Are the ultra-Orthodox Netanyahu's Political Achilles Heel?

Any points Netanyahu garnered with his handling of Carmel fire have been lost due to his policy on income guarantees for Haredim, which was opposed by a trio of Likud ministers.

Ariel Sharon would often tell his associates: "Every public figure wants to be respected and loved, but that doesn't always happen. Sometimes you're hated. That's unpleasant, but even that is preferable to not being taken seriously, or being laughed at."

For some time, Benjamin Netanyahu has been mired deeply in the latter situation; indeed, in private discussions, his aides say he has had "two bad months." And they look ahead with concern at the first three months of 2011, during which, political pundits predict, the date of the next elections is likely to be set.

On November 15, Netanyahu arranged a frantic, impromptu news conference at which - in the presence of the ministers of finance and of housing and construction - he announced that measures were being taken to deal with rising housing costs. As it turned out, ministers Steinitz and Atias had no clue as to why they had been summoned to the Prime Minister's Office; the conference was staged mainly to deflect media attention away from the evolving crisis about a renewed settlement construction freeze. A week later, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu scrapped the move to extend daylight savings time.

The prime minister functioned well subsequently during the Carmel fire, but the lavish media exposure he arranged for himself during the blaze seemed ridiculous at times. As was the appointment of Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg to head a special investigatory panel concerning the disaster, as that appointment crashed and burned in less time than it took to douse the flames.

Haredi students - Eyal Warshavsky
Eyal Warshavsky

Then came the issue of conversions in the army. Torn between Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu equivocated until the last minute. When he ultimately decided to support the law, which affirmed the legality of any conversions conducted during army service, he had already lost any political points he might have scored for his decision, and had to be satisfied with a consolation prize: a group photo with soldiers undergoing conversion.

At the end of last week, Netanyahu's office trumpeted his proposal for the conscription of Haredim as a historic revolution. A few hours passed, and the newspapers were already quoting Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, who is very well versed on this subject, as saying that instead of proposing to draft the ultra-Orthodox, the prime minister's recommendation really constituted a wholesale conferral of draft exemptions. Discussions about the proposal have been deferred and will not be held until the state budget is approved.

On Sunday, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi spoke out against the proposal on a Haredi college campus in Kiryat Ono; the next day he voiced his opposition before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

In dealing with the issue of income guarantees for ultra-Orthodox men, Netanyahu defied economic and social logic this week, and was opposed by a majority of the public - and of Likud members: Once again, he served the needs of Shas, and he defied a High Court of Justice ruling calling the income guarantees for yeshiva students illegal.

Amos Biderman

Ironically, Likud ministers attacked the income guarantee policy more vociferously than the opposition politicians did. During the government vote, Shas ministers, whose constituents are the main beneficiaries of the decision, disappeared or abstained - leaving Likud ministers in the rather strange situation of being assisted by Yisrael Beiteinu ministers in taking care of the dirty business of passing the legislation.

Why would Avigdor Lieberman support a policy that hurts his voters - students, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and secular Israelis? Because he does not want the government to collapse. Not yet. Last week he fought Shas Minister Eli Yishai tooth and nail to get the army conversion law passed. This week, he gave Yishai five years of payments for ultra-Orthodox.

Prior to the government vote, at a meeting of Likud ministers, Yisrael Katz defined the allocations decision as a "lose-lose" proposition, in which Likud is liable to lose support among both Orthodox and secular citizens. Katz then proceeded to vote in favor of the policy. However, three Likud ministers, Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan and Limor Livnat, voted against, and two other Likud ministers, Silvan Shalom and Dan Meridor, abstained.

"We are losing our secular voters," Shalom warned his Likud peers. "I hear more and more people say that they won't vote Likud in the next elections" - and Shalom cannot be accused of anti-Haredi inclinations.

"I doubt whether the decision we are making will stand up to High Court scrutiny," declared Sa'ar at the Likud meeting. "And we will pay a steep public price for it."

Sa'ar also spoke out against the income guarantees at the government meeting, saying: "I've been acquainted with the prime minister's views for many years, and I believe that each word I have uttered - up to now - precisely reflects his genuine opinions."

For his part, Netanyahu suspects that Sa'ar's views derive from an intention to vie with him over the Likud's leadership. Sa'ar's insistence that he has no such intention, and that he will support Netanyahu no matter what, do nothing to allay the prime minister's suspicion.

This week somebody brought to Netanyahu's attention an item published in Ma'ariv describing a Shabbat lunch held at the home of his confidant Shaya Segel, to which top officials from the PMO were invited along with Sa'ar. Netanyahu viewed the report as evidence of a dark conspiracy.

The gossip item did not mention that Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who is on a strict diet (he's already shed 23 kilograms ), also took part in the lunch. Ben-Eliezer castigated Netanyahu and claimed in front of Sa'ar and the prime minister's aides that "in January-February we will leave the government if there aren't peace negotiations! This government has nothing more to offer us."

Likud's 'cleanliness'

"Today, of the large parties, Kadima is the most corrupt one," says MK Meir Sheetrit, of Kadima - who insisted this comment be published in his name. Sheetrit was one of Kadima's founders, five years ago. He took part in drafting the party's bylaws, at the request of its leader, Ariel Sharon.

Sheetrit is a big believer in the concept and goals of a centrist party. "A party that purported to symbolize 'new politics,'" he says, sarcastically referring to Kadima head Tzipi Livni's slogans, "is today worse than the Likud and Labor. I left Likud for this? For this bluffing and lying?"

Yesterday afternoon, Kadima officials were supposed to meet to discuss the party's bylaws. Under a proposal promoted by Haim Ramon, all people who registered as Kadima members during the past five years and paid membership dues even once, upon joining, would be exempt from additional payments. New members who join after January 1 will pay an annual membership fee, as is customary among other parties. Persons who then choose to join Kadima and pay the fees will, in all likelihood, come from relatively affluent classes. That is the type that tends to support Livni's outlook.

Ramon's proposal aims to maintain Kadima's present list of 84,000 registered members, who have been exempt up to now from paying such fees. The party's leaders believe that if all of them were to be told to pay up, their numbers would shrink to 20,000, perhaps less.

The proposal's second goal is to help Livni be re-elected party head. The logic is this: Half of the 84,000 gave her her victory in the last primaries, and under the Ramon proposal, they would be allowed to vote in the next party primary.

"Most of the registered members today have been Likud regulars," Sheetrit explains, angrily. "After all, we all came from Likud. To say that we have more than 80,000 members today is a huge bluff. The party wants to mislead people. Clearly, if we require members to pay, only a few will remain. This is a new politics? I propose that everyone be required to pay an annual sum starting January 2011, and that way we'll see who belongs to Kadima and who doesn't," he adds.

Asked why he is the only party member who is speaking out on this issue, Sheetrit replies: "This is the 'silence of the lambs.' It's a bad joke. When anyone talks today about moving up primaries, Tzipi Livni puts her foot down. Today, when I ask for her opinion, she tells me: whatever the party council decides. She should have insisted about this [holding an early primary]. That's the real test of clean politics. When we established Kadima with Sharon, after all we had been through with Likud, we wanted something new, something clear. Today Likud is much cleaner than Kadima."