Israel's 34th government.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might recently have strengthened his Knesset majority with Yisrael Beytenu’s joining the coalition, his stature as the country’s leader is becoming weaker every day.
In some respects, this is inevitable. In every Western democracy, once a leader spends over a decade in power (either through consecutive election wins like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or Angela Merkel, or cumulatively as in Netanyahu’s case), the country eventually tires of them. Thatcher was pushed out of office by her own members of parliament, who felt her hardline image would cost the Conservative Party the next election; Blair, worn down by the Iraq War and internal party sniping, went of his own accord, while Merkel is no longer secure in her position of “Mutti,” the mother of the German nation, as mass immigration begins to change the face of modern Germany.
Israel, too, is tiring of Netanyahu and, it has to be said, his footlight-hogging wife.
The long-running soap opera concerning the unbecoming behavior of Mrs. Netanyahu is no longer a matter of tittle-tattle in the press, but a series of court cases in which former employees at the Prime Minister’s Residence have successfully sued for suffering emotional and verbal abuse at the hands of Sara Netanyahu.
With the police recommending last month that Sara stand trial on graft allegations, accusing her of improper behavior and misuse of state funds relating to the Prime Minister’s Residence, including receiving goods under false pretenses, falsifying documents and breach of trust, the Netanyahus’ home life is going to remain under unpleasant scrutiny for weeks to come.
And their behavior while on public duty is hardly any better. A five-day trip to the United States last year cost the Israeli taxpayer a staggering NIS 6.7 million ($1.73m.), a sum which Netanyahu tried to hide from public scrutiny.
Once the cost ($1.5m.) of the specially chartered flight is stripped out, the remaining expenses are eye-watering.
Netanyahu’s carefully coiffed hair cost you and me $1,600, while his make-up assistant artist charged $1,750. And rather than meet his guests at the Israeli consulate in New York, Netanyahu insisted on having his hotel rooms refitted into meeting rooms, at the cost of almost $20,000.
We’ve been here before with the Netanyahus and their flagrant abuse of the public purse (pistachio ice cream anybody?) and it hasn’t cost him an election, but now his image as a strong leader, who knows what’s best for the country’s future, is also coming under increasing attack.
THE DEVASTATING critiques of Netanyahu’s leadership from former defense ministers and ex-chiefs of general staff Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon last week landed a critical blow on the prime minister’s standing. While the motives of both Barak and Ya’alon can be questioned, given that the two of them were previously happy to serve under Netanyahu, their assessments, each in their own style, of where Netanyahu is leading the country were laser-accurate.
Barak’s warning that the most rightwing government in the country’s history has a covert agenda to make the two-state solution untenable, leading either to an apartheid state or a binational one in which Jews face being the minority within a generation or two is a stark statement of the facts. Ya’alon’s description of a government taken over by a “fanatical core group with a radical ideology” that freely attacks the Supreme Court, the freedom of expression and other principles of democracy also hits the mark. And when a former Israeli prime minister talks, as Barak did, of “budding fascism” stalking the country, it’s time to pay attention.
The problem is, neither Barak nor Ya’alon are in a position to bring down Netanyahu in the immediate to near future – nor is anybody else. On the same day that they launched their broadsides against the prime minister, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog also blasted the government, sarcastically calling out “Naftali ‘Batman’ Bennett” and “Popeye Liberman.”
But despite his rhetorical ammunition, Herzog is a spent weapon. His fateful decision to negotiate with Netanyahu about joining his government has neutered the Labor leader as a potential prime ministerial rival. Nothing Herzog says or does from now on in opposition to Netanyahu will be taken seriously, given the eagerness he showed to crawl into the coalition.
Netanyahu is vulnerable, both on a personal level and in terms of a growing aware ness that he’s leading this country to disaster. The challenge facing those in the Center and the Left is to find a candidate with the ability to energize the electorate and bring the prime minister down, before it’s too late. Herzog has blown his opportunity.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.