Netanyahu, Lieberman Vie for Cheap Gains at Expense of Children of Refugees and Migrants

The furor this week over the proposal to close a Tel Aviv school serving immigrant kids and convert it into one for refugee children elicited ugly, demagogic reactions from several leading members of the government.

An illustration showing Netanyahu and Lieberman fighting with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in a classroom as Bennett watches from the side.
Amos Biderman

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. Sometimes one video clip, or one scene, is worth a thousand scholarly op-eds. Anyone interested in learning something about Israeli politics in 2016 should look at the brief footage from this week’s cabinet meeting – the bit that’s been made available to the media. As Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks movingly about the new school year, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman does something very politically incorrect. He interrupts Bennett’s speech and complains about the Tel Aviv municipality’s intention to close down a school in the city’s south that is attended mainly by the children of new immigrants from around the metropolitan area, and to turn it into an educational institution for the children of refugees and labor migrants.

“Infiltrators! Infiltrators!” a voice rings out from the end of the cabinet table – that of Minister Without Portfolio Ofir Akunis, dripping with scorn.

“It’s the wrong order of priorities, and I expect you to intervene,” Lieberman continues calmly, the cameras trained on him, as he gestures at Bennett. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares the subject “very important” and says it will be dealt with at the meeting.

And so it was. Bennett, stung by the lack of collegiality, accused Lieberman of populism and declared that this year the school in question, Shevah Mofet, would operate regularly. There’s plenty of time to solve the problem, he added.

The next day, shortly before the evening newscasts, the Prime Minister’s Bureau issued a statement asserting that Netanyahu supports the school’s continued operation in its present format, “and is against its closure and its transformation into an educational institution for children of infiltrators.”

The wily Netanyahu killed two birds with one stone. He won the gratitude of Russian-speaking voters, some of whose children attend the school, and their hatred of the Africans, and he rained on, not to say drenched, the parade of his abhorred education minister on his big day, wrecking the smooth opening-of-the-school-year show. Pretty good haul.

Xenophobia is a multi-seasonal product without an expiry date. In every generation, there is the cynic or the racist or both of the above who harnesses racism to his vote-garnering chariot and gallops with it for all he’s worth. When Shas’ Eli Yishai left political life, he passed the reins to Likud’s Miri Regev. Now it looks as though Lieberman wants to take over, but he may find that someone even more senior is eyeing that prize.

In his three months as defense minister, Lieberman has struck twice while the iron was hot. Once, when he ordered the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff to prohibit army units from doing community work in the “storerooms of children” in south Tel Aviv, where they had been taking the wretched toddlers out for some fresh air. The second time was at this week’s cabinet session.

Lieberman, too, played the two-bird game. The issue of Shevah Mofet has fired up the local Russian-language media. Lieberman signaled to his constituency that he is attuned to its concerns, that national-security matters haven’t made him forget his voters’ plights. And along the way he embarrassed Bennett – who occasionally expresses himself about security issues – in prime time. Incursions into my territory will be responded to in kind, the defense minister made clear to the education minister.

It’s perfectly legitimate for Lieberman, as leader of a party most of whose voters are from the former Soviet Union, to fight for the continued operation of the school in its present format. The institution is considered an educational success and is attended by children from many nearby cities, not only Tel Aviv. It’s also legitimate for Netanyahu to have his say, even if this is a micro-municipal subject. But both of them need to find a more respectable and proper way to talk to the education minister about an issue that’s in his bailiwick – not by grabbing microphones or issuing communiques. Not that we have any hopes or expectations from this bunch, but if this were a proper government, that’s how things would be done.

What’s unnecessary and harmful is the desire of these two gentlemen to reap cheap political gains at the expense of children of refugees and labor migrants, children who were born in Israel and are entitled by law to proper schooling in their locale. Netanyahu and Lieberman echoed Miri (“the infiltrators are cancer”) Regev – and she, of course, this week couldn’t resist adding her acidic two cents.

Another option is to use positive language: in favor of the school, immigrant children and preserving certain traditions. That’s how responsible, judicious leaders who aren’t driven by an impulse to fan the flames would behave. Netanyahu and Lieberman see a container of gas and a Knesset seat or two to be gained – and reach automatically for a lighter.

In this context, we have to say good word for Bennett, tough as that may be. He is behaving responsibly and without bias, is not taking part in the rhetoric of hatred, not against the country’s Arabs and not against the foreign workers or their children. Some in his right-wing constituency would undoubtedly prefer him to take a different posture, but he’s not giving in to the rumblings of the masses. For that he’s liable to pay a political price.

