Finance Minister Yair Lapid outflanks Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon over ultra-Orthodox IDF draft.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid outflanks Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon over ultra-Orthodox IDF draft. Photo by Amos Biderman
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Although Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon entered political life more than four years ago, he continues to project a hesitant naivete. Some will say that therein lies the secret of his charm. Others predict he will never make it to the summit this way. This week taught Ya’alon an important lesson in tactical manipulation. People who spoke to him after the initial, preliminary chapter of the saga of drafting the ultra-Orthodox heard a minister hurt by the trick played on him by Finance Minister Yair Lapid - when the Yesh Atid head threatened, early Monday, to quit the coalition if the Haredim weren’t conscripted. “I think Lapid behaved improperly, and I told him so,” Ya’alon told interlocutors, “but I hope things will be put right.”

After complaining, when he retired as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, that he had been surrounded by snakes in the Kirya ‏(defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv‏), Ya’alon continues to learn the bitter truth: Power struggles and ‏(metaphorical‏) arm wrestling are the daily bread of our elected officials. You win some, you lose some. Good manners and Marquis of Queensberry rules are not part of the game. But Ya’alon seems not yet to have internalized this.

“It was an unnecessary political crisis,” he said Wednesday, after Jacob Perry’s committee on how to share the military burden concluded its discussions and approved a bill that will be brought to the cabinet for approval. “The issue of drafting the Haredim is too serious and sensitive to be left to petty politics,” Ya’alon added. Unnecessary from his perspective, perhaps, but the other side took a different view.

For Lapid, the crisis was necessary. He stretched it out as far as he could, even into the Knesset session about raising value-added tax. It was a classic spin. On the day the lower-class sectors of the population were hit with the intolerable burden of another full percentage point to VAT, the television newscasts led with the draft issue and only then moved to the tax story. Lapid did not forgo even one scene of the play, as though he were David Levy in his prime: suspending the Perry panel talks; and threatening publicly to dismantle the government; canceling his participation in a finance ministers’ conference in Paris ‏(even after it was obvious the drama was over‏). And - the finale - what else but another benchmark, teleprompter-rich speech, replete with populist declarations and aimed at his “Haredi brothers,” Asher and Haim.

The classic Mapai-style compromise that ended the crisis stipulates that criminal sanctions will be imposed on Haredi draft dodgers as on secular shirkers - meaning that, by July 2017, at the end of the transition period ‏(extended from three years to four‏), the Compulsory Service Law will apply to everyone. The defense minister will be given the authority to decide if and how to exercise his authority.

Immediately after this, a war of words erupted - between Ya’alon and his people and Lapid and his bunch - over the meaning of the amended clause: who won and who lost; who will decide when the time comes. Everyone knows that in a few days, the whole issue will fade from the collective memory for the next four years. It will rise to the surface again when, most probably, a new government is in power and has to dispatch battalions of police and troops to Bnei Brak and Mea She’arim to arrest thousands of draft refuseniks. When that happens, we’ll report on it at length.

Strategic threat

“Why did you let yourself fall into Lapid’s trap?” grumbling members of the Likud Knesset faction asked Ya’alon Monday, when Lapid’s threat to dismantle the government was still resonating in the background. MK Zeev Elkin told them, “The trap was there in any event.” That’s what Ya’alon thinks. But there is a different version.

Three days before the crisis, a meeting was held by Ya’alon, with share-the-burden panel head and Science and Technology Minister Perry ‏(Yesh Atid‏); his chief of staff, Tomer Cohen, who coordinated the panel’s work; and the defense minister’s chief of staff, Haim Blumenblatt. Perry and Cohen presented the clauses of the plan to Ya’alon one by one, including the problematic one about criminal sanctions against draft-dodging Haredim.

According to knowlegable sources, Ya’alon listened and said nothing. Furthermore, when asked if anything he had heard upset him, he asked whether it would be possible for the new law to include abridgment of military service by four months. That question was put to the Finance Ministry, and when it turned out that it created a budgetary problem, the subject was struck from the agenda. Perry arrived at the panel’s decisive meeting on Sunday evening, in the Prime Minister’s Office, confident that everything would go smoothly.

Ya’alon has a different recollection of that Thursday meeting. He claims to have raised many objections. When the clause in dispute was presented, he said, “We will discuss it on Sunday.” That was his way of signaling that he did not accept it. But he did not come to the Sunday meeting ready to continue the discussion and find a compromise. He says that at some point during the night a compromise of some sort was found, which Perry was willing to accept. “But then Perry called his ‘rebbe,’” Ya’alon said this week in private conversations, “and when he returned he said, ‘I am concluding the meeting. Yair doesn’t agree.’”

Even after everything ended, Ya’alon doesn’t have a bad word to say about Perry. On the contrary: “He was very businesslike,” he said. “Lapid is far from understanding the Haredi issue. What Perry now understands in depth, Lapid does not understand.”

