One-note Netanyahu goes totally tone deaf

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not having a good election.

Recent polls show his right-wing Likud Party running neck-and-neck with the left-of-center Zionist Union, or in some cases, running behind.

His numbers took a hit after Netanyahu was served with a damning report in which Israel’s state comptroller slammed him for excessive expenditure of public funds at his official residence. The report, which was in the works before elections were announced, has been turned over to the attorney general for investigation of possible criminality.

Among the allegations: over $2,000 spent every month cleaning the Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea, where the family is rarely present, and a pattern of not refunding staff for costs incurred at the personal request of the Netanyahus.

Netanyahu’s response was to blame MennyNaftali, his former household manager for the debacle. Naftali has an elite military background and has passed innumerable security screenings. Last year, he became the last of a long line of staffers to sue the Netanyahus over an allegedly abusive work environment. The charges include verbal abuse, overtime without appropriate compensation and such capricious treatment as a 3 a.m. phone call from Sara Netanyahu — the prime minister’s wife — who was upset that her milk was in a bag, not a carton.

On Wednesday, another previously planned comptroller’s report was issued, on Israel’s housing crisis. It outlined years of lackadaisical policies and negligence during which time the cost of housing shot up 36 percent.

Netanyahu’s response to the stinging critique was to avoid the issue entirely, instead strikinghis campaign’s singular note, Iran: “When we talk about housing costs and cost of living, I never forget life itself. The biggest challenge of our lives is preventing Iran from going nuclear.”

Batya Giladi, an Israeli blogger, retorted “Tomorrow, when the bank manager calls, I will very politely tell her that I don’t forget life itself and the real dangers we face: Iran.”

Giladi was reflecting Israelis’ growing impatience with Netanyahu and his singular focus on Iran.

Netanyahu is scheduled to lay his arguments against Iran directly in front of the U.S. Congress Tuesday. Planning for the speech was done behind the Obama administration’s back, directly between Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner. And it’s no coincidence it happened that way: The address marks Netanyahu’s latest effort to shut down the nuclear negotiations with Iran that President Barack Obama has strongly backed.

Israelis appear to be sick and tired of the whole song and dance, and even operatives from Netanyahu’s own party, Likud, are starting to vent their frustration. Atilla Somfalvi, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 10 news, disclosed that a “senior Likud official” had told him the election “is headed in the wrong direction.” Netanyahu has refused to engage with the press since early January.

Netanyahu has dominated the political landscape for a generation. Yes, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and even Ehud Barak held office, but for nine out of the last 20 years, Netanyahu has prowled Jerusalem’s corridors of power like no other.

Never beloved, he has been respected, even feared. But the political animal seems to have changed his spots and the current campaign reveals a candidate who is out of sorts, press-averse, reactive, over-sensitive and buffeted by a tempest of bad news that may vanquish his political machine.

Noga Tarnopolsky has two decades of experience covering international politics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, The Washington Post and El País, among others.

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