With New Budget, Yair Lapid Has Become the Victim of His Own Rhetoric

The finance minister's mistake was not in causing Israel's huge deficit, but in claiming he would protect the 'working man' long after it was clear he could not.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The problem with Yair Lapid isn’t that he is reneging on his election-campaign promises. Everyone does that. The problem lies in the speeches and Facebook posts he has produced as finance minister, even after becoming acquainted with the full scale of the economic catastrophe wrought by Benjamin Netanyahu and former finance minister Yuval Steinitz. How are we to understand the fact that with his right hand he offers the public an optimistic situation appraisal, while with his left, he pounds the same public over the head with a five-ton hammer and still expects Likes?

Page 7 of the 2013-2014 draft budget, for example, contains a vision penned by a gifted columnist: “This is a budget of hope ... It creates a sense of equality and is aimed at the good of the working person, the fruit of whose labor upholds and sustains the Israeli economy ... The working man is the hub of society. Without the working man we have no way to help the weak and the underprivileged ... ”

The pages that follow bear terrible tidings, which on the one hand are harmful to the middle class, striking at the heart of its bank account, while at the same time running roughshod over the hardscrabble classes. On her Facebook page, Meretz head Zahava Gal-On recommends not reading the draft budget before sleep. “Stephen King, we’re right behind you!” she wrote.

Another example: Last Monday, just hours before the draft budget was made available to the cabinet ministers, Lapid spoke at a conference organized by the business newspaper Calcalist. “There is no way to help the weak in the society other than by supporting the working man,” he stated. “The money will go to the working man ... We will invest in the working man.” He was applauded. The next day his listeners read the newspaper and undoubtedly asked themselves if it hadn’t all been a dream.

On Wednesday evening, in the urgent press conference they held, the finance minister and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini were apologetic. The reporters on hand were not respectful. Especially not to Lapid, who seemed to have sold out the middle class, which he undertook to represent, in return for a deal with the “dark knight” of the big unions. In the waning hours of a day on which the Israeli citizen was still feeling the shock of the blow, even the achievement of an agreement on so-called industrial quiet with the Histadrut looked more like the surrender of the novice minister to the powerful lobby of the ports and the Electric Corporation.

The press conference was supposed to have taken place two days earlier. But at that point in time, Lapid was apparently still deep in the movie in which he is King Yair, for whom everything is going great. It’s not likely that he foresaw that in the hours after the budget was eventually unveiled, his “home” newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, his home website, Ynet, and his home TV channel, Channel 2, would give him such a roasting.

Lapid is discovering that he has fallen victim to his own rhetoric. His big mistake came in the first week of his term as finance minister, with his formative post about “Riki Cohen.” We all remember how he related that in the middle of a discussion with treasury officials, he asked them to put aside their spreadsheets and reflect on the situation of the imaginary teacher from Hadera and her husband, a high-tech man − a couple that didn’t know how they will be able to buy homes for their children.

It wasn’t Lapid who emptied the coffers. He was not the one who created the deficit: He got an inheritance from hell. But he disappointed his voters by not fulfilling his election promises to find the money among the tycoons, the settlements and the big unions. Instead, he is saying: Riki will pay.

A different place

If the budget clause that recommends cutting cabinet ministers’ trips abroad by 50 percent passes, its principal victim will be Tzipi Livni. Or its principal beneficiary. It depends. Consider the timetable of Justice Minister Livni, who is also in charge of any negotiations with the Palestinians, in the past week. On the night between Wednesday and Thursday last week, she and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s envoy, attorney Isaac Molcho, flew to Washington to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry. By midday Friday she was already back in Israel. On the night between Saturday and Sunday, she took off for a meeting in Austria, and on Sunday night flew back to Israel. She landed at the airport on Monday morning, and a few hours later chaired a meeting of the ministerial committee on legislation. The next day, on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, she and Molcho flew to Rome, to meet with Kerry again. By midday Thursday, Livni was back in Israel.

Say what you will about Livni, a hedonist she’s not. She has stepped fully into Ehud Barak’s shoes as unofficial foreign minister and as the prime minister’s PR “front person” in the world’s capitals. But with one difference: She prefers to spend her nights on planes and not in comfy hotel beds. And she likes to spend her weekends at home, not in shopping sprees on Fifth Avenue.

Of all the ministers in this government, Livni is the only one who truly cares about a peace process. Her frequent meetings with Kerry suggest that something serious is brewing. MK Isaac Herzog ‏(Labor‏), who has good diplomatic sources, said this week that everyone would do well to go on the alert ahead of Kerry’s visit to Israel in two weeks’ time.

Livni says there is no concrete proposal on the table to which Israel needs to say yes or no. The talks are about the parameters for resuming the negotiations, which were broken off upon the formation of Netanyahu’s previous government, in April 2009.

“Kerry is very, very active, assertive, determined and energetic,” Livni says. She is also pleased with the cooperation she is getting from her former bitter rival, Netanyahu. At least for now they are on the same page. If negotiations are renewed and they make progress, however, she will undoubtedly discover that he has started a new book.

“At the moment I am totally focused on launching the negotiations,” Livni says. “I believe that Netanyahu is not in the same place as [minister Naftali] Bennett, who says, ‘Let them talk, because nothing will come of it anyway.’”

