Netanyahu’s First Anniversary

As the first anniversary of Binyamin Netanyahu\'s election as prime minister approached this week, Israel looked back on a tumultuous year in which the public was more sharply divided and over a wider span of issues -- political, social, and religious -- than ever before.
May 29, 1997

As the first anniversary of Binyamin Netanyahu’s election as prime minister approached this week, Israel looked back on a tumultuous year in which the public was more sharply divided and over a wider span of issues — political, social, and religious — than ever before.

Netanyahu reached the prime ministry as a novice. Young, energetic, and generous with promises of changes in Israel’s way of life and outlook — particularly the pursuit of excellence and the “Americanization” of the economy and system of government — he generated great expectations among large sectors of the population. But the bottom line at the end of his first year is a sharp sense of disappointment, more in the man than in his policies.

Perhaps the clearest indication of that mood is the results of a Gallup poll published in Ma’ariv on the occasion of Netanyahu’s first anniversary in office. It shows that a full 62 percent (vs. 31 percent) of the population is dissatisfied with the prime minister’s performance as a whole; almost two-thirds of the public (65 percent vs. 21 percent) are dissatisfied with his performance in the sphere of administration and public probity; and 52 percent of the electorate (vs. 29 percent) believes that the former (Labor) government was better than the present one.

Netanyahu ran on an aggressive platform promising “peace with security.” Today, the sense of pessimism that has overtaken Israel is reflected in the finding that a majority of the public (56 percent) believes there is a greater chance that Israel will go to war with the Arabs than make peace with them (23 percent).

Upon being elected, Netanyahu promised to work toward national unity by being the prime minister of “all the people.” But, today, 56 percent of the population (vs. 28 percent) believes that in the course of his tenure, Israeli society will be marked more by growing division than by enhanced unity. Finally, and perhaps most instructive, the Israeli electorate ranked Netanyahu in 16th place among his 18 ministers (with a rating of 5.6 out of 10). If elections were held today, the Gallup poll showed, Labor’s Ehud Barak would defeat Netanyahu by 5 percentage points.

Cited as Netanyahu’s main accomplishments this year are his massive budget cut, at the start of his term, and progress in the sphere of privatization. However, the litany of his failures dominates the year in review. Chief among the criticisms has been Netanyahu’s failure to bring “excellence” to government. He was blocked in his attempt to appoint “professional” (rather than politically dictated) ministers to the Finance and Justice ministries. His choice of officials and advisers has been widely questioned (due largely to their lack of experience). And his short-lived appointment of party hack Ronni Bar-On as attorney-general was an outright disaster that culminated in a legal scandal (whose final resolution remains in the hands of the High Court of Justice).

On top of that, Netanyahu virtually declared war on the country’s “elites,” especially those entrenched in public service (e.g., the Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and defense forces) but proved incapable of replacing them with qualified alternatives. The confusion resulting from his habit of simply bypassing the establishment’s professionals, as well as his own ministers, has resulted in a swarm of pointed barbs, even from within the Cabinet itself. Trade and Commerce Minister Natan Sharansky characterized Netanyahu’s amateur style of management as a “circus,” and, after the Bar-On fiasco, Netanyahu was forced to consent to the establishment of a ministerial committee to review the method of appointments.

A second prominent trait receiving much attention is the prime minister’s personal knack for alienating key partners and supporters by demonstrating insensitivity and failing to keep promises. Considerable grumbling has come out of the Likud itself on his score, mostly related to broken promises of political appointments. On the other side of the ocean, the rift between Netanyahu’s government and the Conservative and Reform sectors of the American-Jewish community, over the Conversion Bill, is virtually unprecedented in the history of the state. But perhaps the most disturbing instances of this syndrome have occurred with Israel’s partners to the peace process in the Arab world and beyond.

Both Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein have chastised Netanyahu for misleading them and thus damaging the trust so focal to relations between national leaders. It’s hardly necessary to elaborate on the grim state of relations between Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat. Washington has been yet another source of messages of impatience and discontent, especially after Netanyahu ignored American advice not to build on Har Homa. Not only has Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made it clear that she will not visit the region until a formula can be found to resume the peace talks, this week a high-ranking American official threatened that the United States would pull back from its mediation effort altogether.

Thus, despite stumbling his way through much of his first year in office, Netanyahu has scored a major achievement, from his standpoint. “One would have to be an idiot . . . not to see the long list of failures for which Netanyahu is responsible,” wrote Ma’ariv columnist Yosef (Tommy) Lapid last week. “But on the key issue on which he is being judged, Netanyahu has achieved what he wanted . . . He has frozen the peace process, which in his eyes, and in the eyes of his voters, is a recipe for national destruction. . . . He can’t boast about his achievement publicly, because vis-á-vis the world at large, and the Americans in particular, he is committed to carrying out the Oslo agreement. . . . [Yet] what is happening today is what a small majority of Israelis and a great majority of Jews decided upon a year ago.”

That, however, was a year ago. Now, as Israel sinks deeper into diplomatic isolation, enjoying neither peace nor enhanced security, while unemployment rises and the economy flags, far more than the 0.7 percent of the electorate that handed Netanyahu his victory last year has given him a bad report card. He has admitted to making mistakes and pledged to mend some of his ways. Whether and how he will keep that promise remains to be seen.

Approval Rating

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s approval rating after one year in office, according to a Gallup/Ma’ariv poll of Jewish Israelis, is at 31 percent. The following is a sampling of questions from the poll:

Results drawn from a sampling of 491 individuals from adult Israeli Jews. Sampling Error: 4.5 percent.

* Are you satisfied with Binyamin Netanyahu’s performance in general:

31 percent satisfied

62 percent not satisfied

7 percent undecided

* Which government is better, the current one or the previous one:

29 percent current

52 percent previous

19 percent undecided

* Do you prefer Netanyahu’s government to continue its tenure until the year 2000, or to move up elections:

42 percent until 2000

49 percent move up elections

9 percent undecided

(Netanyahu voters:

70 percent until 2000

22 percent move up elections

Peres voters:

11percent until 2000

84 percent move up elections)

All rights reserved by author, 1997.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Courting the Antisemitic Vote

We’re accustomed to politicians courting the Black Vote, or the Jewish Vote, or the Youth Vote. But what about the Antisemitic Vote?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.