At the 90th birthday celebration for President Shimon Peres, held on Tuesday at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, a television camera situated below the stage caught the minister of the economy and of religious services, Naftali Bennett, sitting in the fifth or sixth row, with a permanent smile on his face. In private conversations, Bennett admits he has completely changed his attitude toward Peres, after getting to know him personally. He and the president meet regularly once every few weeks. I grew up with a certain opinion of the man, Bennett likes to say, but these days there is no doubt: Peres is a strategic asset for Israel.
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Bennett sits opposite Peres with a notebook and makes an effort to jot down the gushing flow of ideas. For example, to establish the Einstein Museum of Jewish innovation in Jerusalem; or to make it possible for every soldier who completes his service to emerge with an undergraduate degree in hand. When he gets back to his office, he gathers his staff and briefs them. They hardly ever discuss issues of state policy. It’s more than likely that, after Bennett likened the situation between Israel and the Palestinians to shrapnel in the backside, he and Peres will go on talking about nanotechnology (Bennett is also in charge of the Chief Scientist’s Office).
It was important for Bennett to explain this week that he didn’t mean to say the Palestinians were stuck in Israel’s rear end (i.e., a pain in the ass). His intention was to describe a situation and, of all the analogies in the world, he resorted to one he has long been using. Once more, the impression is that Bennett hasn’t yet grasped that every remark of this kind becomes a global headline and portrays Israel − a week after the comment by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon [in which he claimed a majority within the government staunchly opposed the creation of a Palestinian state] − as a peace rejectionist. It’s even more resonant on the eve of a decision about whether to renew the negotiations on the basis of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s guidelines.
In retrospect, it’s possible that the leader of Habayit Hayehudi might have chosen a less offensive image. But the message that was received is exactly the message that Bennett wanted to get across: No one should think that he or his party are even ready to consider the two-state solution.
The view in Bennett’s close circle is that during the 90 days that have passed since the new government took office, the party’s ministers have been preoccupied with their ministerial work, or busy with the election of the chief rabbis, or jousting politically with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. It was time to set things back on the right path, and the forum that was chosen was the leader’s address to a conference organized by the settlers’ Yesha Council.
In addition, Bennett sees himself as the only guardian of the Land of Israel in the government and as leader of the “national camp.” He believes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is actually in favor of the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. He didn’t always think that, but he and the prime minister have held quite a few talks in recent months. Two comments are in order here:
1. It may just be convenient for Bennett to depict Netanyahu as having crossed the Rubicon, so that we will think that he, Bennett, is the only party leader who represents the right-wing camp.
2. In the January election, the joint National Union-National Religious Party list of candidates won 12 seats [under the Habayit Hayehudi banner]. In 2006, the two parties won a combined total of nine seats. So it’s still a long road to the leadership of the right-wing constituency. To those who claimed that Bennett did harm to Israel’s public diplomacy − which is in any case lame − his confidants said, “You will be amazed, but he is the responsible adult in this government. Every day he’s busy calming things down, putting out fires, preserving the problematic structure that’s known as the Netanyahu government.
“Tzippora [Livni] goes off the deep end with legislative proposals on religion and state; Bibi [Netanyahu] is up to his neck in the election for the chief rabbis − when did a prime minister ever get involved in that, and would he be sticking his nose into the rabbinate if Shas were in the government?; and Lapid and his people are pulverizing the ultra-Orthodox at every opportunity. Bennett doesn’t like that. He is the leader of a religious party that consists of two factions, one of which is subordinate to rabbis. It’s not easy for him to be the member of a government that is shafting the Haredim, cutting yeshiva funding and slashing child allowances. Besides, it also hurts the religious Zionists.”
Still, the confidants were asked, maybe it would be better tactically if he expressed his opinions less sharply. “Tactically, maybe, but in practice there’s been no change,” came the reply. “What was said in the past remains valid today. If [peace] negotiations begin, Habayit Hayehudi will allow them. But this had to be said. And besides, if a cluster bomb is fired at him in the government, he proved this week that he, too, is capable of firing a cluster bomb.”
Still, he should be careful to avoid shrapnel. It’s said to really hurt during the change of seasons.
On the night between Monday and Tuesday this week, just minutes before the Knesset vote on the first reading of the proposed budget, Finance Minister Yair Lapid approached MK Gila Gamliel (Likud), who is the coalition coordinator in the Knesset Finance Committee. “I don’t like the way you’re going about things,” the minister told the MK. “You have to decide whether you’re in the coalition or in the opposition. If you carry on like this, I will brief journalists about you.
I will tell them that you are the one who finally caused VAT to be imposed on fruit and vegetables.”
“Threats don’t work on me,” Gamliel shot back.
“Don’t come to me with requests for money,” Lapid told her. She demanded that he present alternatives to the tough measures contained in the budget: “Listen to the people in the treasury. It’s not something to be ashamed of. You are inexperienced.”
“I’m so inexperienced that I am the head of a party that has 19 seats,” Lapid said (Gamliel claims he said “head of a government of 19 seats”), and went to complain to Netanyahu.
