As Peace Process Makes Headlines Once Again, Israeli Ministers Are Mounting the Barricades

It's not only in the West Bank that everyone does whatever he fancies, as the state comptroller observed this week; the Likud has turned into 20 individual factions, each with its own agenda.

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The rhetoric of the economy minister underwent a change overnight. Last week’s question of “Who in the world is interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” was replaced by his cries of “economic terrorist attack,” and threats to strike at Europe’s economic interests in the West Bank and to exclude the Europeans from the peace process. If they don’t weigh their steps carefully, Naftali Bennett might yet suggest sending Israel Air Force planes on a bombing mission over Brussels, while the deputy foreign minister, Zeev Elkin, deports the European Union ambassador with only the clothes on his back.

The report about the sanctions being planned by the EU was published by Haaretz on Tisha B’Av. That day, Elkin, the senior representative of Israeli diplomacy these days, arrived with his family at the Temple Mount and demanded to be allowed to enter the compound. When his request was denied, he sat down on the ground, called the Israeli government’s policy at the site “a shame and a disgrace,” and vented his wrath on the police, who were carrying out their complicated duties at the most volatile site in the Middle East.

Bennett’s reaction is perhaps understandable. He heads a right-wing faction ‏(actually, two factions‏), the vast majority of whose members are among the most extreme of the extremists. Elkin, though, is a ranking representative of the ruling party. He is supposed to act in concert with the prime minister and in line with Israel’s interests. What he did on Tuesday constitutes further evidence of a key development of the past few weeks: the widening disconnect between the prime minister and members of his Knesset faction. It’s not only in the West Bank that everyone does whatever he fancies, as State Comptroller Joseph Shapira observed this week. In the Likud delegation, too, “every bastard’s a king,” as the saying goes. It’s not a faction, but 20 individual factions, each of which has its own agenda.

The report about the EU decision to deny funding to any Israeli entity that is connected to the occupied territories catapulted the peace process into the headlines for the first time in the four months since the third Netanyahu government took power. After the budget is passed, on July 31, and the reform involving the draft of the ultra-Orthodox population is approved, what will remain on the table are the peace process and security affairs. At the end of the day, they are what will shape Benjamin Netanyahu’s third term as prime minister. In the meantime, he has the backing of Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid.

At present, Livni is totally immersed in the effort to renew the negotiations with the Palestinians. But what will she do if there are no talks, or if they collapse soon after they do resume? One can only imagine the fire and brimstone she, as leader of the opposition, would have heaped upon the prime minister in the situation in which Israel found itself this week.

Netanyahu’s response to the EU decision was aimed primarily at the Israeli right wing. He promised that he would not allow anything adverse to befall the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, in the Golan Heights and in the eastern part of Jerusalem. That is an obvious response from a prime minister who is the head of the right-wing bloc. But it is divorced from reality. No one in Europe is asking him.

Overall, Netanyahu’s strategy in this term is leaning more toward the center, which supports the renewal of talks with the Palestinians. Sources involved in the contacts with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry say that if the talks actually do resume, it will become clear that Netanyahu went more than halfway to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in terms of the issues of both Palestinian prisoners and of building in the settlements. Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, from Yesh Atid, who is a member of the negotiating team and a left-winger in his views, has been saying in recent weeks that the Palestinians are mainly to blame for the stalemate.

This is exactly how Netanyahu manages to preserve a delicate balance of statecraft. With his left hand he is working with Livni to renew the negotiations − not because he really wants to reach an agreement on the basis of the 1967 lines, but because he fears a flood of nightmare scenarios, like the one now under way with the EU. With his right hand, he protects the settlers.

At some point he will have to choose. In his previous term of office, which was dominated by the threats against Iran, the choice he faced was described as “Bushehr or Yitzhar”: Back down on the settlements and Israel will receive support on the Iranian issue. Now, with the Iranian attack option off the agenda, at least in 2013, it’s starting to look like “Israel or Beit El.”

Strong-woman tactics

If we put the griping of Labor Party leader MK Shelly Yacimovich to the Google test, we will discover that nothing has changed: Her predecessors, too, complained of disloyalty and of ceaseless intra-faction bad-mouthing. At the same time, the complaints of the party leader’s challengers also have the feeling of deja-vu: There are allegations of a lack of transparency, of the arbitrary setting of the rules of the game and of manipulation of the party apparatus.

In Labor, the sea is the same sea, and the party DNA is made of the same amino acids that are leading Labor into its eighth leadership contest in the past 13 years. At the moment, only Yacimovich has announced her intention of running again. The chairman of the party’s Knesset faction, MK Isaac Herzog, faces the toughest dilemma; he lost last time to Yacimovich. If that happens again, he will be branded a loser. “Her approach is selfish and is not consistent with the party’s interest,” he says. Herzog’s confidants say that Yacimovich’s hold on the party bureaucracy and on its database is more extreme and more centralized than in the period of Ehud Barak. In Labor terms, there is no greater insult. Or compliment.

MK Eitan Cabel is also in no hurry to declare himself a leadership contender. Yacimovich’s refusal to open the party’s voter register and to allow everyone to recruit new supporters leaves him in a tricky position. He accuses her of cowardice. “Registration of new members has always been allowed on the eve of elections for the party leader,” Cabel says. “Those who wanted to recruited supporters. If [former chief of staff] Gabi Ashkenazi wanted to run, what would she say to him? That he cannot recruit people who will support him? Just because it’s convenient for her to run on the basis of the current voter register?”

