Ahead of New Budget, Israel MKs Brush Aside the Promise of 'New Politics'

As Yair Lapid finishes up the budget proposal, both he and interest groups most likely to face funding cuts are rushing to the press (and to Facebook) to get out their version of the truth before the other guy does the same.

“Senior officials in the Finance Ministry aren’t sleeping well of late. And they are discussing their plight with any colleagues and veteran ministers who are willing to listen to what they have to say. They are disturbed by the state of the economy and by the deficit, but no less by the new boy who has ensconced himself in the minister’s bureau and is firing off finely worded statuses on Facebook that portray them as insensitive, on the one hand, and not very talented on the other. The only thing that is slightly improving their spirits is that almost every time Finance Minister Yair Lapid shoots off his mouth on Facebook he shoots himself in the leg.

Why is Facebook superior to interviews? Because on Facebook, you are in complete control of the material. No one challenges you. Not that you’re supposed to make mistakes. But in the case of the fictional middle-class Riki Cohen that Lapid invented, his basic data turned out to be baseless. Plus, this week the finance minister chose to castigate the country’s university students for having the gall to raise a hue and cry over the intention to raise their tuition and/or to slash the higher education budget.

That plan became known to National Student Union head Uri Rashtik, when he met with the deputy chief of budgets in the treasury, Yoni Regev. Rashtik understood there are some issues that have to be killed before they land on the desk of the prime minister as part of the budget. So he rushed to the media. The furor among the students happened to coincide with a special debate on the budget in the Knesset, which the opposition initiated during the parliament’s spring break.

Lapid thus found himself subjected to a two-flank attack, one of them from the students. And students, without whom Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, would not have scored its great electoral achievement, constitute a very sensitive group for the new finance minister. He whipped out his iPad, or his laptop, and fired off his daily post, telling the students they had been the victims of a media spin.

Once again, the Gospel According to Lapid was delivered exclusively to the selected audience of his friends on Facebook, not in the form of an official press release by the treasury or by the finance minister himself. It was Yair talking to his supporters. If Lapid had looked into the matter even briefly, he would have discovered that the proposal to reduce the higher education budget is in fact genuine, one of many being considered by the experts in his ministry. But who has time to look into things when the deadline looms and the imagery is dying to be liberated into cyberspace.

Not only did Lapid accuse the students of falling into the pit he himself fell into, he also hit them with the ultimate putdown: “It’s a bit sad to see that the representatives of the youngest public in the country is resorting to the tricks of the old politics.”

Someone should tell Lapid that the election campaign has ended.

Katz and company

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is one of the most effective ministers in the government, with a successful four-year track record behind him. He is also one of the few ministers ‏(along with Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat‏) who is continuing into a new chapter in the same ministry. In principle, that is good news for a large economic bureaucracy, portending stability, continuity and the ability to complete complex, expensive projects.

In the past few weeks, reports reached Katz to the effect that the treasury has targeted his ministry as the chief victim that will be required to part from untold billions of shekels in the cuts planned for the 2013-2014 budget. A week or so ago, Katz called Lapid to complain about the worrisome spate of rumors. In the wake of his call, Lapid sent the heads of the budgets department to meet with Katz.

“They sat with us not like people who have come to hold a discussion but like they had come to tell us what they intend to do,” Katz related this week.

“We are not irresponsible officials. We are aware that there is a crisis, that we have to mobilize and contribute our share. We offered NIS 3 billion − NIS 2 billion from Israel Railways bond issues and another billion from various rail projects. They talked about a lower amount − NIS 2 billion − but insisted that the decision on the order of priorities would not be made by the transportation minister but by them. And what they decided is that the money will come from imposition of a freeze on the National Roads Authority’s main projects: the valley train along the Haifa-Afula-Beit She’an line, and the line between Acre and Carmiel.”

A freeze means liquidation, Katz argues. On Wednesday, he convened a press conference and announced that he intends to ask the state comptroller to prevent “one of the biggest economic scandals ever seen here.” I asked him whether he hadn’t overstated the case.

“Absolutely not,” Katz replied testily. “The elimination of those projects will mean that billions of shekels that have already been invested in them will go down the drain. Isn’t that a subject for the state comptroller? I told the treasury officials the same thing. One of the officials said, ‘I am willing to have billions buried in the ground − as long as those projects are not completed.’ They think they’re not economically viable, and they were also opposed to them in the past. What do they care that the government decided in favor of the projects in February 2010? A Chinese company is quarrying in the earth and in the hills. International firms are involved. How will we look, both in the outlying regions and in the eyes of the international community, if we stop everything?”

I asked Katz whether he wasn’t counting on his buddy the prime minister to intervene. After all, those railway lines − “which connect the periphery to the center,” as Benjamin Netanyahu put it in the election campaign − are as much his baby as they are Katz’s. In the past three years, the prime minister inaugurated them, inaugurated them again and re-inaugurated them. There are no ribbons left to cut.