At 1 A.M., after the vote − in which she did not participate, and after she had flayed Lapid from the rostrum − Gamliel was summoned urgently to the Knesset cafeteria for a chat with the prime minister. “Why didn’t you vote with the coalition?” Netanyahu asked her. “I had a nonvoting agreement with a member of the opposition,” she replied. On Wednesday, it was reported that Netanyahu is looking for a replacement for Gamliel, someone who will be more loyal to the coalition in the coming 45 days of committee discussions. Someone who will help get the budget passed instead of torpedoing it.
“I asked Lapid for alternatives, now they are looking for an alternative to me,” Gamliel observes. “But that’s just me. I don’t vote for things I don’t believe in.” The finance minister’s office refused to comment on the exchange between Lapid and Gamliel.
Gamliel, one of the most boisterous opponents to Ariel Sharon among the Likud rebels in the 16th Knesset (2003-2006), did not return to the Knesset after the following election. She returned to the House only in 2009, serving in the second Netanyahu government as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. She has apparently become more moderate and mature in the interim. No position was found for her in the present government.
Gamliel has a list of five budget items against which she has vowed to fight to the end in the Knesset Finance Committee: an across-the-board tax hike of 1.5 percent; taxation on housewives [which would force them to make social security payments]; cancellation of tax benefits for students; cancellation of subsidies for day-care centers; and a tax levy on those who improve or change their housing. Total value: about NIS 3.5 billion.
Let’s say these items are cancelled, I asked her. Where will the missing billions come from, if not from imposing VAT on fruit and vegetables? “The treasury has to present alternatives,” she replied. “I met with treasury officials. The problem lies not with them but with him, the minister.”
Gamliel thinks Lapid is not capable of coping with the promises he breaks. “He doesn’t know how to behave personally with us in the Knesset. I am not the only one against these items − there are many in our faction who will not support them.” Both she and Lapid are now waiting for Netanyahu to decide about replacing her, and with whom.
In the 16th Knesset, the coalition coordinator on the Knesset Finance Committee was MK Daniel Benlolo (Likud). He did his job faithfully, but disappeared in the subsequent election. In the 18th Knesset, when Likud returned to power, MK Zion Pinyan (Likud) was appointed coordinator. He performed well, but he too turned out to be a passing episode.
Gamliel was made the coalition’s Knesset Finance Committee coordinator as a consolation prize for not being appointed a minister or even a deputy minister. She is aware of the melancholy political fate of Benlolo and Pinyan. It’s more attractive, from her point of view, to fight against Lapid’s measures than to muster a majority for them. She has Netanyahu’s promise that she will be the first to enter the government when a slot becomes available. However, if all those holding promises from the prime minister were actually to be brought in, you could fill Teddy Stadium.
“I don’t understand what there is to celebrate,” President Peres said to Robert De Niro in their meeting this week. “After all, it’s just a birthday.” After which he took himself to the International Convention Center to celebrate 90 summers, with great pomp and circumstance. If he had only remembered to tell his staff half a year ago that there’s nothing to celebrate, maybe they would have put together a less ostentatious and unctuous fete.
Now that the stardust has settled, it’s clear that the game wasn’t worth the candle. The discourse on the social networks was largely critical. The media was almost universally aghast, and there’s no one like our president when it comes to taking media rebukes to heart.
Peres’ need to be loved knows no boundaries. If he is shown a survey saying that 85 percent of the public is pleased with his performance, he will try to understand why the other 15 percent are against him. Peres truly is an extraordinary president and a larger-than-life personality. But precisely because of that, it would have been more appropriate if his 90th birthday had been celebrated in a way that was more connected to the Israeli people and less to tycoons and models.
Peres has a year left in office. The talk about extending his term will probably remain just that − talk. Amending the law to let him stay on would entail no few legal and constitutional problems. In this year, he would do well to invest his energy in an attempt, perhaps the last, to do what he has been talking about for the past 30 years: Promote an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
1. Twice last week, at least − in a speech in the Knesset and in a Channel 2 News interview − Finance Minister Lapid lashed out at opposition leader MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), reminding her that she could have been finance minister instead of him and thus shaped Israeli economic policy, but instead of assuming responsibility, she chose to remain in the opposition and go on the offensive. That will be the line Lapid and his people take in the budget discussions from now on. And it is working. Yacimovich is stressed. People are saying to themselves: You know what, he’s right. She really could have served up a different budget − if not 100 percent different, then 50 percent. That’s no small matter.
2. MKs Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) and Aryeh Deri (Shas) met this week with the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi). They explained that the deep cuts in child allowances and yeshiva budgets will harm his constituency severely. “You have one achievement,” Litzman told Slomiansky, “namely that the military service of the soldiers in the hesder yeshivas [in which religious-Zionist soldiers combine army service with Talmudic studies] was extended only to 17 months. But nothing will remain of that, either, because the High Court of Justice will not allow that kind of inequality. Your public will be hit just as hard. Funding for all the yeshivas will be cut, not just those of the Haredim. And all large families will be hurt, not just ultra-Orthodox ones. It’s all up to you.”
Here’s a bet: The cut in child allowances will be very much moderated by the Knesset Finance Committee. Bennett will not commit hara-kiri over this. That’s why he has Slomiansky − to do the dirty work for him.