition, only two-thirds of those who voted for Yesh Atid in January say they would do so again. Most of those jumping ship say that if an election were held today, they would vote for Likud ‏(15 percent‏) or Labor ‏(14 percent‏). At the same time, Lapid has picked up the support of voters from other parties, a total of 5-6 percent, including two seats from Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. That party would lose two full seats to Yesh Atid, without compensation from any other party.

Enlightened dictatorships

In May last year − after Netanyahu was humiliated by the representatives of the far right at the Likud convention − he moved quickly to co-opt Kadima, headed by MK Shaul Mofaz, into the coalition. The election the prime minister had planned for September 2012 was canceled. At the sight of the surprising political romance between Netanyahu and Mofaz, many in the political world believed that another “big bang” was at hand: a union between a sane Likud, without Moshe Feiglin and his kind, and Kadima, leading to the creation of a large center-right bloc that would confront the left. Those hopes were shattered within two months by the dispute over the issue of the draft of the ultra-Orthodox. At the moment of truth, Netanyahu chose his natural partners − Shas and United Torah Judaism − and the government fell apart.

Now Netanyahu is again contemplating the idea of a second big bang. He has shared his thoughts with ministers and people close to him. The idea is to reprise the dramatic move undertaken by Ariel Sharon in November 2005: to split off from the party with a large group of ministers and MKs, and create a new party, leaving Likud with Feiglin, Danny Danon, Miri Regev and all that jazz.

Netanyahu drew a couple of lessons from the last election: that Likud is no longer such a potent brand, and that the public does not necessarily admire democratic parties that choose their representatives in primaries. More than half the present MKs were chosen by their party leader or by a rabbi or an “arrangements committee.” Indeed, parties that are considered innovative and “connected” with the younger generation, like Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and Hatnuah, are run as enlightened dictatorships. Ironically, Likud and Labor, which meticulously follow every possible democratic procedure, with institutions and constitutions and central committees and party courts, are perceived as moldy dinosaurs.

Likud won just 20 seats ‏(without Yisrael Beiteinu‏), and Yesh Atid won 19. Netanyahu is envious of Lapid and Bennett. He dreams of being The Leader and of deciding by himself the list of Knesset candidates he will head in the next election. He is convinced that a list carefully selected by him will score a resounding success. But he also knows that the Likud convention will not allow him to scrap the primary. He is their captive, and no king likes to be a captive.

To pull off a Sharon-type ploy, Netanyahu needs to spearhead a daring political-diplomatic move ‏(there are signs that he is planning something, though it’s too soon to say‏), so as to gain the support of the centrist voters. He’s not there yet. Sharon, too, wasn’t there at the outset of his second term.

In the meantime, chaos reigns supreme in Likud. A new director general has not yet been appointed. Candidates for the municipal elections, to be held in five months, have not yet been chosen. At the same time, the Likud convention, which Netanyahu wanted to convene in November, after the municipal elections, will be held against his will next month, by court order. The convention is the equivalent of a loose cannon. Netanyahu is worried about losing control and suffering public humiliation. When he talks to his ministers about a possible split and they do not keep the news to themselves, he might be trying to get a message across to the convention delegates: If you guys don’t behave yourselves, I’m outta here.

Elephant in the room

The atmosphere in the political-security cabinet, which met Sunday to discuss the defense budget, was far from festive. Among themselves, the ministers grumbled about the parameters of the state budget, and about the agreement between Lapid and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini.

It was none other than Yair’s bro, Naftali Bennett, the minister of economy and trade, who gave sharp voice to these feelings. “There is an elephant in this room,” Bennett said. “The elephant goes by the name of the agreement with Ofer Eini. In my opinion, we need to reopen the agreement with him.” Bennett then added a few more remarks in the same critical spirit. Netanyahu, whose nerves jangle almost audibly every time he sees Bennett at the cabinet table, nodded in affirmation. “If it were up to me,” he said, I would have got a lot more out of Eini.” Lapid said nothing.

Netanyahu invited former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to the cabinet meeting, even though he is not a member of this forum. Steinitz delivered a very long speech in his capacity as an expert on the defense budget. By now everyone knows, even in Europe, that the affable philosopher left behind him ‏(thanks to the minister for economic strategy, whose initials are BN‏) massive economic wreckage, a huge budgetary hole and plenty of poor people. “It was macabre,” one minister said afterward. “Who will Netanyahu invite to give us a talk about managing an unplanned war? Amir Peretz?”

After the meeting, Lapid said to an interlocutor, “Why in the world did he invite that guy? Next time, I’m inviting Jacob Perry. He understands 40 times more than Steinitz about security.”

The cabinet met the next day to approve the budget. Veteran ministers who have already seen one or two or four budget meetings related that unlike previous meetings, when Netanyahu functioned as the navigator and final decision-maker, this time he moved aside and let Lapid show his stuff. The ministers asked themselves whether he took this stance because he wanted to let Lapid stew in his own juices, or because he knows that the bastards changed the rules and that every trick at Lapid’s expense will rile only him, and that it’s just not smart to mess with a party leader who commands 19 seats.

Privately public

The private home of Bibi and Sara is located on one of the finest streets of luxurious Caesarea. It’s a spacious house with a garden and a swimming pool. The couple and their two sons sometimes spend the weekend and holidays there. They do not host foreign leaders, cabinet ministers or coalition members there; this is a “private” home in the full sense of the word. Informed sources say that this is at Sara’s insistence. If her husband wants to hold working meetings during the weekend, he crosses the street with his legion of bodyguards, and ensconces himself for a few hours in a special room reserved for him in the home of his neighbor and friend, Leon Edry, one of the owners of Cinema City. Before the two grew close, Netanyahu used to hold weekend working meetings in the nearby home of the film producer Yoram Globus, or in a suite rented for him in the Dan Caesarea Hotel. Sara is very strict about placing a barrier between the official residence and the private villa.

That is, until it comes to paying for it. At this point the privacy disappears and the cozy family nest becomes public property. The state paid NIS 318,000 for maintaining the home in Caesarea in 2012 − NIS 26,500 a month for the upkeep of a house that is empty most of the year and that has no official function when it is occupied. Anyone who has the good fortune to live in a private home can only imagine what can be done with NIS 26,500 a month.

What in the hell are they spending the money on there − and in the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem? Really, how much makeup can you put on? How much can you comb your hair or get dressed? Who’s living in these homes? Charles and Camilla? Brad and Angelina? Or Bibi and Sara?

The basic question is why the state has to underwrite a home that is entirely private. Who signs the authorization, year after year after year? And why do the outlays keep growing exponentially? The sum of NIS 1,209,000 was paid for the cleaning of the official residence in Jerusalem. That borders on obsession. Leaders around the world, in countries no less developed than Israel, pay their private expenses from their own pocket. But the officials here know that if one of them dares ask the Netanyahus to pay even a fraction of their private maintenance, or reduce the outlays a little − his life will be at risk.

Barack Obama pays for the food that he and his wife and their two daughters consume in their private wing in the White House. And anyone who wants to learn about the way of life of the prime minister of wealthy Denmark is invited to watch the excellent Danish series “Borgen,” which is broadcast in Israel on satellite television. It wouldn’t hurt Bibi and Sara to have a look now and then, either.

The people don't believe Yair Lapid.
Yair Lapid this week. Has no reason to look toward a more hopeful future, according to the pollCredit: Emil Salman
This Haaretz-Dialog poll was conducted on May 12, among 518 respondents who constitute a representative sample of the population. Sampling error for each question 4.3%.

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