Netanyahu Wants Credit for How Good Israelis Have It

As the premier celebrated 10 years in office this week, rumors swirled that his coalition was about to expand. But that seems about as likely as an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall ever opening.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t have wished for a better present to mark both the first anniversary of his most recent reelection as premier and a cumulative 10 years in office. In fact, he got two presents. One, from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, showed that 86 percent of the perpetually grumbling Israelis are happy with life here; the other, courtesy of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, revealed that Israel ranks 11th out of 157 nations, ahead of such purportedly desirable countries as Germany, the United States, Britain, Japan and Austria. Yet in many of those countries, the cost of housing is not insane, education is inexpensive, food prices are reasonable, and life is more pleasant and less uptight.

These data reinforce Netanyahu’s mood in the past year, since being elected to a fourth term as prime minister. He’s frustrated, hurt and haunted, and despairs of ever getting a fair shake from the media. “You’re living in a bomboniere country,” he told someone not long ago, and proceeded to enumerate all the pluses of life in present-day Israel. He’s unable to tolerate a situation in which the media (which he dubs “Soviet,” blithely ignoring the massive presence of the newspaper [Israel Hayom] that is his private mouthpiece) doesn’t give him credit for everything good here, but batters him mercilessly for all that’s bad.

It drives him crazy that he’s portrayed as a politician preoccupied exclusively with survival. What about the reforms? The infrastructure revolution? The economic stability? The fact that Israel is a quiet, sane island in a turbulent sea of bloodshed and brutality? What about the delegations from China, India and Africa that want to learn from Israel’s advanced technology, high-tech and agriculture? What about the extraordinary intelligence cooperation with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi? The security agreements with Putin? And what about the classified things involving other countries?

The “media” takes all that for granted, not as the product of the vision, action and driving force of a prime minister who’s been in power for seven consecutive years. But if something goes awry, the thousand-tentacle octopus attacks with intent to kill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, February 10, 2016.Credit: Olivieh Fitoussi

Netanyahu does not perceive the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate – which is drawing fire from the United States and Europe, and could reach a new low (from Netanyahu’s viewpoint) in a possible UN Security Council resolution based on the French initiative – as a failure but as a necessity. Whom is he supposed to negotiate with? The nonfunctioning government of President Mahmoud Abbas? And about what, precisely? Handing over territories? Evacuating settlements? In exchange for what? So that Israel will be perceived as weak and conciliatory? Who will respect us then, who will come to visit? The world esteems strong states and strong leaders who stick to their guns. In a word, him.

Rank odor

On Monday evening, déjà vu struck the political arena and the reporters who cover it. They were catapulted back to the wild night of May 8, 2012, which began with the Knesset starting the procedures to dissolve itself and move up the general election, and ended with Kadima joining the Netanyahu government for a unification adventure as dismal as it was short-lived.

What triggered the panic this week was the disappearance of opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) from the Knesset chamber. It was known that Herzog had an offset agreement with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), one of Netanyahu’s two operatives, who had also disappeared. Given the crisis atmosphere with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, who were threatening to topple the government over the issue of a separate prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall (they are opposed), someone added one and one together and came up with 85: 61 coalition MKs, plus 24 MKs from Zionist Union, who, according to the conspiracy minded, were about to join the coalition. And there were other elements:

1. Someone monitored a meeting between Levin and Histadrut labor federation leader Avi Nissenkorn, a Labor Party member and Herzog ally who wants Zionist Union to enter the coalition. Afterward, Levin was seen to emerge carrying what were assumed to be previous coalition agreements. He then proceeded to the prime minister’s residence for a long meeting with the tenant there.

2. Netanyahu’s minimalist, 61-member coalition is creaking. Two Likud MKs, Avraham Nagosa and David Amsalem, have stayed away from the Knesset for the past week in an attempt to force Netanyahu to approve the immigration to Israel of the remaining Falashmura in Ethiopia. If we add MK Oren Hazan (Likud), a perpetual ticking bomb, it’s possible that Netanyahu is approaching the limits of his endurance.

3. Since Channel 1 News reported a poll predicting that Zionist Union would score 15 seats and Yesh Atid 21 (minus nine and plus 10, respectively), if elections were held now, the MKs of the former have been in a serious funk. Some in Herzog’s close circle are wondering whether, given this relentless loss of support, it wouldn’t be better to join the coalition now – with Herzog becoming foreign minister and others getting ministerial portfolios – so that they would at least taste power, in the hope that its flavor would put color into the party’s pallor.

Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog. Credit: Michal Fattal

In the meantime, on Monday evening, as the questions rolled in like a gathering storm, Shas leader Arye Dery tweeted, “I really hope that the rumors of the start of negotiations between Likud and Zionist Union are true. Hopefully, we will get up in the morning to the news that a broad unity government has been formed for the good of the people of Israel.”

It was a typical Dery riposte. Concerned that the “rumors” were a Likud spin aimed at the Haredim, he decided to join the game with a double reverse. At the same time, reporters and politicians sent Herzog urgent text messages. He didn’t reply – rare for him, Herzog being the most accessible politician there is. Later, it turned out that Herzog’s silence was prompted by a personal matter: he was in Tel Aviv, not on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

Levin, though, did huddle with Netanyahu in the official residence. They were trying to figure out how to deal with the Haredim over the Western Wall issue and the proposed legislation on the use of mikvehs, which would ban Conservative and Reform Jews from using the ritual purification baths. Possibly they also talked about various political scenarios. Levin doesn’t deny that the issue of expanding the government is still alive and kicking, but says it’s only a theoretical matter. “The moment that Herzog, [Yisrael Beiteinu leader MK Avigdor] Lieberman or [Yesh Atid leader MK Yair] Lapid say they want in, a deal can be struck within 24 hours,” he’s been saying for a long time. “In the meantime, nothing is happening.”

I told him that concern ran sky-high in Habayit Hayehudi on Monday evening. “We have no intention of replacing anyone with anyone,” Levin said. “In every scenario, the current 61 will remain in place.”

As for the final piece in the puzzle: Levin and Nissenkorn did in fact meet that day, at Airport City, adjacent to Ben-Gurion International Airport. According to Levin, they’ve been friends for many years and meet once a month, usually at Airport City – halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

I asked Levin about the crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties. As usual, he lashed out at the High Court of Justice for its decision that the (Orthodox) Rabbinate cannot prevent the Reform movement from holding ritual immersions as part of a conversion-to-Judaism process in mikvehs across Israel. “The High Court is bent on pouring oil on the flames,” he said, adding, “The court deliberately issued that ruling in order to ride the wave of recognition of the Reform movement.”

In regard to the new egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall, which the government agreed to at the end of January, Levin believes there is no solution to the disagreement on the issue (meaning it will never happen). “The religious services minister has not signed the regulations and will not sign them,” Levin told me. “The Haredim don’t want this crisis, but they had no choice other than to rebel against what they see as huge changes – the Western Wall and mikvehs together. I understand them.”

Two Reform Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch, the proposed site for an egalitarian prayer space near the main Western Wall plaza.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

On Wednesday, the minister in question, David Azoulay (Shas), delivered an appalling, hate-laced speech in the Knesset against the Reform and Conservative movements. He couldn’t even bring himself to utter their names, instead using epithets rank with the odor of anti-Semitism: “These bodies”; “these people.” Anyone who expected a demurrer from the Prime Minister’s Office can go on dreaming. Netanyahu is extremely adept at utilizing American Jewry for his own political purposes against the Obama administration, but at home he needs the Haredim to stay in power.

Maybe that’s the reason, or one of the reasons, for the cancellation of Netanyahu’s scheduled visit to the United States next week, including a planned meeting with Obama. Maybe he’s reluctant to face a large crowd of Reform and Conservative Jews at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.

Yes folks, he’s a-f-r-a-i-d.

Evolution of specious

Netanyahu’s road to a full four-year term in office, until March 2019, was apparently paved this week. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon told correspondents that if Netanyahu insists on implementing the coalition agreement – and he will – the next budget to be submitted to the government will again be a two-year one, for 2017-2018. Kahlon uttered a few characteristic sounds of discomfort, but the die was cast.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Reuters

It’s interesting to track Kahlon’s evolutionary process over the past year in terms of his approach to the duration of this government. After the election, he said he would not serve in a 61-MK coalition because that was a recipe for trouble. He then signed a very pampering coalition agreement. Finding that the coalition consisted of 61 MKs, he said: What can I do? I already signed. But have no fear – I will work to expand it.

He then became engrossed in devising the 2015-2016 budget, and told everyone in sight that this would be the last budget with the current coalition numbers. Either the coalition will be enlarged or we go to an election, Kahlon declared, and vowed to do everything in his power to add new parties this year.

In the same breath, it was obvious he was flinching from the idea of an early election, before he could stem the rise in housing costs and implement his dearly beloved reforms in the banking system and food prices. And rightly so: he needs at least four years to deal with the housing crunch.

