Tel Aviv Diary: Netanyahu's Big-Spending Ways

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Will Israelis vote for security or prosperity? Abir Sultan/Reuters

According to a poll released Monday, 67 percent of Israelis expect that Benjamin Netanyahu will be Israel's next prime minister.

However, that was Monday—before a scathing report was released by the state comptroller detailing the mismanagement of expenses in the Netanyahu residence (including some actions which may have been criminal).

The report reveals that Netanyahu and his wife spent money in a wasteful manner and mismanaged their household budget in ways the average Israeli will find hard to understand. The state comptroller announced:

In light of the considerable drop in the Netanyahu household expenditures in 2013, it can be determined that the expenditures of the Prime Minister, his family, and guests at the official residence—especially in 2010 and 2011, and to a lesser extent also in 2012—did not meet a single criteria of the basic principles of proportionality, reasonableness, economy and efficiency.

Despite the statement above, along with many other harsh accusations that have come to light, if a poll was taken tomorrow, most voters would still likely say they believe Netanyahu will be the next prime minister. The state comptroller's report shows just how detached Netanyahu is from the day-to-day life of the average Israeli—his spending habits are a direct reflection of that fact. However, Netanyahu supporters have all taken that into account. The prime minister has never run as "a man of the people." He parachuted into Israeli politics after living many years in the United States and after having served as Israel's U.N. ambassador—clearly not the image of a man of the people. As such, while today's revelations will certainly not help him, they will undoubtedly not hurt Netanyahu in any significant way either.

Netanyahu has staked his claim for re-election on one issue, and that is—security. His campaign has been cleverly designed to exploit the fears held by almost every Israeli, i.e. that nearly everyone around us wants to kill us. According to the line advanced by the prime minister, he is the only thing standing between the average Israeli and the arrival of ISIS inside our borders.

That was the definitive assumption behind the widely viewed Likud video showing ISIS members requesting directions to Jerusalem, in which the ISIS members are told to "turn left." It remains to be seen how effective Netanyahu's campaign of fear will be.

There are those who identify with the views outlined by the Kulanu party head—,former Likud member Moshe Kachlon. When asked who he would support to form the next coalition, Kachlon repeatedly stated he would support any candidate who agreed to implement his plans for lowering the cost of living here.

When pressed regarding how he, a former member of the Likud party, could think of supporting the Left, his answer was invariably, "When the day comes that there is indeed a partner for peace we can discuss it." However, since it is unlikely that there will be a partner in the near term, we cannot enslave ourselves to the issue of peace and who is more likely to give away territory.

In the meantime, the election campaigns have picked up steam.The Labor party has reorganized its campaign efforts. Observers believe Labor has begun turning out more effective ads and seems to be improving its ground initiatives.

Polls published in the last few days show the Likud losing support. The two last polls show the Zionist Camp (formerly Labor) with a one mandate advantage over the Likud. It is unclear what factors contributed to that shift.

One big unknown remains what effect the controversy surrounding Netanyahu's speech to the congress is having on the poll results and what impact it will have on the election. The Central Elections Committee ruled yesterday that the prime minister's speech to congress may be broadcast in Israel with a five-minute delay, in order to eliminate any campaigning that might emerge in the speech; Israeli law bars explicit election campaigning during news broadcasts. Critics claim the entire speech is designed solely as a vote-getting ploy by Netanyahu.

Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party is the one party that appears to be gaining in the polls. Lapid has indicated he is very unlikely to enter a coalition with Netanyahu. Based on firsthand experience, Yesh Atid's growing support is due to an aggressive and effective ground campaign.

They are calling individual voters and trying to convince them to vote for the party. They have engaged serious people who are capable of not only reading from a script, but responding to serious questions. In the last election, Lapid's party was the great surprise, garnering considerably more votes than the last poll results indicated. The same thing might happen again.

To the average Israeli—whether he sits here in Tel Aviv or in any other place in the country—the world does indeed look like a very dangerous place. The recent ISIS beheadings of Christians in Libya has been especially disquieting—not due only to their sheer barbarity, but because these victims were beheaded merely because they were non-Muslims. Twice over the course of the past month, Jews were killed in Europe just because they were Jews.

The election on March 17 will largely be determined by one factor: Will Israelis vote based on their fears, or will they vote based on their pocketbooks? Considering the state of the Middle East it would be no surprise if Israelis chose to vote based on their fears. And yet, there has hardly been a time over the course of Israel's 67-year history that the world around it has looked peaceful. Therefore, the election result remains an open question.

Historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com. An archive of his recent reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here.