The protest against housing costs is spreading: The tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard are creeping farther and farther up the street. Disastrously for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the main protest is located in the heart of the country’s media milieu, and is now spreading to Likud cities like Ashkelon, Afula, Sderot, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, Dimona, Nahariya and Netanya.

Even though the vast majority of the people camping out on Rothschild are leftists who never voted Likud in their lives, Netanyahu views the tent-camp protest as his government’s primary problem. He isn’t even pretending to be cool and collected.

Discussion after discussion took place in his bureau this week in an attempt to find a cure for this “affliction,” as he himself termed the housing shortage during Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

His reforms in the Israel Lands Administration and the national planning committees will not bear fruit for two or three years. He wants a quick fix. He has acted swiftly in previous crises: He canceled the VAT on fruits and vegetables, lowered the customs on gasoline, reduced the tax on water. The cottage cheese protest was resolved for him by Tnuva. But with the housing crisis, even if the prime minister finds a winning card, he has no one to strike a deal with. This protest has no leader.

He summoned Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz a few times this week, along with Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, who’s been nagging him about housing costs for the past two years. “Let’s go wild,” Netanyahu told treasury officials. “Let’s think outside the box.”

The budget department’s staff are the least wild people over there. They cling to declarations that the economy is in excellent shape, unemployment is decreasing, and the housing crunch will pass. Steinitz is with them. Netanyahu understands that this is a time for “political economics” that is people-based, while the treasury is fixated on the numbers.

“As opposed to the cottage cheese protest, Netanyahu sees the housing issue as a strategic problem,” a senior government official said this week. “The hardship is genuine. It sprang up in the past few years and exploded on our watch. It is a strategic problem because it affects not only weak population groups, but also the middle class. Working people who serve in the reserves and pay taxes. In fact, the whole nation.”

Netanyahu fueled the protest early on. During the cabinet meeting, he urged the protesters to come to the Knesset the next day and help him push through the rest of the ILA reform.

Since when does a prime minister ask protesters to help with legislation? At midday Monday, as the Likud faction meeting was getting under way, four Bar-Ilan University students entered the room. According to a later Likud communique, “They came to support the prime minister and make sure the Knesset passes his reforms to solve the housing crunch.”

The advisers Netanyahu dispatched hastily to radio stations only caused him damage. The cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, told Army Radio on Tuesday morning, “Anyone who insists on living in the triangle bounded by Golda Square, Habima Square and Rabin Square has a problem.” He told the protesters to move to Lod, a city reeling from crime, unemployment and years of neglect.

It’s not certain that Netanyahu would really want the tent people from Rothschild Boulevard to meet with him in the Knesset. A visitor to their camp encounters quite a few oddballs and anarchists. They are there to stay. The government keeps its distance. Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv’s aggressive mayor, is allowing the apple of his eye to be marred. He’s fine with having anger aimed at Netanyahu − even if protesters are treading on his grass.

Meanwhile, the only politician who is benefiting is political adviser Eldad Yaniv, one of the drafters of “The National Left” treatise, who hasn’t left the boulevard. “This is the poor man’s Woodstock,” he said this week.

Empty threats

“If I were opposition leader, I would ask everyone in the opposition to come to the Knesset on Wednesday, but not to vote against establishing parliamentary inquiry committees into human rights organizations,” MK Roni Bar-On ‏(Kadima‏) said this week. “Let the stench stick to Bibi, because he leads the coalition. Let him deal with it.”

Had the opposition done what Bar-On suggested, the initiatives by MK Fania Kirshenbaum ‏(Yisrael Beiteinu‏) and Danny Danon ‏(Likud‏) would have passed, paving the way for McCarthyist inquests. Netanyahu would have found himself in a tremendously embarrassing position, even if he and most of his ministers had voted against the bill. In another month, the committees, headed by Kirshenbaum and Danon − and bolstered by the Knesset’s looniest MKs − would have met for their first session. The suspect organizations would not have sent any representatives; the “investigators” would sit there, facing international television cameras and delivering militant speeches. The joke would have been entirely on Netanyahu’s coalition.

