Steinitz Netanyahu - Tess Scheflan - 08072011
Steinitz, left, with Netanyahu and Shalom, in front, who saya of the long weekend sheme, 'The train has already left the station.' Photo by Tess Scheflan
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For 27 months, Minister Silvan Shalom has been warming his two ministerial seats - regional cooperation, and development of the Negev and the Galilee - while trying to forge a plan to vie for the Likud leadership. He tried to bypass Benjamin Netanyahu on the right, and has organized several conclaves: a conference for young people, the Negev Conference and the Galilee Conference. Heads of states showed up, deliverde speeches, and then went home, and Shalom's ministries were left with the bill.

This week he put an issue on the table: shortening the workweek. The media discussed the social and economic implications of such a reform. But neither the prime minister nor the finance minister are seriously considering Shalom's idea. Without their backing, an initiative that would bring sweeping economic changes and require new public-sector work agreements is unlikely to get off the ground.

Shalom used to be finance minister. He wants to become prime minister. As prime minister, would he allow a deputy to push through a reform with such wide-ranging economic implications? The shortened workweek proposal has to be seen as a political move; it captured media attention and caught Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz off guard.

Likud faction chairman MK Ze'ev Elkin supports the proposal. Two week ago, he sponsored a preliminary discussion about the subject, and last Monday he convened the faction for another talk. Most Likud MKs expressed support for it. Some even pushed private members bills on the issue.

Netanyahu arrived late to the meeting this week. In his absence, ministers quarreled about the proposal.

"You were finance minister for two years, why didn't you promote the proposal then?" Steinitz asked Shalom.

"Because I was busy saving the economy," responded Shalom. "When I started to deal with it, Fuad [Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer] quit, and elections were held early; after elections, I was no longer finance minister."

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar: "Why didn't you convince the minister who succeeded you to go ahead with the proposal?"

Then, Steinitz asked how the ultra-Orthodox would handle Friday becoming a longer workday. Shalom responded sarcastically, "Since when have you become a spokesman for the Haredim?" He added: "You simply don't understand the proposal. As finance minister, you don't understand the importance of synchronizing with the world, and the world doesn't work on Sunday."

Steinitz replied: "The world doesn't work on Sunday, but it works a full day on Friday. In Israel, people won't work on Friday."

Shalom: "This will give families longer weekends together."

Sa'ar: "This will give young people long weekends with bottles of alcohol."

Shalom: "If the government doesn't back the proposal, it will be legislated by way of privately sponsored bills. There is a majority in favor of it in the Knesset. The train has already left the station."

Netanyahu established a committee before his party forced him to do so. Speaking with Maariv in the middle of the week, Shalom stated, "I gave Bibi some time, until the start of the Knesset winter session in late October, to finish with this committee's work."

In a private conversation this week, a senior Finance Ministry official called Shalom's actions "inane." He said: "Shalom threatened Netanyahu, saying he would sponsor a bill without his support. What sort of procedure is that? This minister created an ungainly alliance, as though everyone in the economy supports the proposal. But when you review the facts, you see that's not the case. [Israel Manufacturers Association chairman] Shraga Brosh doesn't support the bill. Neither does [Histadrut chairman] Ofer Eini. The Bank of Israel chairman stridently opposes it."

Finance Ministry officials combed the archives and found the minutes of a 2002 Knesset Finance Committee meeting. Shalom was finance minister at the time. The committee discussed a proposal for a longer weekend, drafted by National Religious Party MK Nahum Langental. A top Finance Ministry official attended the meeting in order to oppose the idea, claiming it would cost the state NIS 22 billion a year.

"If the Finance Ministry opposed this reform when Shalom was its head, what is he trying to do now?" the senior official asked.

Asked whether he thinks Shalom is motivated by personal political ambitions, the official demurred. "I can't imagine that to be the case," he said. The official was extremely doubtful that the prime minister's committee would call for shortening the workweek.

Shalom's office said in response: 1. The minister has backed a shortened workweek for years, and he believes the bill will benefit the economy and society, particularly women and children. 2 ) The minister has not threatened to push through the bill without government backing; instead, he said it has a Knesset majority. 3 ) The minister is not trying to promote the bill on his own. He would prefer the prime minister and finance minister take the lead. 4 ) He supported this idea when he was finance minister, even though lower-ranking ministry officials opposed it. He discussed the matter with Langental in 2002, and told the MK that he supported the proposal.