Cabel’s complaints are like the dulcet tones of a chorus compared to the remarks of the third potential candidate, MK Erel Margalit, the former high-tech man who made millions in exits. “Yacimovich,” he says, “has failed in three areas: the peace process, the economy and the party. On the issue of the peace process, she did not present a clear agenda. She became a Netanyahu collaborator by helping him remove the subject from the agenda. Lately she has started to talk about it, but it’s obvious that she doesn’t consider it a burning issue. She is to blame no less than Netanyahu for the fact that we are left without an alternative. She is not much different from him.”

Margalit is ready to concede that it’s thanks to Yacimovich that the social-economic issue is at the top of the agenda, but insists that she is only good at making speeches.

“She must not be given the economic helm, not as finance minister and not as prime minister,” he asserts. “She does not have a systematic doctrine. She has not created a single job in her life. And at the party level,” he adds, “even though she got a tailwind in the elections, she split and divided the party. People left and are continuing to leave us only because of her personality.”

Yacimovich is unfazed by such criticism. “I am working within the framework of the party constitution,” she replies. “The constitution stipulates that if the party leader is unable to form a government, a primary will take place within 14 months. I will propose to the party convention that it be held in 10 months. Everyone has four months to prepare. When Bibi called for a primary, he didn’t give his rivals even a month to get ready.

“Those who are afraid of primaries,” the Labor leader continues, “will always find excuses and reasons to postpone them. The spin being used against me is that I am afraid of Gabi Ashkenazi. But I announced that every person from outside who wants to run can do so, and that the qualification period [of half a year, the minimal period of membership required to vote or be elected in the party] will not apply to an outside candidate.”

Yacimovich adds that she doesn’t want to open the voter register for fear of “recruitment crates” − referring to enlistment of organized groups and clans who will join the party only in order to vote for a specific leadership candidate, and then fade away. “Besides, she says, “people in Labor are always recruiting new members. And the primary has come as no surprise to anyone: Everyone knew there would be one by March 2014 at the latest. If they weren’t busy bloodletting all the time and would allow the party to work, maybe it wouldn’t have happened so fast. But you can’t be defiant and also not want things to be decided.”

Yacimovich’s supporters say, on a not-for-attribution basis, “What did you expect? That she would set a date that would be convenient for everyone except her, including someone against whom an investigation will be finished by then?”

The Labor convention, to be held at the end of this month, will be marked by battles over the date of the primary and the opening of the party register. Yacimovich feels perfectly at home in that sort of setting; she is certain she will succeed in getting her way. “I am strong,” she tells MKs whose support she is seeking.

Eitan Cabel, for one, is sick of hearing that. “People who are strong don’t go around saying ‘I am strong’ all the time,” he told her.

Sweeping out the stables

Education Minister Rabbi Shay Piron ‏(Yesh Atid‏) is scurrying through the Knesset corridors both pleased and frenetic. He shows no signs of the minor cardiac incident he suffered recently on the prime minister’s plane on the way back from a visit to Poland. Now, on the eve of the Knesset’s summer break, which starts at the end of this month, he has chalked up a series of achievements which could only have been dreamed of when the ultra-Orthodox parties were in the government:

1. Annulment of the “Nahari law,” which obliged every local government to fund the Haredi educational institutions within its jurisdiction ‏(worth about NIS 400 million a year for the state coffers‏).

2. Implementation of harsh measures against the Shas education network.

3. A creeping reduction in the financial support of Haredi education institutions that do not introduce minimal core curricula, including English, mathematics and Hebrew.

The decision to act against the Shas education network came in the wake of a report by the treasury’s accountant general revealing a long list of acts of corruption within that network. Among them: 480 close family relatives were given salaried positions; a senior woman in the network employed her husband, who did nothing; and rabbis appointed confidants.

A few days ago, the network’s new director general, Yosef Boso, asked Piron for a budget for 8,000 classroom hours of teaching, amounting to about NIS 48 million.

“Do you have a reform plan?” Piron asked him.

“No,” the director general replied.

“Do you intend to close small classes − after all, you have classes of 11 pupils,” the minister asked.

“No,” Boso replied.

“You will not reduce the number of classes at all?” the minister persisted.

Boso explained that Shas does not mix “regular” pupils with “yeshiva boys” − meaning Sephardi pupils who are not good at religious studies and those who are good at them. Hence the need for a large number of classes.

Piron thanked him for his time and sent him on his way without a shekel or a classroom hour.

“If the network does not submit a thorough and real reform plan, I will not fund it,” the minister says. “I will not lend a hand to corrupt practices. To monkey-business. Everyone agrees that there is great corruption in the network. I cannot transfer millions of shekels of public funds to unworthy programs.”

I asked him how many pupils the network now has. “About 35,000. It’s not easy, but if the leaders of Shas don’t understand what’s required of them, those pupils will not get schooling.”

Have you become the official enemy of the Haredim, the Great Satan?

“You’d be surprised. Read what they write on their websites. They attack me for everything − except my decision about the education network. They are aware of the tremendous corruption that exists there. I think that from their perspective, I am a Shabbes goy. In their hearts, they thank me for doing the work of sweeping out the stables for them.”

Bennett, Elkin threat EU over settlement sanctions. Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Israeli Education Minister Shay Piron. Credit: Michal Fattal

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