Naftali Bennett, left, and Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, May 14, 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

Huldai in high gear

It doesn’t take much to get Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai going. He starts in third gear and within seven seconds, he’s in fifth. Netanyahu’s statement about Shevah Mofet elicited a reaction from Huldai that was uttered in a style probably never before used by a mayor in referring to a prime minister in this country: “Netanyahu is behaving like the lowest of the internet commenters,” he said.

Not really the way to start the school year, but Huldai’s fuses blew for a few reasons. (A) Neither Netanyahu nor any of his aides bothered to call him and find out the background to the affair; (B) Netanyahu portrayed Huldai as someone who’s working against new-immigrant children and on behalf of the “infiltrators” – whereas it was actually the mayor, not the prime minister, who established the school; (C) Huldai, not Netanyahu, raised funds for the school, 75-80 percent of whose pupils are not from Tel Aviv proper, in an effort to boost integration; (D) Huldai, not Netanyahu, has to cope with an impossible and intolerable situation, in which tens of thousands of labor migrants and refugees have made their home in his city, and he, by law, has to provide their children with education within official institutions; (E) It’s the mayor, not Netanyahu, who is caught between residents of the city who feel, rightly, that foreigners have taken control of their neighborhood, and a government that doesn’t lift a finger to help, and whose leader blames the mayor for the situation; and (F) The mayor, not Netanyahu, has recently been working in a professional manner with the Education Ministry to solve the problem at Shevah Mofet, either by building new premises or by transferring its pupils and teachers elsewhere. And anyway, every child who started out in the school has been promised that he will be able to finish his or her education there.

So, say what you will of Huldai, his outburst here was understandable. He feels, justly, that he’s been dragged onto the killing fields of the petty political squabbling among the leaders of the three right-wing parties: Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennett. Huldai has no intention of letting Netanyahu either preach to him or ride roughshod over him, without responding. Not on the playing fields of Tel Aviv.

“Racism-mongers,” he said, when describing Netanyahu and Lieberman in private conversations. “They are trying to hurt me, to scramble for Knesset seats at my expense, to show that I’m in the wrong – and they think I’ll take it lying down?” He sees them as small-time politicos who are engaged in the foul politics of hatred and incitement. That’s what they do, that’s what they know.

He tells a story about Kibbutz Hulda, where he grew up. His father, Ozer Huldai (the original family name was Obejanski), was principal of the kibbutz school. One day he heard his father giving a talk to the kibbutz members about which model of truck to buy. Afterward, he asked his father: What do you know about the subject? You wouldn’t know one truck from the other. To which his father replied, “That’s what they understand, you have to talk to them about what they understand.”

The union forever

On Wednesday afternoon, a group of dignitaries met in the Prime Minister’s Bureau: the three leaders of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, parties – Arye Dery (Shas), Yaakov Litzman (Agudat Yisrael/United Torah Judaism) and Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah/UTJ) – the head of the national-religious party in the coalition, Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi); the directors general of the Transportation Ministry and Israel Railways; the chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, Yoav Horowitz; and the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner. On the agenda: the crisis with the Haredim over continued work on a railway station in Tel Aviv, planned again for this Shabbat, after work was done last Saturday as well.

The atmosphere was unpleasant; the Haredim arrived livid. The technical experts stated that there was no choice but to work on Shabbat again, as if the work was to be done on a weekday, it would cause great chaos. Litzman stood up. “If work is done on the Sabbath, there is no government,” he declared, adding, “You all lied to us, you said it was a matter of life-and-death, and it wasn’t.” He then stalked out.

Horowitz and Groner swallowed hard. Suddenly the fate of the coalition was in their hands. “It’s all very well that everyone is looking after his constituency,” Horowitz said, “but we have to look after the whole country, not just the Haredim.”

UPDATE: Netanyahu freezes Saturday train infrastructure works amid pressure from Haredim

Even before Gafni and Dery could come to Litzman’s defense, Bennett leaped into the fray. “How can you say that Litzman isn’t looking after the whole of Israel? No one has the state at heart more than he. He is totally committed to the country’s citizens, and you don’t have a monopoly on the nation,” the education minister told the civil servant.

Professionally, it was decided to reduce the scale of the work as far as possible this Shabbat. Politically, Groner and Horowitz went back to Netanyahu with the following insight: The alliance between Bennett and Litzman (reported in this column two weeks ago), after Litzman turned down Netanyahu’s suggestion to backtrack from an agreement he had with Bennett and leave him without the coalition funds promised him (“Bennett and I are in an alliance of brothers,” he told Netanyahu), is stronger than ever.