Ya’alon made frequent use of the term “the Haredi street” in conversations with his aides. “People who advocate Lapid’s approach are out to enflame the Haredi street,” he said. “Look what is happening there now. It’s Plesner II [referring to a panel chaired by former Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, which discussed the draft issue a year ago]. The moment all the extremists take to the street and dominate the discourse - it’s a lost cause. No one will be drafted. Declaring war on the Haredi street will not allow us to work cooperatively with them.”

The defense minister also took friendly fire: Two volleys were aimed at him from the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office. Both came at the only time of day on which Netanyahu’s bureau focuses its attention. The first came Monday, the day on which the crisis erupted. At 8 P.M. the prime-time TV newscasts stated that Netanyahu had ordered Ya’alon not to play into Lapid’s hands or drag out the “imaginary” crisis, and - if Lapid insisted - to vote for the proposed wording.

Tuesday morning, Ya’alon was interviewed in the midst of the national home-front drill and made declaration aimed at Syria: “If the S-300 missiles get to Syria, heaven forbid, we will know what to do.” That day’s 8 P.M. newscasts led with a report that Netanyahu “has instructed the cabinet not to talk about the Russian missiles.”

Together with the rest of the country, Ya’alon heard about that directive on the TV news. It was only later in the evening that the phone rang in his office with a demand in that spirit.

Someone in Netanyahu’s inner circle is apparently disturbed by the popularity of the new defense minister. The irony is blatant: In the previous government Ya’alon was the minister for strategic threats. Now he himself has become one.

Getting his goat

Netanyahu’s previous government - the so-called natural-partners one - served almost four full years and never experienced a genuine coalition crisis. The prime minister could have gone on a world cruise, returned and discovered that nothing had happened. The present government is agitated, by its nature. Not three months have gone by and already there are “malfunctions,” as Menachem Begin put it in the 1970s.

Netanyahu inferred from Lapid’s intemperate, crass behavior over the draft law that the finance minister is looking to stir trouble. “He is looking for causes to foment crises, and will go on doing so,” sources in the premier’s circle noted this week.

Netanyahu views this week’s events as an imaginary crisis, because one side behaved with blatant cynicism. Accordingly, he was quick to terminate it. What really got his goat was the throwaway line Lapid appended to his resignation threat when he spoke to his party’s MKs: “Anyone who thinks that I went into politics just to fix the economic catastrophe that the previous government left us, is wrong,” he said accusingly, after noting a few days earlier that it was not his custom to blame his predecessors. He added that the profligacy displayed by the previous government had brought the Israeli economy to the edge of an abyss, from which he was trying to rescue it.

Where exactly did Lapid find the wastefulness, members of Netanyahu’s circle demanded. In the building of the separation fence, which cost NIS 3 billion? In acquiring the Iron Dome antimissile system, which cost billions? In introducing free education from the age of 3, which also cost billions? And what catastrophe is he referring to? The fact the local economy displayed impressive firmness in the face of a world crisis that toppled countries in Europe? The fact that there is low unemployment here? True, they say, there is a large deficit ? which can be dealt with ? but it’s not the first time. There was a larger deficit when Netanyahu became finance minister in 2003, but we came out of that.

The prime minister could do little but grumble and take solace in a routine update meeting he held Tuesday with the leader of the opposition, MK Shelly Yacimovich ‏(Labor‏), where the two were alone at one point. We’d give a lot to have been a fly on the wall for that.

The philosopher’s moan

Israelis discovered last week that their country is the fourth least positively viewed nation on the planet. Just ahead of North Korea, Pakistan and ‏(in last place‏) Iran, according to a global survey conducted by the BBC World Service. Anyone wondering how and why we find ourselves in this predicament should consider what went on in the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday. President Shimon Peres had just left for Jordan to attend the World Economic Forum, and one newspaper reported, erroneously, that he was going to tell the forum that “there is a majority in Israel for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines.”

Even before the president’s helicopter landed, Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz ‏(Likud‏) and Tourism Minister Uzi Landau ‏(Yisrael Beiteinu‏) took up the microphones. Landau was cautious, but the philosopher Steinitz threw down the gauntlet. “I didn’t know that Peres had been appointed to be the government spokesman,” he said, with a wan smile. “Decisions on state-policy matters are made by the government, and any such declaration - to put it mildly - is not beneficial for Israel.”

Steinitz’s remarks were reported around the world even before Peres delivered his speech - in which, of course, he did not talk about the 1967 lines, but only about Israel’s desire for peace.

Unfortunately, we have only one Peres but many ministers. And for every statement in favor of peace made by Peres, there are 10 declarations by the Steinitzes, the Landaus, the Bennetts and their ilk, which paint Israel in colors of war and occupation and settlements and rejection and intolerance.

Steinitz is the minister of strategic affairs. Doesn’t he realize that a speech by Peres in a world forum, with Arab ministers in attendance, which is broadcast live in many countries, is a strategic asset - whereas every provincial, petty statement issued by frustrated and bored ministers is harmful? Steinitz didn’t know that, two days earlier, Peres and Netanyahu had huddled together for two hours and agreed on what the president would say in his speech. What does he care? He got his headline. Even philosophy ain’t what it used to be.