Another One Bites the Dust?

One of the few good things the financial commentators had to say about Yuval Steinitz is that he's an honest man. But now he, too, may be embroiled in an investigation

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed MK Yuval Steinitz, Ph.D, as finance minister on March 31, 2009, the financial commentators didn't have many good things to say about him. At least he's an honest man with clean hands, and has never been tied to any allegations of wrongdoing, they said.

Yuval Steinitz
Olivia Pitusi

But now, an investigation by Channel 10 television correspondents Chico Menashe and Matan Hodorov has found that Steinitz allegedly behaved inappropriately vis-a-vis a contracting company that employs his brother-in-law Gary Hakim as a consultant. Steinitz has now found himself in the dubious club of politicians with a file in the State Comptroller's Office.

For now it's only a preliminary investigation. If the issue grows into a full investigation, it could continue for months. The minister and senior treasury officials who were involved in the Shafir Engineering project (digging tunnels for the railroad between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem ) would be interrogated by the comptroller. All kinds of people could crop up with all kinds of unpleasant stories. In the past decade, most of the criminal investigations into public figures, including Ehud Olmert, Abraham Hirchson and Shlomo Benizri (the latter two of whom are currently behind bars ), began with an investigation by the state comptroller.

In private conversations since the Channel 10 investigation, Steinitz's main argument has been that he didn't know - he didn't know his brother-in-law was a consultant for Shafir Engineering. Had he known, he would have had his deputy handle the matter, which involved granting the company permission to bring in foreign workers, he says. He makes two other arguments: First, that he approved fewer workers than the Interior Ministry recommended, and second, that he himself decided not to grant Shafir another tender, thus denying it a profit of about NIS 2 billion.

There are nonetheless a few troublesome aspects to the affair. First off, why did the minister handle an issue that the ministry's professional echelon is supposed to handle? Second, why did he ignore the recommendation of his ministry's officials that 500 workers was enough, and approve 630? Third, Gary Hakim is not just a brother-in-law; he has been Steinitz's political confidant for many years. Fourth, Steinitz takes a tough line on the issue of foreign workers, and even supports expelling the children of foreign workers who were born here. When did he start granting permits so generously?

Steinitz's associates say the prime minister urged Steinitz to get the tunnels project moving. Netanyahu, the "meta-finance minister," told him: "Enough! Do what has to be done, don't pay attention to the professional echelon, this is a national project!" And Steinitz acted. Steinitz may not look like a particularly independent minister in this scenario, but when the house is on fire, you aren't finicky about the means of rescue.

Run, Aryeh, run

Aryeh Deri's daughter got married in Jerusalem this week. The festive event was attended by the usual gang under investigation, both suspects and convicts - Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Olmert's former bureau chief Shula Zaken, former justice minister Haim Ramon and of course, the father of the bride himself.

There was also another guest who does not belong to the club: Kadima head Tzipi Livni, who showed up in a pantsuit with a loose hairdo, a few hours after she had once again attacked the ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset. She received a warm welcome.

Livni has never been seen attending any of these festive occasions, and not by chance: Deri retired from politics in 1999, the year when Livni entered public life. Their paths have never crossed. But now they have a mutual friend, named Haim Ramon.

Did Aryeh Deri, who is planning to return to politics, know that by inviting Livni, he was signaling to the world that they're connected? Of course. Does Deri know about Livni's new agenda of decrying ultra-Orthodox coercion, school rosters that lack the core subjects, separation between men and women on Jerusalem buses, and increasing the allowances for children? Of course. Would Livni prefer that Deri, not the current Shas chair, Eli Yishai, head the party in the next election, or alternatively, that he head a new party that steals votes from Shas? We can assume she's thought about it.

It is hard to imagine how Livni would form a coalition in the next Knesset, even if Kadima defeats Likud again. The right-wing Haredi bloc opposes her automatically. Only if that bloc has some sort of implosion will the balance of powers change, thus giving Livni a chance to be prime minister some day. They say that if Deri doesn't run on the Shas list, he'll form a new political party, less ultra-Orthodox, less nationalistic, more open to other sectors.

In that case, it's no wonder that Livni was at the wedding and Eli Yishai wasn't. While she was standing in the women's section watching the men dancing in happy circles, Livni was probably muttering to herself: Run, Aryeh, run.

