A Bad Week for Bibi

Last week was not particularly auspicious for the nationalist “right” in Israeli politics. It began with the High Court of Justice overturning the decision of the Israeli Elections Committee to ban both Haneen Zoabi, currently running on the United Arab List, and Baruch Marzel, currently number three on the Yachad list, from running for the Knesset.

Approval of the nationalist Marzel, whom the Left regularly labels a “racist,” was cold comfort for the approval of the openly subversive if not traitorous Zoabi, who sees herself not as an Israeli Arab but as a Palestinian nationalist.

The rough week continued with Marzel and Naftali Bennett, the head of the larger nationalist party, HaBayit haYehudi, engaged in a futile and undignified slanging match over who is more nationalistic than whom. The reason the match is futile is that they are both competing for approximately the same pool of voters: every seat gained by the nationalist faction of the Yachad party will come directly from HaBayit haYehudi, and vice versa. It is highly unlikely that any Likud members, and certainly not any members of the so-called chareidi parties, Shas and Yahadut haTorah (who are in competition with the other faction of Yachad), will be won over by such rhetoric.

To understand the rest of the controversy which heated up last week requires a little background.

For years, there have been nasty rumors circulating about the first lady, Sarah Netanyahu, in Israel’s cafes and gossip columns: she is abusive, demanding, hard to work for, a little strange in some of her attitudes, and so on. Last year, two disgruntled former employees of the prime minister’s residence (who are state employees, not personal retainers of the Netanyahu family) brought suit against Sarah, making substantially the same allegations.

What made this suit different, and has caused the Israeli press to dub it “Bottlegate,” was a decision by the Netanyahus to begin redeeming glass bottles of beverages consumed in the PM’s residence rather than throwing them in the trash. As the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

The initial allegation made was that Sarah was keeping the recycling money rather than returning it to the treasury.

The public outcry eventually caused Sarah Netanyahu to write a check for NS 5,000 to the Israeli treasury (roughly $1,300 at the current exchange rate). The plaintiffs claimed that this was only the tip of the iceberg and a much larger sum was involved, on the order of NS 40,000. This is a very substantial sum to the average Israeli, given that the average annual salary in Israel is only about twice that much before taxes.

However, as one Israeli columnist noted, this would mean that some 80,000 bottles would have been emptied during the period in question. Even though nobody had ever accused the Netanyahus of being teetotalers, given the sort of beverages usually sold in glass bottles, that seems a bit much.

The chauffeur, another state employee, then came forward to say that he normally handled the recycling for them, and that it usually amounted to dozen or so shekalim a week. He said that money went straight to petty cash for the residence; Sarah never saw the money directly. This would seem more in line with the NS 5,000 check, and everything is just hearsay, the word of one against the other.

Last week, one of the plaintiffs claimed to have documentary evidence of the misappropriation of the larger sum.

Hot on the heels of this came the state comptroller’s report on the Netanyahus’ spending habits. The report says that the first family has been engaged in excessive spending and high living at state expense. Some highlighted and criticized items: hundreds of thousands of shekalim spent annually on takeaway food, even though the residence employs a cook; excessive spending on the couple’s home in Caesarea, even though it is mostly used on weekends; and the employment of Likud Central Committee member Avi Pachima as a private electrician on weekends and even on Yom Kippur at the Caesarea home. The comptroller also noted an instance in which a staffer had to pay for eye drops for the prime minister and was not paid back. None of this puts the Netanyahus in a positive light.

All this occurred while both the European Union and the U.S. ratcheted up pressure on Israel to re-start talks with the PA. The Obama administration says that it will press for an immediate visit by the new prime minister, whoever it may be, to outline an Israeli plan for getting back to the discussions.

Against this background, here is what the poll numbers looked like as last week closed:

Party                                                  Last week            Previous week

HaMachane haTziyoni                         24                        24

Likud                                                          22                        25 (down from 26 the week before)

HaBayit haYehudi                                 13                        13

Yesh ‘Athid                                               12                       9 (down from 11 the week before)

United Arab List                                     12                      12

Kulanu                                                         8                        7

Shas                                                              7                        8

Yahadut haTorah                                    7                        7

Meretz                                                         6                        5

Yisrael Beytenu                                       5                        5

Yachad                                                        4                        4

A Likud-led coalition is still possible, with Likud, HaBayit haYehudi, Kulanu, Shas, Yahadut haTorah, and Yachad adding up to 61 seats, but this now requires that Yachad not split over joining the coalition. Such a coalition, if Yachad sticks to its nationalistic guns, would put Israel on a direct collision course with the U.S. and EU.

For the first time, the outlines of a possible Leftist coalition appeared, with HaMachane haTziyoni, Yesh ‘Atid, Meretz, and the United Arab List, if Shas were to make good on repeated hints to Likud to not take them for granted as that they could possibly join with the Left. Though participation of the United Arab List would make Shas’ participation unlikely, it is not impossible, and it would give the coalition of the Left 61 seats.