Adding Fuel to the Fire

Prices are rising and public furor over the government's economic policies is growing, but will Rabin Square turn into Tahrir Square? It's more likely that the prime minister will cave in, and let his finance minister take the rap.

On Tuesday evening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met in the Prime Minister's Office, along with ministerial officials. Steinitz looked pale and distracted. Netanyahu sent him to an adjacent room, and ordered him to lie down on the couch. The prime minister also called in his personal paramedic to examine Steinitz. Afterward he ordered a cup of tea for him, and insisted that he drink it.

A few hours later, at home, Steinitz still felt ill and was rushed to Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem. The finance minister has been suffering from the flu for several weeks now - during which time he worked day and night in his office, delivered lectures, and flew to the United States and back. He finally collapsed a day and a half after experiencing hell in the Likud faction; he felt abandoned, susceptible to attack at any moment.

Ofer Eini
Amos Biderman

As these events unfolded, the circle of those thirsting for Steinitz's blood widened: Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, whose power was suddenly taken away from him after the Labor Party resigned from the cabinet, is now organizing a general strike for himself. Eini has one eye on Steinitz and the other on his predecessor in the Histadrut, Amir Peretz, who is looking to regain control of Labor.

The chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, Shlomo Buhbut, also has his own political agenda. He used to be in Labor, left for Kadima, considered launching an independent party, and now wants to return to Labor and perhaps even run for its leadership. And there is Aryeh Deri, too, who is planning his return as head of a "social welfare" party, and therefore won 15 minutes of fame on television this week. Then there's Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who tries to be as militant as Deri, whom he is afraid of. And Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu, now formulating a series of "social welfare" laws, mainly related to water prices. And let's not forget the parliamentary opposition and the social welfare organizations, as well as the industrialists.

Merciless massacre

Even Steinitz understands that he is just a scapegoat, and everyone is actually after Netanyahu. But what hurt the most was the Likud members' uprising on Monday afternoon. Steinitz is a veteran MK. He is well aware that when Netanyahu is not interested in having the faction discuss an issue, the discussion does not take place.

The MKs have often wished to discuss the defense minister's approach to settlements in the territories, for instance. The prime minister has prevented that from happening several times, and Ehud Barak is not even a member of Likud. But Netanyahu did approve discussion of the price increases.

The MKs and the ministers got the message; they massacred Steinitz mercilessly. Some arrows flew toward Netanyahu as well. The next evening, after the gathering in the PMO, Steinitz received reports from a political meeting held by faction member MK Danny Danon in the settlement of Ariel. It was attended by about 200 activists, as well as Likud ministers Moshe Kahlon and Yisrael Katz, and MK Ofir Akunis, who are close to the prime minister. Katz argued that only a reduction in fuel prices would enable the government to continue - after Steinitz declared two days earlier at the Herzliya Conference that those prices should not be lowered.

So what did the finance minister dream about that night? About MKs who go around blaming him already for Likud's loss in the next elections? Perhaps about Yisrael Katz, who, according to reporters, is preparing to take over Steinitz's position? Or maybe about Bibi and Sara Netanyahu, who, according to wagging tongues, see Steinitz as an electoral burden?

With dreams like those and with friends like that, it's no wonder the finance minister needed an ambulance at 2 A.M.

Danon's transformation

Until now, MK Danon used to organize intifadas on behalf of Netanyahu against construction freezes. This week he became "socially oriented." Like his Likud colleagues, he voted only six weeks ago in favor of the state budget, including its edicts. And, like his colleagues, Danon is looking ahead to Likud primaries.

On the national party slate, on which all the MKs and ministers must run, there is only room for 18 members. The 19th slot and beyond are for new members, from the districts. About one-third of the members of the present Likud faction, about seven or eight people, will not serve in the 19th Knesset. Ministers, deputy ministers and the Knesset speaker have a built-in advantage in the contest; the MKs are less fortunate.

"The change I've undergone took place several weeks ago," Danon said this week. "I was at a parlor meeting in Hadera, and a member of the central committee told me his mother had stopped showering. She'd received a large water bill and panicked.

