On Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned three ministers to his office in the Knesset: Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (who is also the head of Habayit Hayehudi), Education Minister Shay Piron and Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry (the latter two from Yesh Atid). The feeling in the small office on the second floor of the Knesset building was that a serious rift with the European Union, in the wake of the EU’s demand to boycott every Israeli company or organization that operates across the Green Line, was unavoidable. If so, Israel would forfeit hundreds of millions of euros, which would otherwise be earmarked for Israeli researchers and scientists as part of the prestigious Horizon 2020 project. Netanyahu had already started to talk to the ministers about Plan B: the establishment of an alternative foundation that would raise funds in China, India and the United States as partial compensation for the Israeli institutions that would be affected.
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Netanyahu wanted to hear the opinion of Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, the chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education. Another meeting was set, for that evening in the same place. Trajtenberg arrived and unsparingly made it clear to those present that for Israel to give up its share in the EU project would be, in the words of one of the ministers who attended the meeting, “the end of the world, a blow that even the devil never invented.”
Netanyahu called a third meeting that day, at 8 P.M. The earlier group was now joined by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, accompanied by his deputy minister, Zeev Elkin. “We have to find a compromise,” Netanyahu said. “No we don’t,” Lieberman retorted. “Let’s blow up the talks. That’s the only way they will understand.”
Lapid and Perry took the opposite stance. “There’s no question, obviously we have to sign,” the science minister said. Lapid, who was hurrying to somewhere else, said, “I don’t want to hear about all these legal issues about the status of the settlements. We have to sign with the EU, and immediately.”
Bennett and Livni, who on most days squabble over every little thing, both agreed that Israel’s supreme interest was to be part of the project and that a formula to extricate Israel honorably from the impasse should be devised. Netanyahu gave them a green light.
Israel, we know, will be part of the project. The compromise that was reached: Not one euro will go to an Israeli research company or organization that has any sort of connection with territories situated across the pre-1967 borders, whether in Judea-Samaria, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. That meets the EU demand. But Israel, for its part, added a special annex stating that it opposes the position of the EU on the settlements and does not consider it a legal or political precedent. The settlers, of course, will be compensated by the state.
For Bennett, this is no less than a major achievement. We will get money and we made it clear that this is our stance on the settlements. “Tzipi did good work,” he said of Livni’s negotiations with Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign minister. Truly, a vision of the end of days.
I asked him whether the Horizon saga hadn’t made him consider the folly of the “settlement project.”
“Absolutely not,” said Bennett. “My lesson from this is that when there is a consensus, and we work together, we have tremendous force here. When we are divided, our ability to negotiate and achieve results decreases hugely.”
All the president’s ladies
Sharp-eyed and perceptive MKs who were in the Knesset chamber on Monday at around 6:30 P.M. could not have missed a markedly unfriendly conversation engaged in by two people who are in fact considered good friends, MK Reuven Rivlin and his Likud faction colleague Silvan Shalom, the energy and water resources minister (among other portfolios). Shalom did most of the talking and explaining, while Rivlin listened, crestfallen. The conversation ended with Shalom getting up angrily and stalking out.
In another few months, the Knesset will elect Israel’s next president. Until recently, two names were mentioned as certain candidates − Rivlin and MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) − with another couple of speculative or virtual names also being bandied about: former ministers Dalia Itzik and David Levy, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. Now a new name has been thrown into the ring: Silvan Shalom.
Rumors about Shalom’s possible candidacy first cropped up during the coalition negotiations last February. Following the loss of seats by Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu’s consequent diminished ability to appoint his Likud party colleagues as ministers, it was conjectured that three senior Likud figures would be tossed from the leaking ship: Gilad Erdan would be appointed ambassador to Washington, Limor Livnat would be sent to sing the national anthem in London and Shalom would be a candidate for president.
Shalom’s dream was to return to the Foreign Ministry, if Lieberman were to be convicted in his trial, heaven forfend. Lieberman was acquitted three weeks ago and returned forthwith to the orphaned portfolio. Immediately after his acquittal, Shalom’s name was mentioned as that of a presidential candidate (in the financial daily Globes).
“All the candidates for president can rest easy,” Shalom said this week. “I am not running and I have no intention of challenging any of them.” His wife, though − media woman Judy Shalom-Nir-Mozes − is talking very freely with people, in politics and out (the names of some of them are in Haaretz’s possession), about a scenario in which her husband and she become president and first lady.
Along with the denial, Shalom is also willing to say, with a certain enjoyment, that he is being inundated with appeals from the whole world to run. If he’s elected and resigns from the Knesset, he will leave behind not one ministerial portfolio but three: water and energy, Negev and Galilee, regional cooperation. So his Likud pals have good reason to vote for him.
True, Shalom’s big dream is to be prime minister. Well, at the end of a seven-year presidential term, Shalom will be only 62, not 91. Why shouldn’t he go for the premiership then?
The big riddle is whether he has a secret accord with Netanyahu and/or Lieberman under which they will support his candidacy. Another riddle: the history of the relations between Judy Shalom-Nir-Mozes and Sara Netanyahu is one of mutual loathing. In the past year, the chill between them apparently warmed up a little, parallel to the thaw in the relationship of their respective husbands. So, which couple is the default choice of the PM and his spouse for president and president’s wife? Rivlin − who hasn’t been on speaking terms with Netanyahu since the PM ousted him as Knesset Speaker − and his wife, Nehama; or Silvan and Judy Shalom?