I reminded her of the way Netanyahu characterized her handling of the talks with the Palestinians when she was foreign minister in the Ehud Olmert government ‏(“irresponsible,” “reckless”‏), and of what she said as leader of the opposition and in the election campaign about the absence of negotiations.

“I still believe I conducted the negotiations responsibly and seriously, and I still think what I thought about the fact that no negotiations were held afterward,” Livni says, adding, “but now I am in a different place.”

Against and for

The ministerial committee on legislation, which Livni heads, this week referred the “governance law,” as it’s known in newspeak, for a preliminary reading in the Knesset. The bill was hatched in the brain of MK David Rotem ‏(Yisrael Beiteinu‏).

Rotem has the democratic consciousness of a guard in a Soviet reindoctrination camp. If it were up to him, the opposition would be outlawed, the Arab MKs would be jailed forthwith and the Knesset would convene once a week with one item on its agenda: listening to a speech by the beloved and Revered Leader, Avigdor Lieberman. Applause is permitted.

Rotem’s bill contains several commendable clauses, such as reducing the number of ministers and deputy ministers, and raising the percentage of the votes a party must garner to enter the Knesset. But it also calls for the annulment of no-confidence motions and for allowing a government that is toppled in a no-confidence vote to continue in power if the alternative candidate is unable to form a new government − and would allow the prime minister to dissolve the Knesset without the confirmation of the president.

Livni, the head of Hatnuah, voted in favor of the bill in the committee, along with the other ministers from the coalition parties, after it was agreed that the subsequent enactment of the legislation would be conditional on the agreement of all the partners in the coalition. That is, each party will be able to veto the bill at any stage. One would have expected Livni to vote against the bill, as MKS Reuven
Rivlin and Moshe Feiglin did, or to abstain as Speaker Yuli Edelstein did − all of them from Likud.

“Obviously I am against the clause that requires a majority of 61 MKs to pass a no-confidence motion, but I couldn’t stop the bill,” Livni says in her defense. “If I had postponed the discussion, I would have been forced to put forward the proposal next week. I preferred to create a situation in which the process stops and agreements are reached after the preliminary reading. I don’t like the proposed legislation. It’s clear that at the end of the road, it will look different from the way it does now.”

I told her that it was easy to imagine her, as leader of the opposition, taking the podium and making mincemeat out of the bill. Livni did not deny that this is what she would have done in that capacity. Instead, it was done for her, on Wednesday, by fellow party member MK and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, when the bill came before the Knesset plenum. He delivered a fiery oppositionist tirade against the bill. He also defended Livni − who, it will be recalled, was abroad − and claimed that she had voted against it in the ministerial committee.

I asked Peretz’s spokeswoman about this flagrant inaccuracy. After checking it out, she said, “Amir was wrong: Tzipi spoke against and voted in favor.” Which is exactly what Peretz did, two minutes after he finished blasting the bill.

Getting ‏(re‏)acquainted

At midday on a busy Wednesday in the Knesset chamber, the cameras of Channel 99 ‏(the Knesset Channel‏) caught Labor Party leader MK Shelly Yacimovich going over to the new-old leader of Shas, MK Aryeh Deri, and exchanging a few friendly words with him. Deri did not look surprised. To observers from the side, it was clear that this was not their first conversation. Indeed, they had met privately two days earlier for what was termed a “get-acquainted meeting” in the office of the leader of the opposition in the Knesset.

A get-acquainted meeting it wasn’t, because they know each other well. It was something between a conciliation chat, a smoothing of ruffled feathers, the opening of a new page and wiping the slate clean.

When Deri decided to return to politics, Yacimovich asserted, in characteristically blunt terms, that a convicted criminal had no place in the Knesset. But once he was appointed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as leader of the second-largest faction in the House, Yacimovich realized that it would not be possible to boycott him.

She knew what everyone knows: that Deri had made great efforts for Labor, not Yesh Atid, to join the coalition, and for Yacimovich, not Lapid, to become finance minister in order to pave the way for Shas to enter the government. When he grasped that Shas’ fate was sealed, he announced that the whole faction would back Yacimovich as opposition leader. For a time she played hard to get, but in the end realpolitik won the day.

Change of pace

On Sunday morning, the cabinet met in special session on Mount Herzl to mark the upcoming Jerusalem Day. It was another of those empty and unnecessary productions that, this time, included a tour of the Herzl Museum for the ministers, breakfast, a perspiring group photo under the blazing Jerusalem sun, and a ceremony pompously emceed by announcer Gilad Adin, who declaimed a written text ‏(“The Jerusalem Day Law was passed during the first term of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and now we are gathered here ...”‏). The participants could not but recall announcer Dan Kaner’s “the prime minister was the first to identify” speech at the unfortunate memorial ceremony for the victims of the Mount Carmel fire, in December 2011.

This time, the ministers had no idea what was wanted of them. Not one serious media outlet took the Jerusalem Day event seriously. The only ray of light at the ceremony was when some girls sang songs of Jerusalem for the gathering. For the first time in many years, not one minister got up and left or boycotted the event or protested. Lapid’s people loved it, and justly so. They came to change things, no?

IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Tzipi Livni and John Kerry.Credit: Reuters

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