What Labor needs

Dr. Avi Bitzur, a political scientist and a lieutenant colonel in the reserves (a deputy battalion commander in the Paratroops ), is a pleasant 56-year-old. Since 2000 he has been considered a political ally and confidant of Amir Peretz.

He was secretary general of the "One People" party, and was Peretz's chief of staff. He was responsible when Peretz beat Shimon Peres in the 2005 Labor Party primaries; Ehud Barak, who dropped out of the primary battle, incredulously referred to the race as the "registration of [empty] ballot boxes." Barak called Bitzur "the one who registers dead bodies."

In 2006, at Peretz's recommendation, Bitzur was appointed director general of the ministry for senior citizens, headed by Rafi Eitan. In 2009, he quit this post due to professional disagreements. Since then, he has worked in academia.

This week, he visited the office of MK Isaac Herzog, to whom he has given his unqualified support in his campaign to become Labor Party chairman.

Beyond the personal and symbolic blow to Peretz, Bitzur's perspective warrants consideration. He has direct knowledge of Peretz's work style and secrets, and of how Peretz's primaries machine operates.

"This will come as a big surprise to Amir," Bitzur told me two days ago. "He doesn't know anything about this." I asked whether he is leaving Peretz's camp due to an argument.

"Not at all," replied Bitzur. "We have not had any sort of dispute. And you won't get me to utter a single bad word about Amir. But when I weighed the situation, I have no doubt that the only person who can lead Labor to a better future is Herzog."

Why is that, Bitzur was asked.

"Because he's young, Israeli, educated and full of energy. I don't want it to sound, heaven forbid, like Amir is uneducated. Peretz showed me the political world. And I am disappointed. Yes, I am disappointed. He held the keys to the state, and nothing happened."

Is that because Peretz chose the defense portfolio?

"That's part of it. He had his chance, and didn't take advantage of it. Everyone deserves a second chance. I give my students a second chance at exams, but this is too important."

Why did you leave Peretz now?

"My knowledge of Herzog's work as welfare and social services minister. I worked with him for more than two years as director general of the pensioners ministry, and I want to tell you that he has a great heart when it comes to social issues. A great heart. I saw his social welfare orientation, and I know his policy-making skills. That's what Labor needs. Someone who can create a strong base for the day when Kadima collapses. That's not Amir."

Polished rhetoric and added value

Moti Laksman of Kfar Sava is a Labor Party member, one of the many anonymous faces who on September 12 will determine who becomes Labor's new head. Eleven days ago, Laksman sent e-mails to the five candidates vying for Labor's top spot. In a noted headlined "Where do we go from here?," he asked the contestants to be respectful of one another.

That day, June 28, he received a reply from one of the candidates, Amram Mitzna from Haifa. In a laconic reply, Mitzna regaled Laksman with his political insights. Mitzna wrote: "Apart from some polished rhetoric here and there, I will continue with my policy-making to contribute my added value, without harming anyone's dignity. Yours, Mitzna."

I received a copy of that e-mail this week. I found it hard to believe that Mitzna wrote it himself. I phoned his spokesman; he, too, found it hard to believe. He checked with his boss, and confirmed. "That's what Mitzna wrote."

Two weeks before he wrote that e-mail, Mitzna was quoted as saying that Amir Peretz "comes from another country." That comment stirred the anticipated "outcry," since it was putatively laden with racism. In response, Mitzna stood in front of a microphone and said he had indeed made the comment; he explained that Peretz represents a different political style based on registering shady voters and recruiting friends whose only connection to the Labor Party is their check for canvassing.

That day, June 28, an interview with Mitzna in Haaretz's magazine was on its way to the printers. Mitzna knew what he had said about Peretz, Herzog and Shelly Yachimovich. He was not worried about impairing their dignity, even though he had promised to refrain from insulting anyone in his e-mail to Laksman.

Mitzna's spokesman stated in response to the Peretz comment: "Needless to say, it is clear to everyone that this remark did not contain any form of racism. In the future, different terminology will be used to describe someone who uses different political methods."