The PM's mistaken priorities

For the first time in two years, Kadima is ahead of Likud in opinion polls and in a bid to increase his popularity, Netanyahu will take a bold diplomatic step. But the PM is failing to recognize what his constituents really want and why they elected him.

netanyahu livni 248 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
netanyahu livni 248 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is reportedly preparing a new diplomatic initiative. In part, that’s a response to growing international pressure. But according to Hebrew media reports, it’s also a response to his recent plunge in the polls: Netanyahu allegedly hopes a bold diplomatic move will revive his popularity.
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Certainly, media pundits have been telling him for two years now that such a move is his only hope of winning public affection. But it’s a pity he doesn’t listen a bit less to the media and a bit more to his constituents, because his voters are saying something very different. What upsets them isn’t his failure to advance the “peace process” - something they didn’t elect him to do and for which they largely don’t blame him - but his failure to deliver on what they did elect him to do: improve life for ordinary Israelis.
A Geocartography poll in mid-February underscores this point. For the first time in two years, the poll showed the opposition Kadima party comfortably ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud; most previous polls showed Likud beating Kadima. Since it was taken at the height of an international diplomatic assault, when Israel’s self-proclaimed “best friends in Europe” (England, France and Germany) were pushing a UN Security Council condemnation of Israel that was ultimately vetoed, with visible reluctance, by US President Barack Obama, one might reasonably attribute Netanyahu’s drop in the polls to this diplomatic situation.
Except the pollsters troubled to ask respondents what they really cared about, and the results were revealing. The number-one issue was economics, cited by 23% of respondents as their most important consideration in choosing a party - though it would have been the character of the party leader had this not bizarrely been split into two separate items (leadership ability and integrity, cited by 14% and 21%, respectively). Security came next, with 15%. The classic peace-process issue of borders and territory came dead last, with a mere 9%.
Nor is that unusual: As I’ve noted before, domestic issues have topped Israeli voters’ concerns for years. A January 2007 Peace Index poll, for instance, found that voters’ chief concern was governmental corruption, scoring a weighted grade of 31.5 out of 100; making peace with the Palestinians came in fifth, at a mere 10.8. An October 2010 Peace Index survey similarly found that only one-fifth of Jewish Israelis deemed the peace process their chief concern; the other four-fifths chose various domestic issues.
Largely, of course, that’s because most Jewish Israelis don’t think an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is achievable in the near future (two-thirds, according to the October 2010 poll). And those who disagree didn’t vote for Netanyahu. His voters would prefer to focus on problems where progress is achievable, and that directly affect their quality of life: crime, failing schools, poverty, corruption, etc.Indeed, that’s what made him a viable candidate in 2009 despite his poor handling of Israel’s international relations during his first term as premier (1996-99): He had a proven track record of tackling tough domestic issues - especially as finance minister in 2003-05, when the reforms he instituted are widely credited with rescuing Israel from a deep recession, giving it five subsequent years of rapid growth and enabling it to weather the global financial crisis with minimal damage. And he explicitly campaigned on promises of more of the same. He promised to increase competition and reduce the excessive dominance of a few wealthy families, to alleviate poverty by getting more people into the job market, to improve the schools by improving on teacher training and quality, and more.
But what has he done since taking office? Absolutely none of it. Instead, he’s focused all his time and energy on the one thing Israelis didn’t elect him to do: the peace process.
Granted, he faced a real problem: an openly hostile US president who consistently blamed Israel alone for the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks and demanded concessions that endangered Israel’s core negotiating interests. Given the importance of the Israeli-American relationship, Netanyahu had no choice but to devote some time and effort to damage control.
Yet repeated polls show that an overwhelming majority of Israelis recognize Obama’s hostility and blame him, rather than Netanyahu, for the ongoing crisis. Thus while they expected the prime minister to do the minimum necessary to manage the crisis, they didn’t expect him to solve it, anymore than they expected him to solve the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict that provides the pretext for Obama’s hostility.
But in a desperate effort to appease Obama, Netanyahu chose instead to devote virtually all his time and energy to the peace process - with nothing to show for it, of course, since the Palestinians have no interest in actually negotiating. He rarely even talks about anything else. Every other item on his agenda has been sacrificed to this Moloch.
His two biannual budgets, for example, included no significant reforms; instead, they comprise a string of giveaways to various special-interest groups - from yeshiva students to powerful unions (most of which won exorbitant raises from Netanyahu) - aimed at keeping the domestic front quiet while he pursues his obsessive focus on the peace process. And to pay for these giveaways, Netanyahu - the man for whom lowering taxes was a byword - raised everything from value-added tax to the gasoline excise tax, thereby making life even harder for ordinary people just trying to get through the month.
The latest tax hikes were apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back and turned popular sentiment against him. Even his Likud party revolted, and he was forced to rescind the gas tax within weeks of having passed it.
But they are merely symptoms of a much larger problem: Netanyahu betrayed the domestic agenda he was elected to implement in favor of the diplomatic agenda pushed by those who didn’t elect him: the international community and the media. And now, he is paying the inevitable price.   
The writer is a journalist and commentator.