With an election looming, the last thing any politician wants is an expenses scandal. Yet that is exactly what has happened in Israel, where a damning report into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spending has been released, just a month before the election. The report, prepared by Israel’s state comptroller, Yosef Shapira, accuses him of excessive and improper use of public funds. It has been passed to the attorney general to consider whether any laws have been broken.
$0.4m prime minister’s residence’s budget in 2009
$0.8m The budget in 2011
There have been rumours for several years that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, spend excessively and that the costs in the prime minister’s official residence are not properly managed. The report appears to confirm these rumours, finding evidence of huge spending on takeaway food, hairdressing and cleaning. It found that the budget for the prime minister’s residence rose from 1.9 million shekels ($0.4 million) in 2009 to 3.1 million ($0.8 million) in 2011. Among other things, the couple spent 166,000 shekels ($54,880) on make-up and hairstylists 2010 and 2011 alone, which is 2.5 times the official budget.
Shapira said the expenses were “inconsistent with basic principles of proportionality, reasonableness, savings and efficiency”. The allegation of illegal conduct centres on the claim that Sara Netanyahu pocketed money from bottle deposits that were state property, and on claims that garden furniture bought for the official residence was sent to their private home. This follows lurid allegations that Sara was abusive towards staff at the official residence (the Netanyahus strongly deny this).
Currently, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party holds a narrow lead over the centre-left coalition opposing it. With the general election due to take place on 17 March, will these revelations tip the balance away from Likud?
There is no doubt that the claims have the potential to be damaging. One of the key issues in the election campaign is the high cost of living; Israelis who are struggling to make ends meet will not take kindly to the sight of their prime minister living so extravagantly. In Israel, the gap between the richest and poorest is widening every year. Mass protests in 2011 showed how deeply rooted anger about this issue was, and little has been done to enact change since then.
But if there is to be a dramatic electoral fall-out for Netanyahu and Likud, it has yet to emerge. This morning, Israeli Army Radio published a survey into the potential impact of the revelations on voters. In the survey, 41 per cent of respondents said that they were less likely to support Likud now, while 22 per cent of those who said they were Likud voters said they were reconsidering. Yet overall, it doesn’t look that bad for Netanyahu: 49 per cent of general voters and 54 per cent of Likud voters said that the report would not influence their vote.
In response to the allegations, Netanyahu published a video online, in which he said that the report was intended to “distract attention from the true question: who do you want to be leading the state of Israel at this time in the face of all the tremendous challenges?”
Some political analysts have suggested that Netanyahu may be able to use the report in his favour, if he can convince the electorate that he is being unfairly victimised by the press. To those on the Israeli left, this is frustrating: they feel that Netanyahu’s intransigence in negotiations with the Palestinians is creating an eternal status quo and moreover is turning Israel into a pariah state internationally.
There are also concerns about Netanyahu’s continued provocations towards US President Barack Obama. Jeopardising such an important alliance is seen as sheer recklessness. A recent poll found that 66 per cent of Israelis wanted to see him out of office.
Yet for all these concerns, most commentators agree that Netanyahu looks set to win the election on 17 March. Why? Despite the many problems with Netayahu’s rule, many Israelis still view him as the authentic voice of the people, and someone who is guaranteed to defend their interests internationally. Netanyahu is regarded as a fighter, a hardnosed politician who will defend Israel’s security at all costs. And it seems that the opposition has not been as effective as it could be.
Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland noted that the left-wing coalition headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni has fought a lacklustre campaign, and that Herzog “has failed to capitalise on the inequality issue or to channel the public’s deep frustration, despite promoting several leaders of the 2011 protests to Labor’s senior ranks.”
Israel’s proportional system means that there could still be a surprise result, but at present a coalition led by Netanyahu seems most likely. Given the ongoing scandals and widespread disillusionment with aspects of his leadership, this says something about the current priorities in Israeli politics; before political change can come, there must be a change amongst the public.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.