"Next came the fuel, and the bread," he continued. "Today our most important activists, the branch heads, even my family members, are telling me they won't vote Likud next time. Our people in Acre wanted to demonstrate Friday; I asked them to wait. Members of the central committee, for whom Bibi [Netanyahu] is God, are telling me they're finished with him."

Danon announced two days ago that he had collected the necessary number of signatures to convene the Likud central committee for a discussion of the social issues at hand. But if that meeting happens at all, it will only be a few weeks from now - after Netanyahu has bestowed favors on the general public, and when a new agenda has grabbed the headlines.

Danon: "But even if the prices of fuel and water and bread are reduced, the central committee members and activists will remember what happened earlier. In the previous budget, two years ago, the treasury pulled a fast one - a NIS 50 charge for a visit to the emergency room. That was eventually canceled, but we still remember it."

You, the Likud MKs, only remember the people's distress when your seats are in danger.

Danon: "Look, about a month ago, when fuel wasn't yet in the headlines, Netanyahu asked me how significant it was. I told him it was very significant, but at the time they were only talking about water. He made a mistake by only remembering now."

The conversion effect

Two years ago yesterday, a few hours after the polls for the 18th Knesset elections closed, Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni stood on separate platforms and celebrated their victory. They were both right. Kadima defeated Likud by one seat, but still remained in the opposition. Netanyahu, at the head of a faction with 27 seats, was able to form a government, but one without a solid core. His coalition partners, not he, will decide when we march to the polls again.

"The legislation on army conversions is liable to lead to early elections. We must begin to prepare," said senior coalition partner Lieberman to members of his faction during a discussion two weeks ago. With amazing timing, part of what he said was broadcast two days ago on Channel 10.

For two full years Lieberman has been declaring that Yisrael Beiteinu will never leave the coalition and that this government is going to be the first in many years that will finish its term, in late October 2013. Meanwhile, the comments aired on TV two days ago give the impression that he has had it. If Lieberman insists on promoting the army conversion law during the seven weeks that remain until the Knesset winter session ends, the coalition will not survive.

Today it is clear that the Netanyahu government will not fall because of diplomatic issues, only because of the matter of religion and state. If the government collapses because of the dispute between the secular and religious, it will dramatically affect the makeup of the next government: If Netanyahu forms it, he won't be able to build a coalition like this again. The next government will almost certainly not have ultra-Orthodox parties, particularly if it is headed by Kadima.

Following the broadcast of Lieberman's remarks Wednesday evening, the PMO began a frenzy of hasty consultations. People close to the prime minister are convinced the foreign minister's words indicate that a major plot is being concocted. Netanyahu's confidants believe the hatchers of this plot include, in addition to Lieberman, his good friend Deri and his good friend Haim Ramon, Livni's man.

In addition to getting 20 seats in the next elections, Lieberman has one more objective: to oust Netanyahu from Likud, allowing Lieberman to become the most prominent right-wing leader in Israel. This can be achieved only through new elections.

The cabinet meeting on Sunday, in which the ministers discussed the Yoav Galant affair, was tense. Barak and the minister who almost became defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, fought and Netanyahu tried to impose order. Other ministers, who were not connected to the farce, vented their rage on Barak.

When Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon's turn came to speak, he asked the attorney general: "Would you like to hear some history?"

"I love history," replied Yehuda Weinstein.

Simhon told him that in the early 1950s, three moshavim were built east of Binyamina - Aviel, Givat Nili and Amikam, which were affiliated with the moshavim of Herut Beitar, a right-wing movement that was ostracized at the time, the heyday of Mapai (the forerunner of Labor ). When the Menashe Regional Council was formed, which was controlled by the left-wing Mapam kibbutzim, its members refused to adopt the three Herut moshavim.

The ostracized moshavim had no choice but to form a separate regional council, Alona. During those years, said moshavnik Simhon, the Moshavim Movement was very powerful. Its leaders had the exclusive right to decide which moshavim would receive certain quotas and resources. The three Alona moshavim got nothing.

"And do you know who was No. 2 in the Moshavim Movement at the time, and head of its economic institutions?" asked Simhon. "The one who was hostile to the three Herut moshavim, who didn't give them a cent?"

"Nu, who?" asked the ministers.

"Nahum Gantz," said Simhon. "Benny's father."