Outrageous fortune

Throughout his long public career, Yossi Beilin has been considered one of the most brilliant, original and courageous figures of the Startup Nation. Cloying sentimentality and fierce passion have never been his trademark. The term “cold fish” might have been invented for him. He’s the paragon of rationality, the model of icy sarcasm. The Oslo Accords, of which he was one of the architects, became part of Israel’s political and diplomatic history, for good or for ill.

His rivalry with Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the veteran army commander and government minister who died this week, was well known, even if its roots are not fully clear: They were in opposing camps in the Labor Party – Beilin with Shimon Peres, Ben-Eliezer with Yitzhak Rabin. According to what I was told a decade ago by an informed source, Ben-Eliezer came across classified material while serving as defense minister in the Ariel Sharon government, which revealed that Beilin had bad-mouthed him viciously to Palestinian politicians.

Be that as it may, a few months after leaving the Defense Ministry, ahead of the 2003 Knesset election, Ben-Eliezer vowed to remove Beilin from the Labor slate. He saw it as a life’s project, no less. Mustering all his troops in the party, and they were legion, he set out to annihilate Beilin. Every means justified the end. And in the end, Beilin found himself relegated to a place on the slate that was too low for him to be elected.

Beilin was effectively booted out of Labor, his one and only political home, where he had gained iconic status. Subsequently, he joined Meretz, and led it for a time.

Unlike others – Avraham Burg, Amram Mitzna, Amir Peretz – who also got a taste of Ben-Eliezer’s cruelty and meanness, which were second only to his affability and humanity (yes, he was a man of contradictions) – he and Beilin never buried the hatchet. The campaign of revenge that Beilin launched on radio, TV and the internet within hours of the announcement of Ben-Eliezer’s death on Sunday was one of the most bizarre and repellent spectacles seen in these parts. Viewers couldn’t help imagining that Beilin would soon take a toy clown’s trumpet out of his pocket and blow it while throwing confetti at the camera. Did he despise him that much? So much that an ardent passion no one knew he possessed unhinged him?

Yossi Beilin, in his new office in Herzliya Pituah.
Tal Cohen

Factually, Beillin was correct about some of what he said. Ben-Eliezer was a brutal politician of the old school, tainted by corruption, though he died with a presumption of innocence (in mid-trial). He did not depart while still in the thick of political activity: For the last two years of his life he was a sick, suffering individual, and he spent his last days between his home and dialysis units.

What was so harrowing in Beilin’s series of media appearances was the laid-back, pseudo-academic analytical way he wreaked his revenge on the dead body. He lunged and stabbed, time and again, as though in a frenzy, to the point where even his own son expressed his objections (on Facebook).

During his years in politics Beilin was considered a media wizard, much in demand for interviews, always original, interesting, cliché-free and a superb source for political and diplomatic correspondents. In this case, however, he tried to change the narrative and shift the dialogue from praise for the dead to the deceased’s less noble qualities. But he failed twice over. The slings and arrows boomeranged back at him at him, and the good words and sympathy for Ben-Eliezer, in the media and in his semi-state funeral, only increased.

God’s deputy

The criminal investigation against former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was closed eight months ago without charges being submitted, but with sharp criticism of his unworthy behavior and his compilation of slanderous material against the defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak. Since then, nothing has been heard from Ashkenazi, who had signaled earlier that he intended to enter politics.

Ashkenazi was a frequent visitor in the Jaffa home of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. About half a year ago, Ben-Eliezer told an interlocutor that Ashkenazi had abandoned his ambition to head a political party and run against Netanyahu. “Gabi understands that it won’t work,” Ben-Eliezer said. “It’s too short a track, and one that hasn’t proved itself in the past, to demand the premiership immediately without going through the Knesset, the cabinet, running a ministry, the security cabinet. He will agree to be No. 2.”

In recent weeks, political and other sources have formed the impression that Ashkenazi is no longer ruling out the possibility of joining the Yesh Atid party as deputy to God. It’s possible that party leader Yair Lapid worked on him over the past year and convinced him. Maybe Ashkenazi is looking at the polls that give Yesh Atid 20 seats or so, and believes his presence on the slate will add another four or five, possibly drawing Lapid close to the premiership (though the chances of that are remote).

As far as is known, Ashkenazi expects “full partnership” from Lapid, and to be appointed defense minister and acting prime minister in his government. For his part, as far as is known, Lapid is ready to promise him the sun and the moon. But people who know Lapid are telling Ashkenazi to watch his step, because God has no deputies.

Ashkenazi declined to reply to my question of whether he is indeed on the way to joining Yesh Atid.