Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Channel Tom and Jerry in Fight Sparked by Uber

The barbs that flew this week between PM Netanyahu and Minister Katz paled in comparison to the skewering opposition head Herzog received at the hands of party colleagues for ruling out the two-state vision for now. But if he's part of the problem, who's going to offer a solution?

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud rally in Nov. 2012.
Abdullah Shama

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and MK Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition, this week endured a similar experience: Both became embroiled in head-bashing squabbles. The former was confronted by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday over the issue of Uber taxis in Israel. And at about the same time, the latter was the target of heavy friendly fire from his party colleague MK Shelly Yacimovich, who that morning had been surprised to read in the papers that Herzog had abandoned the two-state idea. She immediately appeared on Israel Radio’s morning show and flayed the Zionist Union leader, who for his part was at that moment enjoying the sights of Paris, where he met with President Francois Hollande for a conversation in which he made his jaw-dropping remark about the peace process.

The tension between Netanyahu and Katz seemed to abate. In the days that followed they sat side by side in the Knesset chamber and even exchanged pleasantries. But in Labor/Zionist Union, the arguments always spill over into the city square. MK Tzipi Livni, Herzog’s co-leader, cold-shouldered him in her public comments. The peak was a recording of a conversation that was leaked to Channel 2 News in which Labor’s secretary general, MK Hilik Bar, is heard exchanging with an unidentified person lethal words about Herzog’s performance.

Let’s put Herzog to the side for a moment – how symbolic – and go back to Netanyahu and Katz. Uber, as everyone understands, was just an excuse. Netanyahu raised the issue during a cabinet session – and not, as protocol demands, in a working meeting with the minister – because it was important for him to undercut Katz’s image as a revolutionary reformer in the transportation sphere. Netanyahu has never looked kindly on achievements by his ministers. At every opportunity, large or small, the premier will appropriate to himself the successes of any of his friends; and the longer his tenure lasts, the more ravenous he becomes.

It usually manifests itself in his Twitter account. His tweets often begin “The government I head,” and they go on in a self-admiring way to describe decisions passed by his government. In the nature of things, these are generally moves that were initiated and spearheaded by other ministers. Even before those individuals have leaned back with self-satisfaction in their executive chairs and said “Jack Robinson” – a “government I head” tweet will have appeared.

This week, for example, Netanyahu got in ahead of Interior Minister Arye Dery, who finally managed to implement his election-campaign promise to lower the price of water. Dery wrested the prime minister’s agreement to the move as if he were extracting a tooth without anesthesia. But that didn’t stop Netanyahu from announcing to the nation that the government he heads approved the decision.

The prime minister’s relations with Katz are complicated, and have been replete with ups and downs – mostly downs – in the past year. Katz resents Netanyahu’s failure to keep his promise to appoint him to one of the three senior ministerial portfolios. Katz was counting on the Finance Ministry (which went to Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon in the coalition agreement), or at least the Foreign Ministry, which Netanyahu, fearing an internal intifada in Likud, kept for himself.

Katz, a well-known expert in maintaining constant deterrent pressure on Netanyahu, paid him back by joining forces with Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz (who is a friend, but no relation), whom he helped get elected chairman of the Likud Central Committee, in place of Netanyahu’s candidate, MK Tzachi Hanegbi. Another act of reprisal by Yisrael Katz – but one that did not succeed – was his vociferous opposition to Netanyahu’s decision to move up the primary to elect Likud’s leader. Netanyahu, it turns out, wasn’t content to get even with Katz in the party arena. His appetite grew and spurred him to initiate the Uber incident.

Netanyahu wanted to kill two birds with one stone: to signal to the public that Katz doesn’t always live up to his “reformer” and “bulldozer” image, and to show that the minister is also not free of political considerations – as seen in this case by his surrender to brutal pressure from leaders of the taxi drivers’ organization, who are against Uber. Many of them are heads of local branches and power groups in Likud, where Katz’s roots lie.

Katz’s response was aimed straight at the prime minister’s soft underbelly. “My job is not to take care of foreign tycoons,” Katz snapped at him, before rubbing salt in the wound by wondering aloud whether Netanyahu even has the right to deal with transportation matters, owing to an apparent conflict of interest (involving dealings of the law firm that represents Netanyahu personally). Ministers present at the meeting testified that Netanyahu went into momentary shock. He didn’t expect such a swift between-the-eyes and simultaneously below-the-belt riposte. One ministerial witness says Katz himself was taken aback. “It just slipped out,” this minister said. “You could see that he [Katz] didn’t feel comfortable with what he’d said. There was a security cabinet meeting later that day, and Katz buttered up Netanyahu a few times. Yisrael is a man of short wars. Like Yisrael – the country.”

