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As Taxes Rise, Bibi’s Popularity Begins To Nosedive

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JERUSALEM – Despite public displays of support for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who recently visited Israel, several local polls show that the Israeli leader is rapidly losing support among his own Likud Party voters. Many of those surveyed believe that his meandering political adventures, as well as his fiscal and social measures, are unfairly burdening the middle class.

Though new elections aren’t scheduled to take place until October 2013, two polls have indicated that Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which polls showed would have garnered as many as 33 seats in May, has now dropped to 28 seats. One poll conducted by the Israeli business daily Globes indicated that the Labor Party, led by Shelly Yachimovich, would win the second largest number of Knesset mandates (19 or 20) if elections were held in the near future. The representation of the centrist Kadima Party, headed by Shaul Mofaz, would drop sharply – from its current 28 seats to approximately seven seats.

Over the past few weeks, Netanyahu has seen his unity government coalition with Kadima collapse after the country’s two largest political parties failed to agree on new conscription legislation that would have replaced the Tal Law. (An agreement would have almost certainly boosted the number of haredim drafted into the IDF or Sherut Leumi, National Service.) Netanyahu’s attempt to persuade seven Kadima Knesset members to bolt from their party and join the Likud faction also failed, after the Israeli leader couldn’t guarantee their electoral certainty ahead of the 2013 elections.

Netanyahu has also endured heavy criticism from both middle-class voters and politicians within his coalition after announcing a series of economic austerity measures. Those actions, to be phased in, include raising personal income taxes, increased gasoline taxes and taxes on fruits and vegetables. The proposed tax hikes are intended to close a widening budget deficit.

The new tax measures were announced as the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that unemployment could rise to eight percent within the next few months, as Israel’s export industry has been hit hard by the recession in Europe. This has resulted in layoffs in the agricultural and food production industries, which rely heavily on orders from EU countries. A 35-40 percent tax is currently imposed on the average Israeli’s income of about $500 (2,000 shekels) per week. That does not include the arnona tax (city/homeowners tax). And on August 1, the price of a gallon of gas rose to nearly eight dollars.

Knesset member Orly Levi-Abekasis, whose Yisrael Beiteinu Party represents the second largest faction in Netanyahu’s coalition government, was highly critical of the Israeli leader’s economic policies.

In an interview with 7 Days, Yediot Aharonot’s weekend supplement, Levi-Abekasis said that the government has squandered taxpayer dollars by quietly paying off large debts incurred by various government and quasi-governmental agencies, including the Jewish Agency. She also said that the Ministry of Finance, headed by close Netanyahu confidante Yuval Steinitz, has hundreds of millions of shekels in its coffers that could be used to improve the lives of many Israelis who have either fallen on hard times or on the verge of economic distress.

Levi-Abekasis’s stinging criticism was prompted in part by the death of Moshe Silman, who immolated himself several weeks ago after complaining that no one within Israel’s bureaucratic social welfare system cared about his deteriorating fiscal and physical health. According to 7 Days, Silman reached out to Levi-Abekasis’s office in March. She recalled that her staff contacted several government agencies to try to assist Silman.

Levi-Abekasis said, “He represented the classic example of how someone can fall between the chairs. Unfortunately, there are 10,000 other people like him who are falling into despair but there are less and less government mechanisms and money to help them. This is a direct result of the policies implemented by the Ministry of Finance and government of Israel.”

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