The Libya affair

In one of the Israeli legislature's most recent acts of chauvinism, the Knesset House Committee convened this week to discuss revoking the parliamentary immunity of Arab MKs who went to Libya to meet Muammar Gadhafi. The initiator was MK Michael Ben Ari of the National Union, a declared follower of the extreme right-wing rabbi, the deceased Meir Kahane. If Ben Ari were to run for the Knesset under the name of Kahane's party, he would have been blocked by law.

The chair of the Knesset House Committee is MK Yariv Levin, who finds himself heading one of the most influential committees in the Knesset. Almost all his Likud faction colleagues are ministers. Levin is a lawyer, a polite, articulate and thin man.

In the House Committee, the right has a clear majority. Levin himself is part of Likud's right wing. This week, in the Knesset plenum, he called the High Court of Justice the "High Court of Injustice" because of its decision to open Highway 443 to Palestinian traffic.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin made an uncharacteristic effort to attend the committee meeting. He is also from Likud's right wing, but he is a democrat. He pleaded with committee members to oppose the proposal, for two reasons. The first is a matter of principle: Israel does not consider Libya an enemy country, so visiting is not considered a crime. The second reason is practical: An extreme act such as revoking Knesset members' parliamentary immunity would make Israel even more of a pariah in the eyes of the world, he explained, particularly following the affair of the Spanish clown and Noam Chomsky, who were denied entry to Israel. It will play into the hands of the Arab MKs, who are waiting to storm foreign television as tortured martyrs, he said.

The committee members were not impressed. In his despair, Rivlin grabbed Netanyahu that evening at the far end of the plenary hall.

"You must prevent this disaster," he told Netanyahu. "If their rights are revoked not by a court but by a political committee in the Knesset, Israel will be seen as an apartheid state. You won't be able to go anywhere in the world."

Next Monday, when the Knesset House Committee is scheduled to vote on the matter, Netanyahu is supposed to be in Canada, a country that sanctifies minority rights. The following day, he is scheduled to be in the United States. Netanyahu summoned coalition chairman and party-mate Zeev Elkin. "Can something be done?" he asked. "Can we calm things down?"

Elkin explained that the committee has a clear majority in favor of sanctions, even if not sweeping ones like those proposed by Ben Ari. Elkin suggested that Netanyahu speak to committee chairman Levin.

On Wednesday evening I spoke to Levin. He said that he hadn't heard from Netanyahu.

"I have great respect for the prime minister," said Levin, "and am always attentive to him. But everyone does his job according to his responsibilities. The committee will convene on Monday morning as scheduled, and I intend to interpret our authority in the toughest manner possible."

The meeting that did or didn't happen

Two things happened earlier this week, but there won't be any formal confirmation of them. Nor will there be a denial. On Sunday afternoon, the subcommittee for intelligence and secret services of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee met in the defense minister's office in a tower in the Kirya Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. The next day, at 9 P.M., the members of that subcommittee, the Knesset's most secret, came to Netanyahu's office.

That was the forum's first work meeting since the Netanyahu government was formed 14 months ago. Up until this week, as Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth a month ago, neither Netanyahu nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak had bothered to convene the group even once, unlike previous prime ministers and defense ministers.

Barnea's report apparently stirred something. Netanyahu and Barak called up the committee, which includes the highest-ranking MKs: former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, former defense ministers Shaul Mofaz and Amir Peretz, former Shin Bet security services chief Avi Dichter, former finance minister Roni Bar-On, committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi and a few others. Its meetings have never been publicized, neither beforehand nor afterward.

On Tuesday the Knesset plenum conducted a discussion. The prime minister spoke, and the opposition head concluded the discussion. In her speech, Livni turned to Netanyahu and said, cynically: "Yesterday evening we were in your office. Don't worry, I won't say what we talked about, but 50 percent of what we heard from you we heard here again, in your speech."

It seems Livni was referring to the meeting of the subcommittee. Netanyahu explained his philosophy to them, which was also cited here last Friday: No to withdrawals that will enable Iran and its satellites to enter evacuated territories. We learned about the MKs' disappointment from Bar-On's angry remark at the end of the meeting: "For that you invited us here?"