Katz may have sought a cease-fire, but the other side was planning the ultimate act of revenge. On Wednesday evening, following a meeting between Israeli and Greek officials, the entourages, including the two prime ministers, agreed to pose for a group photo. A hidden hand arranged the seating of the Israeli ministers who were present. Four were placed in the front row, and only one – guess who? – was shoved back into the second row. Katz, who suspected nothing, arrived for the photo-op in a festive mood and left when he discovered that someone had played a mean trick on him. His chair remained empty and forlorn.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The smell of blood

On Wednesday afternoon, parliament members debated opposition motions for dissolution of the Knesset and an early election. MK Zehava Galon, head of Meretz, took the podium, fuming, and proceeded to tear Herzog to bits in the same breath as she laid into Netanyahu. “You are not the leader of my opposition,” she told Herzog, accusing him of a “pathetic” attempt “to dress up like Bibi” and of a wink at the right by saying he’d given up on the two-state idea. “You’re a caricature of opposition,” she shouted at Herzog.

Herzog didn’t look perturbed. From his viewpoint, Galon’s diatribe even serves his purpose. What did bother him was the thunderous silence of his party colleagues. Other than an interjection by MK Yoel Hasson (formerly of Likud – the converts are always first to throw themselves into the line of fire), all the rest were studiously indifferent as Galon skewered their leader. The subversive notion that some of them even enjoyed the show is not without foundation.

The future may yet show that this week was a personal and political turning point for Herzog. Lately he’s been fair game for all and sundry. And in his surroundings, when the sharks and the barracudas smell blood, they act on their primal instincts.

In six weeks, it will be a year since the election – how time drags when you’re suffering – and Zionist Union is becoming a cynical disunion, bitter and frustrated. Its members didn’t come to power and they didn’t join the Netanyahu government. There were no ministerial portfolios for them. Herzog is now perceived as the beggar who waited at the door of the Prime Minister’s Bureau for an offer that wasn’t made or wasn’t attractive enough.

He’s being savaged in public opinion surveys. In the public’s perception, his suitability as prime minister is at ground level. All the surveys show a sinking party whose voters are scrambling for the lifeboat of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. To many Labor MKs, who share their thoughts discreetly with one another, and then with the media, Herzog looks like part of the problem, not part of the solution. Who will remedy this situation? That’s the trouble: There is no one. Yacimovich was given the opportunity, and she blew it; she’s thinking about running for leader of the Histadrut labor federation in another 15 months. That’s a job tailor-made for her and she for it. There don’t seem to be many obstacles in her path.

What Herzog told Hollande reflects the situation on the ground. “The attempt to strive for a Palestinian state at this time will not hold water,” Herzog said. “A Palestinian state cannot be established at this time, because the Palestinians currently lack a leadership that controls the whole area [and] that can spearhead such a move.”

MK Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, couldn’t have put it more convincingly.

Herzog said he is a great advocate of the “two-state vision,” but said that the circumstances rule it out. He told the French president that in light of this gloomy reality, there’s no alternative but “to bring about separation between the Israelis and the Palestinians that will be accompanied by security and economic measures aimed at bringing greater calm to the region and reinforcing security.”

The disparity in the views of Herzog and his faction members is not all that great: None of them thinks that a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state will be established in the foreseeable future – certainly not as long as Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hold the respective reins. What riled them was that they heard about their leader’s new policy via the media. If Herzog were perceived as strong, as being capable of leading the party into power anytime soon, they would forgive him. He’s not, so they don’t.

The internecine strife that erupted in Labor had Herzog working the phone from Paris on Sunday. He made a series of urgent calls to about half the party’s MKs in an effort at damage control and self-explanation. The poor guy – for a moment he was in seventh heaven, shaking off the stardust from meetings with the French president, prime minister and foreign minister, but within minutes, as he put it, he found himself fidgeting uneasily and trying to justify himself.

Some in the political arena claimed this week that Herzog’s plan for separation from the Palestinians – which he presented last week at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies – under which the Palestinian villages of East Jerusalem would be cut off from West Jerusalem, was “loaned” to him by former MK and minister Haim Ramon. Ramon denies this. He’s in the final stages of setting up a body, possibly a public movement – though Ramon has no intention of reentering politics – that will present a systematic plan for full separation between the two parts of Jerusalem via an amendment to the “Basic Law: Jerusalem Capital of Israel.” Among the participants in this group will be senior retired security personnel. It’ll be interesting to hear what they say.

By the way, in the same speech, Herzog also said there’s no chance of establishing a Palestinian state, but the media were focusing on other speakers who made bigger headlines: U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar.