Israel’s Netanyahu Battered by Scandals, High Living Costs

The prime minister’s spending habits and disregard of cost-of-living issues could cost him the election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a meeting with the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, January 20, 2012
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a meeting with the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, January 20, 2012 (D. Myles Cullen)

With polls predicting a narrow victory for his left-wing rivals in an election next week, it seems Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s magic may have worn off.

The Likud party leader called snap elections in December, hoping for a fresh mandate after spending nine years in power.

Now it seems Israelis would rather make a change at the top and much of it has to do with Netanyahu’s personality.

Many saw his speech before the American Congress last week, in which Netanyahu warned about the danger a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Jewish state, as an election stunt that was designed more to shore up his popularity than to effectively assist the campaign against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In addition to accusations that the prime minister is reckless with Israel’s strategic relations, criticism of his — and his wife’s — personal conduct has also emerged.

The revelation in 2013 that the couple had a double bed installed on the plane flying them to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London — a mere four-hour flight — irked many Israelis.

Then there was the odd revelation that Sara Netanyahu deposited empty bottles paid for by the prime minister’s office and pocketed the cash herself.

The Netanyahus’ hedonist image was further reinforced by reports that they paid nearly $5,000 for a breakfast feast with American dignitaries at a time when many Israeli are struggling to make ends meet.

Former employees have also been complaining of mistreatment at the hands of Sara Netanyahu. One, a former caretaker in the prime minister’s residence, has made more serious allegations, saying Netanyahu illegally requested the state treasury to cover his personal expenses.

Netanyahu might have been able to dismiss these reports as politically-motivated and altogether irrelevant except Israel’s state comptroller also concluded that the Netanyahus’ expenses were excessive and improper after scrutinizing their finances.

The various affairs have made the couple seem spoiled and detached from the daily financial hardships of ordinary Israelis; a public image opposition parties are only too keen to exploit. Former finance minister Yair Lapid, whose dismissal in December triggered Tuesday’s election, has been the most vocal in criticizing the prime minister’s spending habits.

In light of this, it is hardly surprising that the most recent opinion polls give Netanyahu’s Likud barely twenty seats, an historic low for a ruling party. 61 seats are needed for a majority.

Netanyahu has responded by accusing Israel’s largest daily newspaper of siding with his rivals out of economic self-interest and personal enmity.

On Saturday, he raised the specter of a global conspiracy to remove him, telling Channel 2 television there was a “huge international effort, with major money, that is partnering up with leftist organizations here and also with media figures in order to bring down the Likud government.”

If Netanyahu does end up losing this election, it will not just be because relations with the United States — Israel’s most important ally — have deteriorated, nor because the public increasingly sees him as a petty politician rather than a responsible leader. Rather, it will be because Netanyahu failed to solve what is the priority issue in Israeli politics: the high costs of living.

This has been a major source of contention in Israeli politics for the last two years. Nearly a million people took to the streets in the summer of 2011 to protest the financial difficulties many Israelis (especially young families) face, despite the fact that the Israeli economy has emerged relatively unscathed — and has even strengthened in many respects — from the global economic crisis.

Rising living costs helped Lapid win a staggering nineteen seats in the last election. His party, Yesh Atid, was founded on a pledge to bring down prices for the Israeli middle class.

Kulanu, a new centrist party established by Likud dissident Moshe Kahlon, is also basing its campaign on the issue.

In an attempt to shift the blame for the situation, Netanyahu suggested that Lapid’s ineptitude and inexperience were to blame for the government’s failure to bring down house prices. But it seems most Israelis don’t buy this argument.

To stay on as prime minister, Netanyahu needs to not only overcome his battered public image but convince voters that he is after all the best man to repair the relationship with the United States, stand up to Iran and alleviate the soaring costs of living — a plan he has failed to present in four months of campaigning and is unlikely to unveil days before the election.

Can Netanyahu pull it off against all odds? Stranger things have happened in Israeli politics but a Netanyahu defeat has never seemed more likely either.

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