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Speech-Gate Won’t Dethrone Benjamin Netanyahu — But Bottle Deposits Might

It’s been a month since Benjamin Netanyahu first infuriated the White House by accepting a Republican invitation to address Congress and attack the president’s Iran policy. A month in which American Middle East watchers have been asking anyone they could find whether the resulting chill in U.S.-Israeli relations would hurt the Israeli prime minister in his upcoming reelection bid.

Now we have an answer. Threatening relations with Israel’s most important ally hasn’t damaged Netanyahu’s reelection prospects. But his wife’s habit of recycling state-owned soda bottles from the official residence and pocketing the deposit money just might be his undoing.

Daily polling has shown Netanyahu’s Likud consistently running neck-and-neck since December with its main rival, the alliance between the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. Each gets around 20% of the popular vote, roughly 24 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Every time one pulls ahead of the other by a seat or two it generates banner headlines, yet the shifts remain within the margin of error and the advantage shifts back and forth every few days. The election is scheduled for March 17.

Regardless of who comes out ahead on election day, neither party can govern unless it can control at least 61 Knesset seats. That requires forming a coalition with several of the nine smaller parties. If anything, the feud with the White House has strengthened the swing-party leaders’ pro-Netanyahu leanings. Their voters dislike President Obama and thrill at the prime minister’s defiance.

The crisis erupted January 21. That day House Speaker John Boehner announced that Netanyahu had accepted his invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress and discuss the Iranian nuclear threat. The previous evening Obama had warned in his State of the Union address that he would veto impending legislation to stiffen economic sanctions on Iran. The Netanyahu speech was meant to build support for the bill, with an eye to overriding the veto.

The White House says the bill would cause Iran to abandon the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations and resume full-scale uranium enrichment, which it agreed to limit during negotiations. The West agreed to ease sanctions at the same time. Iran sees the bill as violating that tradeoff.

The bill’s supporters say the new sanctions wouldn’t violate the deal because they’d only take effect if there’s no agreement by the talks’ deadline. But that’s not Netanyahu’s argument. He insists the agreement on the table is a disaster that leaves Iran capable of building a bomb, putting Israel under mortal threat.

The talks have a preset March 24 deadline to reach a general outline of a deal. Hence Netanyahu’s sense of urgency.

The Obama administration, beyond its resentment at Netanyahu’s intervention in the delicate negotiations, views the speech as a naked political ploy. It sees Republicans aiming to embarrass the White House and Netanyahu seeking to boost his reelection prospects by appearing as a world statesman just before the polls open.

That suspicion was only strengthened when the speech was moved from its initial date, February 11, to March 3, two weeks before the Israeli election.

The administration apparently hoped its furious response to the planned speech would hurt Netanyahu with voters. But despite enormous Israeli press coverage of the feud, the polls haven’t budged. The reason, Israeli observers say, is that Netanyahu voters admire him for having the guts to stand up to a hostile world. Obama is unpopular with Israeli voters, who seem to lean toward blaming the American president rather than the Israeli prime minister.

Even the fact that the speech actually backfired, chasing hawkish Democrats away from the bill and killing hopes of a veto override, hasn’t dented Netanyahu’s popularity with his base. The complications of international diplomacy are hard to follow, but Netanyahu’s defiance resonates.

As for the so-called Bottlegate scandal, it had even less impact when it first surfaced in a television news report January 29. It’s one of several cases of petty misconduct, profligate spending and mismanagement within the prime minister’s official residence, all detailed in an unreleased investigation by the State Comptroller that was leaked to Channel 10. The news generated outrage among liberal voters, but initially it didn’t affect the polls.

Then, on February 17, embarrassed by the report that he’d been sitting on the investigation since last summer, the comptroller finally released his findings. Beyond allegations of Netanyahu family extravagance, several items in the report have been forwarded to the attorney general for criminal investigation.

The criminal allegations involve piddling sums, totaling thousands of shekels, not millions. The recycled bottles are said to have netted a princely $6,000 over four years. In an equally trifling case, Sara Netanyahu allegedly bought a set of garden furniture for the official residence that’s identical to a worn-out set at their private home, then swapped the two.

Hard-core loyalists call it a witch-hunt, but the base is shaking. In a poll released February 18 on Army Radio, 22% of Likud voters said they were less likely to vote Likud as a result of the findings. That’s enough to put Labor solidly on top.

Now it’s up to the attorney general to decide whether to file charges. As the comptroller wrote in his report, quoting the Talmud, “the law of a farthing is like the law of a fortune,” meaning a small theft is still a theft. Israelis admire a tough guy, but they’ll balk at electing an accused felon.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected]

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