Having made his vow, he launched discussions with Netanyahu about the next budget: a two-year budget, as Netanyahu wants for reasons of political survival and stability (and as the coalition agreement, signed by Kahlon in sound mind, stipulates), or for one year, as the finance minister wants, for reasons of sound economic logic. Kahlon explained to everyone in sight why another two-year budget would be a serious mistake economically – but also politically, because a two-year budget renders him redundant as finance minister for two years once the budget is passed. I am insisting on one year, Kahlon is saying, but what can I do? I signed.

Kahlon’s behavior shows the difference between his strategy and his tactics. Basically, the main goal is to preserve the coalition and serve a full term as finance minister. He keeps signaling to his voters – who aren’t wild about Netanyahu – that he’s suffering and is uncomfortable in his gilded cage, that he wants different coalition partners. He’s talking about running next time with Gideon Sa’ar, a potential Netanyahu rival.

Kahlon is making background noises that are music to the ears of the anti-Bibi-ists in politics, the media and the economic arena. But make no mistake: There’s a greater chance of Netanyahu dismantling the coalition at his initiative, as he did 18 months ago, than of Kahlon, despite all his kvetching, doing anything drastic. Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, he shall not be moved.

The Singapore model

Tourism Minister Levin likes to cite the “Singapore model” as a successful casino project, one he’d like to see in Israel. But the directors general of the relevant ministries are against the casino idea; Finance Minister Kahlon is unenthusiastic; and probably not all the coalition MKs will show up for any vote that takes place. This time, it looks like Benjamin (“I get what I want”) Netanyahu will come out empty-handed.

There’s also another Singapore model, one that Israeli politicians would do well to emulate. On a visit to the city-state last week, as a guest of the Foreign Ministry and the National University of Singapore, I observed what they call, in free translation, a “meet the people session.” The pure pride of Singapore.

It’s a sacrosanct custom, one that all the members of parliament in Singapore practice piously. Once a week, the parliament member meets with constituents, listening to their problems, learning about their plights and then trying to assist them by approaching the authorities. It might sound trivial, but the meticulous professionalism and superb organization that every weekly meeting like this entails are part of what has transformed Singapore – which is a form of enlightened dictatorship, or at least a problematic democracy that lacks patience for political opponents, demonstrators or protests of any kind – into a well-known economic and social success.

The meeting I attended was held on Tuesday evening in a municipal space above an avenue of street-food booths. The representative of the Mountbatten Single Member Constituency, Lim Biow Chuan, took his place in a very small office, dense with the aroma of oils, and prepared to meet members of his constituency, who took numbers and sat on plastic chairs outside.

Around MP Lim were some 30 volunteers, most of them young, under the management of a young woman volunteer, Sim Bee Hia. They worked with admirable and enviable efficiency. Some of them took note of who had come to the meeting and what they wanted to talk about; others filled out an initial questionnaire with the constituents; and some formulated requests to the relevant government departments, or held in-depth discussions with constituents, most of them hardscrabble individuals who lack the tools to cope with the bureaucracy. In the final stage, each person was escorted into the MP’s room by the volunteer who was dealing with his case. The MP listened, perused and signed the letter drafted by the volunteer, and decided on the next steps: sending the letter, follow-up, another meeting, home visit, ensuring additional assistance, etc.

Each request is examined thoroughly and dealt with accordingly: from a request about a parking ticket to an appeal against the level of a welfare allowance. The MP signs off on every letter, once he’s persuaded that the applicant has a case. If necessary, he visits them at home. Lim told me that his trips abroad as part of his parliamentary duties take place from Wednesday morning until Tuesday afternoon, at the latest – he will never miss a meeting with constituents. I asked what happens with MPs who are less diligent. “That doesn’t happen,” he said, “and if it does, there is always election day.”

Each MP has about 50-60 volunteers, who are always ready to be summoned on Tuesday. Most of them have day jobs; some are students. They spend their Tuesday evenings in this way, from 7 P.M. until after midnight, and continue to work with the complicated cases for as long as necessary. This social project is funded in its entirety by private donors – there’s no shortage of millionaires in Singapore. If, for example, an indigent family needs major home renovations, including new furniture, or has to relocate, the donors will receive a polite phone call.

They’re always ready to help, I was told. Always? And if it’s not convenient just then? My interlocutors were amazed at the question. There is no such thing in Singapore as “an inconvenient time for helping the needy.” Every day is a day of good deeds. They are performed modestly, anonymously, without media coverage, festivals or oppressive spirituality.

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