In any event, the media’s attention was focused on the fierce battle between the prime minister, who brought down the bills, and Avigdor Lieberman, who backed them for all he was worth. Shas chairman Eli Yishai tried to wend his way between the two giants and grab a headline with his empty threat to resign. The Prime Minister’s Bureau, which tends to panic at every such buzz, didn’t lift an eyebrow.

It’s hard to believe, but Netanyahu wasn’t frightened even by Lieberman’s implied threat when the latter realized the bills were going to be defeated by a hefty margin. Netanyahu knows that Lieberman’s talk about resigning is related solely to his legal situation. The hearing in his corruption case will be held in another five months or so, with the final decision on whether to indict him not being made until next spring. Lieberman wants to arrive at the hearing as foreign minister − not as a rank-and-file MK. His supreme goal is to go into the next election campaign with his slate wiped clean of criminal matters, whether because the case is closed after the hearing or because he struck a plea bargain like former cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi did, so he can run in the next Knesset elections.

Triple crown

Who said everything is stuck? Next Monday, the prime minister will meet with the Israel Broadcasting Authority plenum and “consult” about appointing a new director general. So stipulates the law. The word in the political corridors is that Netanyahu’s candidate is a brown-noser.

The Prime Minister’s Bureau is often criticized for its amateurism, but its takeover of the IBA was flawless. The first stage was executed two years ago. The minister in charge of implementing the IBA law, Yuli Edelstein, had to resign after being humiliated by Netanyahu’s staff. The portfolio was transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Stage 2 of the plan was to appoint the plenum and pack it with cronies. The icing on the cake was the appointment of Amir Gilat, a former Netanyahu spokesman, as its chairman.

Stage 3 was the appointment of the board of directors. This body has seven members and a majority is needed to pass any resolution. They include Gilat; Estie Applebaum Polani, who ran Netanyahu’s information headquarters from 1994 to 1996; Yoav Horovitz, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff in Likud; and a former top-ranking police officer, Yaakov Borovsky, who is a good friend of Shaya Segal − Netanyahu’s friend and adviser. Cronies all.

The board of directors was approved three months ago. Then came Stage 4: the appointment of the managers. The director general, Mordechai Shklar, resigned. The heads of Israel Radio and Israel Television were temporary appointments, and were shunted aside. A week ago, a new head was appointed for Israel Radio, Michael Miro. The first thing he did was to order the senior ‏(and best‏) anchors − Aryeh Golan, Yaron Dekel and Keren Neubach − to stop expressing opinions and stick to asking questions.

The operational plan includes a fifth stage, which is the true goal: intervention in the program schedule and taking control of the lineup of interviewees and the items. The first signs are already apparent: the appointment of managers, the transfer of certain editors and broadcasters, and the intention ‏(denied by Miro‏) to remove the regular anchors of the morning flagship programs and replace them with nonpermanent broadcasters, in order to blur the identity between a given anchor and his or her program.

MK Nachman Shai ‏(Kadima‏) was chairman of the IBA plenum 10 years ago; he emerged bruised and battered. “We are reverting to times we thought would not recur, the times of Joe Barel [IBA director general early in the last decade],” he said this week. “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been there.”

Netanyahu is closer than ever to achieving his goal: control of Israel Radio 2, the current events station. When he’s done, he will be able to say proudly that he − or his aides, Gil Shefer and Natan Eshel − determines the content of the largest-circulation newspaper in the country ‏(the freebie Israel Hayom‏), a TV station and a radio station. The problem is that the TV station which flatters Netanyahu every evening has almost no viewers. It has lost most of its talent.

If the Prime Minister’s Office takes control of Israel Radio, too, its anchors will leave and the listeners will switch to Army Radio and regional stations. Netanyahu will become the executive editor of national broadcast outlets as obedient as they are devoid of audiences.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Bureau stated in response: “The bureau is not involved in picking IBA employees. The appointments process is carried out in keeping with the law.”