Katz is uneasy. “Bibi and I are great believers in these projects,” he says. “Three years ago, we brought them to the government and pushed them through against the will of the treasury. But who knows what will happen when they bring it to him as part of the budget package and tell him it’s only a postponement? He will want to back the new finance minister in his first budget. I can’t rely on his help.

What I did in the press conference was to expose their intentions. I said there that Lapid now has to invent some ‘Ms. Berkovitz’ from Gedera, and then we will know the borders within which he wants to invest the state’s money: between the Hadera of Ms. Riki Cohen and the Gedera of Ms. Berkovitz.”

So you are saying that Lapid does not feel obligated to the outlying areas because he didn’t get votes there.

“What I know is that he doesn’t have the information and he doesn’t have the experience. In the case of the students, he caught on right away, and intervened immediately. I hope that when it comes to the country’s periphery, that he is not acting out of a lack of commitment or a lack of empathy.”

Katz did exactly what Rashtik did: He heard the officials state their plans and rushed to the media. For Rashtik it was a lopsided success. Katz’s campaign looks hopeless at the moment. To Lapid, Katz epitomizes the old politics.

A certain politician related some time ago that in the midst of the coalition negotiations, at the stage in which Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu was still insisting on a large number of ministers, he ran into Lapid in the Knesset. They talked about the talks. “Why do I have to agree to 20-something ministers?” Lapid asked his interlocutor, according to the latter, “so that Katz can be a minister? Does he have to be a minister?”

Style and content

Lapid derived little pleasure from last weekend’s newspapers. He was raked over the coals for the Riki Cohen episode. He was forced to go on the defensive. No one likes that. What’s the remedy? Every media adviser will tell you: Change the subject. Call in the spin doctor. How do you change the agenda? You leak a scoop to the Friday evening newsmagazine aired on Channel 2, a high-ratings program Lapid knows very well ‏(he was its anchor‏), such as: The treasury minister has decided to appoint Yael Andorn as his director general.

Not long after the item was broadcast, the report inundated every relevant website. Ms. Riki Cohen was history.

The outgoing director general, Doron Cohen, who was appointed by Lapid’s successor, Yuval Steinitz, less than a year ago, knew his time was running out: The new minister was looking at people for the job, as new ministers are wont to do. The problem is that Cohen heard about the new appointment from Lapid in a phone call at 7:55 P.M. on Friday, three minutes before the start of the TV program and approximately six minutes before the item was broadcast.

Not exactly the height of tactfulness. Someone in Lapid’s bureau was apparently apprehensive that if Cohen were to learn of the appointment, he would leak it to the media before the news was broadcast in the manner, the language and the precise intonation desired by the minister.

Treasury sources say Cohen was hurt by the style in which the whole thing was handled, not by the fact that he was being replaced.

Here’s another lesson: When the chairman of the National Student Union engages in a media tactic, it’s the old politics. But when the minister of finance does it, it’s the new politics.

No response was forthcoming from the minister’s bureau on the subject of the director general. Cohen told me he was not surprised, that everything was done in coordination with the minister and that he has nothing to add.

Looking for a candidate

On Monday, MK Benjamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer ‏(Labor‏) met with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai − a Labor member − in a Tel Aviv cafe. The former is one of those who were victimized by the party’s leader, MK Shelly Yacimovich; the latter is a successful mayor who plans to run for a fourth term this year. The former wants very much to see Yacimovich replaced as party leader in the next primary; the latter has often been mentioned as a possible candidate to lead the party.

To observers from the side it looked like a pep talk, in which the former was urging the latter to consider running. “No way,” Ben-Eliezer said with amazement when he was asked about this. “Huldai is a friend of mine. I met with him to see if he needs help in his mayoral run.”

The word from Huldai’s office was also that the meeting revolved around the municipal elections.

It’s no secret, though, that Fuad is looking for a successor to Yacimovich. He believes that only two people have a good chance of toppling her: former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini.

The problem is that the former wants to do it but can’t, until he extricates himself safely from the Harpaz affair. As for Eini, he took the stage at the Labor Party convention a week ago and announced that if Yacimovich did not remove six or seven clauses from her motion for the agenda, he would vote against the entire motion. The motion passed by a large majority, in its original form. That would not have happened in the pre-Shelly era.

Under the Labor constitution, the primary has to be held no later than March 2014. Yacimovich is toying with the idea of moving it up to the end of the summer. That way she will make it hard for the pretenders-to-the-crown ‏(MKs Isaac Herzog, Eitan Cabel and Erel Margalit‏) to sign up the required number of supporters. In the present constellation, no one, not even Ben-Eliezer, has any doubt that she would win easily. 

The Good Old Days: Lapid and Netanyahu during the previous government.
Emil Salman