From his heights of happiness at the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed straight into humiliation at home. It was inflicted first by his coalition partners, with respect to approving the Trajtenberg committee's recommendations, and thereafter by the medical interns, who turned him down after he finally deigned to meet with them.
Upon his return two days before Rosh Hashanah, Netanyahu went to his office, received Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg's recommendations for social change and announced that he would have the cabinet approve them as soon as possible. Neither Netanyahu nor Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz had to reserve much of their holiday to acquaint themselves with the 267-page report's conclusions. They knew them in advance and wanted to finish with the report as quickly as possible: to submit it to the cabinet, get its recommendations approved and send it to the Knesset posthaste.
A political source who knows Netanyahu says: "He does not really understand the protest. He is not capable of understanding it, because he has never seen an empty refrigerator. He is certain it's a scheme. That leftists are behind it ... He believes all that nonsense in the newspapers."
The ministers and coalition party leaders have their own agenda. They are appealing to an electorate with a new social consciousness. In this regard, Defense Minister and Atzmaut leader Ehud Barak emerged spotless. He has no voters. He has taken a substantive position, however, by insisting on expanding the budget and opposing any cuts in defense funding.
Meanwhile, the cabinet is supposed to debate the panel's report again Sunday, but Netanyahu's associates say it's not certain a vote would be taken then. They might be trying to lower expectations.
Since the initial meeting with the ministers, Netanyahu has been feeling victimized. He believes he alone behaved responsibly when he sought to get the recommendations approved. He wanted to live up to his commitment to the public. The politicians who torpedoed the move were motivated by foreign, cynical interests: They wanted to come off as more socially minded and thus win points within their party. That's how it is in politics.
Green light, red light
Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, from Yisrael Beiteinu, is party chairman Avigdor Lieberman's man when it comes to economic affairs involving the Prime Minister's Office and the Finance Ministry. Last Wednesday, he spent long hours at the treasury talking with the new budget director, Gal Hershkovitz. On the agenda was the Trajtenberg report. Also on the agenda were Yisrael Beiteinu's requests: relaxing criteria for assisted living and affordable housing, and more benefits for parents with children up to age 3, and for demobilized soldiers.
While in Eilat on ministry business this week, Misezhnikov said in a phone conversation that it would cost about NIS 1 billion to fulfill these requests. "The treasury tells me that all our requests are justified; the question is if there is enough money," he added.
A few days before the traumatic cabinet meeting, Misezhnikov sent a message to Netanyahu in the name of Yisrael Beiteinu, asking that the ministers be given time to study the report. When the prime minister balked, Yisrael Beiteinu announced that its ministers would vote against it.
Stas Misezhnikov, after having studied the report, do you intend to vote for it Sunday?
"Our demands are not coalition-oriented. They are meant for everyone. They are intended to solve the social distress. Trajtenberg's blueprint is good but needs improvements. If we see that they are again trying to get the report approved no matter what, without taking senior coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu into consideration, it won't work. We want them to show consideration for us. If so, not only will the recommendations be approved, they will also pass in the Knesset."
And if not, can they expect a red light?
"That is what you say."
Is the government at risk over the report?
"No. The government will not fall because of the Trajtenberg report."
Similar sentiments are expressed by the Shas party's "economic expert," Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias. The Trajtenberg panel's work is a financial matter, and governments do not fall over money, Atias says.
Some of the recommendations have upset the ultra-Orthodox - with respect to increasing employment, reducing the number of students in kollels (yeshivas for married men ) and the like. Atias, no fool, knows that in order to gain broad support and even bring Netanyahu to his knees, he needs to wave big social banners.
Ariel Atias, if, say, Netanyahu were to remove from the report elements Haredim oppose, would you forgo your demand for public housing legislation?
"You know what? Try me. It's true I am not pleased with what the professor wrote. The people on his committee know nothing about the Haredi street and they effectively formulated a new coalition agreement. But I promise there will be a public-housing law, whether as part of the report or as a private bill in the Knesset's winter session. We will see who objects to it."
How will Shas vote on Sunday?
"Against. Unless Netanyahu retracts his intention to approve the recommendations as a whole."
One way or another, the government will ultimately approve the report. Maybe even next week. To that end, Netanyahu will have to "pay off" one of the coalition partners. Later on, he will doubtless encounter additional obstacles and will have to pay another toll. And what will remain of the recommendations after all this? Only God knows - especially at this time of the year.
The search continues
Netanyahu has three spokesmen, none of whom is a professional; a bureau chief and a chief of staff who devote a lot of time to the first lady's business; a policy adviser; a National Security Council head; and a cabinet secretary. He has not had a political adviser since Shalom Shlomo left a year ago. For more than a month, since Eyal Gabbai's departure, he hasn't had a Prime Minister's Office director general, either.
The director general holds a key national position: He is the director general of all the ministry directors general, and heads the most important governmental committees.
Gabbai led 21 such committees, and announced his resignation more than three months ago. Sinc then, Netanyahu has been unable to find a replacement. It's not clear why. Either the good people don't want to work with him, or he cannot make a decision. At one point he wanted a "technocrat" director general and turned to Amit Lang, a former senior treasury official. Afterward he decided he needed a "political" director general and chose Nahum Langental, a former National Religious Party MK. As of Thursday morning, it was unclear whether Langental was still in the running. If Netanyahu had had a proficient director general and a serious political adviser by his side at the beginning of the week, the whole cabinet debacle might have been averted.
Welcome to politics
Misezhnikov frequently consults with National Students Union head Itzik Shmuli, one of the leaders of the social protest movement. If we were cynical, we would say that he values the students' votes. Shmuli has close ties with Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, who has close ties with Labor Party leader MK Shelly Yachimovich, who has an unofficial alliance with Shas under Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who also talks with Shmuli.
The social protest spawned bizarre alliances, none of them good for Netanyahu. Even if the next election campaign is waged over security issues, the protest will still have an impact at the ballot box.
This week, Shmuli shed his idealist image. He set up a sort of war room and contacted party leaders and a few Likud ministers in an attempt to torpedo Netanyahu's plan to pass the Trajtenberg report. Before the cabinet convened, he knew that Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Atzmaut and the two anti-Netanyahu ministers in Likud - Silvan Shalom and Yossi Peled - would not vote in favor. He wasn't sure about Communications and Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon.
Kahlon was against in the morning, but later was in favor. In the evening, when it turned out that there would not be a vote, he was once more against. The Prime Minister's Bureau is furious with him. He got a second portfolio from Netanyahu (social affairs ) in addition to communications, which he has held since the start of the term. One of Trajtenberg's recommendations is to transfer responsibility for early childhood education from the Social Affairs Ministry to the Education Ministry. Netanyahu is unlikely to keep urging his ministers "to be Kahlons." One was enough for him this week.
Shmuli and Eini spent a lot of time together in the past few weeks. Shmuli was not surprised when Eini suddenly whipped out the problem of employees of outside manpower companies as a reason to consider calling a general strike.
"In the weeks ahead we will try to connect the protest and the trade unions," he says. "That is a worldwide phenomenon, and it will happen here, too. I believe Ofer when he says he is going to wage a dramatic struggle over using contracted, outsourced workers, which will change the whole employment structure. He is telling me he will go all the way. If until now people said the big unions fight only for themselves, we will soon see that they will be fighting for the future of the weakest workers."
Shmuli emphasizes that he is not the Histadrut spokesman. He is still working for the good of Israeli society, he stresses and wants to improve the status of the outsourced workers; he also wants public housing for the disadvantaged. Those who will cooperate with him are welcome to do so. One way or the other, he is already in politics.
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