Promise and threat
It’s been a long time since MK Isaac (“Bougie”) Herzog looked so relaxed. The man with the baby face who is always darting restlessly through the Knesset corridors for fear he will be late for some meeting, now looks very tranquil. Relatively speaking, of course.
Yes, he did it. No longer is he the eternal number two. “This is not the time for soloists,” he says modestly, but the position to which he was elected a week ago − chairman of the Labor Party and, as such, leader of the parliamentary opposition − positions him a cut above the other MKs. He will be required, on the one hand, to lead and set policy and, on the other, to unite and bridge.
Whether he has the skills for the first part of the job is still a mystery. But no one in the political arena doubts his interpersonal skills, which can find common denominators in places where they don’t exist.
Last Friday morning, when the defeated leader, MK Shelly Yacimovich, called to concede defeat and congratulate him on his victory, he told her he was sorry he had ruined her weekend. In the meantime, one must admit that Yacimovich’s post-loss public behavior has been a model of bowing to the voters’ verdict. Her comments in the press conference she held in the Knesset and at a meeting with her supporters on Saturday night were clear-cut: total backing for the winner and zero demands for herself.
She will run again when the time comes. “I entered politics in order grow old in it,” she said at the press conference. “I plan to stay here for years to come. Not like Shimon Peres, but close.” Peres is her model as a politician. He lost and won, ran again and won again, and lost. But he never considered leaving politics.
Herzog this week heard Justice Minister Livni, the leader of Hatnuah, suggesting that their two parties form a front in the face of Lapid-Bennett. “I don’t intend to be a tool in her war against Bennett,” Herzog said in private conversations. “I am talking about the formation of a central force, under my leadership, with Hatnuah, Kadima and parts of Yesh Atid, which is collapsing. I assume that Meretz will not want to be part of this.”
He adds, “If I do the job well, I imagine that people will place their trust in me. I am not here just be in the spotlight. And I’m not carrying knives or hammers. This is the time to build a political force. One has to work with people, not against them.”
Herzog was scheduled to meet yesterday with Netanyahu, for the first time as leader of the opposition, to get a security update. “I am not going to make his life easy,” he promises. From Netanyahu’s perspective, Herzog, as a possible future coalition partner, is far more convenient than Yacimovich. At the same time, Yacimovich’s uncompromising presence was a major part of the obstacle to possible alliances in the center-left camp. For Netanyahu, then, Herzog is both a promise and a threat.
When did Herzog believe he was going to win, the new Labor leader was asked this week. He noted a number of landmarks in the campaign: 1. An in-depth poll conducted by his ally, MK Erel Margalit, among 800 party members last August showed that if Margalit and MK Eitan Cabel joined Herzog, he would stand an excellent chance in a contest against Yacimovich. That poll also persuaded Margalit and Cabel to drop out of the race and back Herzog.
2. Another poll he commissioned examined the views held by party members of him and Yacimovich on a large number of issues. He trumped her on almost all of them.
3. One day he arrived for a party gathering in Netanya. The local Labor branch in the city is split. Says Herzog: “I entered the hall and I saw all the biggest mutual haters standing side by side and cheering me. At that moment, I told myself: If they are capable of forgetting their quarrels and coming here to support me, then it looks like I am going to win.”
The new Santa
TV viewers on Monday night discovered that we, the Jews, also have our own Santa Claus. His name is Yair Lapid. In a live broadcast at 8:01 P.M. on both commercial channels, he informed the nation festively that the increase in income tax that was supposed to come into effect this coming January was being canceled, just months after it was approved.
Did this Lapid zigzag truly justify the total surrender of the television news companies? After all, we were just getting back what had been taken from us. The low-income groups won’t see a penny from the development. The bank account of those who earn NIS 12,000 a month will balloon by one whole percent: NIS 120.
Economic commentators argued that in light of the surplus revenues that have accumulated, lowering VAT, a regressive tax that heightens inequality, by a percentage point or half a point would have made a difference for those of whom every NIS 10 is like oxygen to breathe. The problem is that “those” people did not vote for Yesh Atid in the last election and won’t do so in the next election, either.
The polls indicate that most of Lapid’s voters are deserting him. Others are simply waiting. The first year since the election will be up in two months. He has to throw something to the disappointed voters, to do well by the people, as Menachem Begin once said.
To this trend, we can also add the plan of Education Minister Piron to gradually shorten the summer vacation in favor of holding enrichment programs in the schools, which will remain open until July 21. Both Lapid and Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen, also from Yesh Atid, attended yesterday’s press conference at which the plan was announced. The message to the public was clear: We, the ministers of Yesh Atid, know how to hand out goodies to the people of Zion − we, not Netanyahu and Likud.
“No one is capable of understanding the logic of Lapid’s move with the income tax,” a senior official in the Finance Ministry said. “After all, it is clear to us all that ahead of the 2015 budget, which will be submitted to the government in about seven months, the treasury will impose cuts of at least NIS 7-8 billion.
“That’s what made us think that Yair intends to leave the government even before the 2015 budget is approved, citing either foreign policy or the ultra-Orthodox draft issue as an excuse. He will want to be remembered as someone who not only slashed and slaughtered and brutalized and broke promises, but also as one who was able to make things a little easier for people.”