Sunday 3 April 2011

Bibi Under Fire

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (known as Bibi) is a little more than half-way into his four-year term, after being elected in February 2009. Having established his government and put his policies into place, Bibi has now hit some hard times and is not currently enjoying his most successful period.

The main issues that are currently dogging Bibi took place even before he was re-elected as prime minister. Although these problems are not related to his peformance as prime minister, they are exacerbated by the few successes that Bibi has clocked up as prime minister. He is going through a particularly turbulent patch right now which threatens to undermine the remainder of his term as prime minister. There seems to be a fair chance that he will not be able to recover from the latest attacks on him. There are those who point to his current problems as "mid-term blues", the well-known down period in any leader's term which often hits when he or she reaches the half-way mark. Bibi's current troubles threaten, however, to dog his second two-year period to the extent that they may even hinder his ability to see his term through in its entirety.

The prime minister has never enjoyed a good relationship with Israel's press pack. This strained relationship dates back to his first term as prime minister, and subsequent terms in other ministerial roles such as finance minister. Netanyahu has always felt that the press is after him in some way or another, and the press has always felt that Netanyahu has not been fair to them by not giving them the stories that they need. Bibi does seem to use speeches at public events and other occasions to make significant announcements, thereby avoiding the need to call a press conference and answer journalists' questions. He recently granted an extensive live interview to YouTube as part of its World View Project. Although he was the third world leader to do this following the examples of US President Barak Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, local press point to this as one of the examples of how Bibi denies them the news that they need to stay in business.

Under the circumstances, it came as no surprise when stories were aired recently which painted the prime minister in a less than positive light. Israel's Channel 10 aired a story accusing Netanyahu, his wife Sara and their children of accepting private sponsorship for luxury trips abroad, even after his decision to return to politics as a Member of the Knesset and minister of finance. In a separate story aired on Channel 10, Netanyahu was accused of contravening the campaign funding rules by not declaring all contributions to his primary election campaign in 2005 in accordance with the requirements of the law. Netanyahu responded to these reports by accusing Channel 10 and journalist Raviv Drucker of running a continuous effort over a number of years to besmirch his name and the names of members of his family. He has filed a libel suit against Drucker, the channel and its owners on the story of the campaign funding. The suit alleges that the parties published false information to purposefully damage the prime minister's good name.

Netanyahu has denied receiving privately-funded overseas trips, and has claimed that his trips abroad were funded by organisations which invited him to speak at events to present Israel's case abroad. Sara Netanyahu has also made public comments in an attempt to separately defend her own reputation. She has long been presented publicly as somebody who revels in being the wife of the prime minister for all the privileges and overseas trips that accompany the position. She has emphasized the fact that Bibi is the world's most sought-after speaker on Israeli affairs, and has tried to paint a picture that he is somebody who is really acting in the best interests of Israel and its public image by accepting the speaking engagements abroad. Whether or not Sara Netanyahu is something of a gold-digger as presented in some of the media, there is no doubt that she uses every possible opportunity to travel abroad with her husband and live a life which lacks for nothing. She has, however, used a statement in defending the Netanyahu reputation which rings a little hollow. This is the statement that they have behaved in the same way as others in their position, and she does not understand why they should be singled out for public criticism without including the others whose behaviour they have emulated. It seems to me that the decision to blindly follow the common practices adopted by others, without considering whether these practices are acceptable or not, cannot be reasonably used as justification. This is particularly true when considering the increased scrutiny which the Netanyahus claim to be under. The State Comptroller has already announced that he will be looking into the accusations. This serves to suggest that Netanyahu may well have a case to answer after all.

If these were Bibi's only worries, he may still be in a reasonable situation. The problem is that his concerns are much broader than this. In the 26 months since his election as prime minister, he has relatively little to show in terms of real progress on matters of real importance to Israel and Israelis. Economically, Israel seems to be bumping along following world trends by showing some growth in the economy. Whatever is happening in Israel seems more as a result of external factors, than as a result of government actions. Prices of basic foodstuffs are increasing, housing prices are still increasing and salary levels are not keeping up. This is driving poverty levels up, and satisfaction down. Despite the recent deployment of the Iron Dome defence system, missile attacks from Gaza have continued and even increased. Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remains in the possession of Hamas without any prospects of him being released soon, and Jonathan Pollard continues to languish in an American prisson. The production of nuclear missiles in Iran continues unabated and, perhaps most importantly, the peace process with the Palestinians currently lies in tatters on the floor of the prime minister's office. According to a Smith Research poll sponsored by the Jerusalem Post and published in the Friday edition of its newspaper, nearly half (45%) of Israeli voters hold Netanyahu individually or jointly responsible for the collapse of negotiations with the Palestinians. This is only marginally less than the 53% who hold Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas individually or jointly responsible. What is worse for Bibi is the fact that fully 30% of those who voted for Likud in the last election blame him for being part of the problem with the peace process. A quarter of all voters are undecided as to who is to blame for collapse of peace negotiations. This does not represent a vote of confidence in Netanyahu's efforts. The same poll shows that only 43% of Israeli Jews feel that Netanyahu is performing well (32%) or very well (11%). The remaining 57% believe that his performance to date is poor or very poor.

The winter session of the Knesset has now come to an end, and the Passover holiday is almost upon us. This will come as a welcome break for the embattled Netanyahu camp. The prime minister will need every bit of energy and resilience that he can muster up to navigate through the heat of the summer without losing further ground. The summer promises to be challenging full of controverisal issues. With the winter having produced only 70% of the average rainfall (where 100% is insufficient to provide adequate water for Israel's growing needs), water promises to be one of the critical issues for Bibi to confront. Unrest continues to sweep its way through many countries in the Middle East. While this serves to divert the eyes of the world away from Israel for a short period of time, the changing face of the region presents its own set of challenges for the prime minister and the Israeli government.

If Netanyahu hopes to be in office for a full term of 4 years, he will need to show substantial progress on one or two critical issues to satisfy the Israeli electorate. If he is unable to do so, we will likely be facing a general election in 2012 rather than 2013 as the law requires. The problem with an election in 2012 is that there is no obvious candidate who is positioned to harness the votes of those who would wish to vote against Netanyahu. Israel is sorely in need of an alternative candidate who will not only present Israel's case in the international community, but who can also be trusted by Israeli voters to act selflessly in the interests of the country. At this point in time, no obvious candidate is emerging to fill this position, and this may be Netanyahu's saving grace.

At a time when Israel's position in the international world is under considerable scrutiny and her very existence continues to be under threat, we can ill afford to have a prime minister whose intentions are under question, and whose attention is being diverted elsewhere. Netanyahu needs to refocus his efforts, not only for his own future, but also for the future of Israel.

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