Everyone Is Blaming Bibi

With the housing protest gaining momentum, the prime minister is facing largest domestic crisis since he took office; he now has the opportunity to come up with a new agenda, will he rise to the occasion?

It has been two weeks since the tent protest began on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. "The state of Tel Aviv," once scorned as a symbol of indulgence and alienation, has birthed a symbol of the diametric opposite of nouveau riche decadence.

During this time, the political establishment has received an important lesson about modesty. Politicians who have been calling themselves socially oriented for years do not dare approach the tent encampment, for fear they will be kicked out. One such politician was smuggled in and out of his favorite fancy restaurant on the boulevard through its kitchen last week. And the parliamentary opposition has been stripped naked.

Illustration (Amos Biderman)
Amos Biderman

This is the worst domestic crisis Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced since his term began two-and-a-half years ago. Talks with the Palestinians will evidently not be renewed as long as he is prime minister, and this won't necessarily be his fault. Indeed, he now has the opportunity to invent a new agenda.

Netanyahu could cut a deal with Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, even over Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's head. He did this with his government's first budget. On Wednesday Eini jumped onto the protest bandwagon, somewhat tardily. Since the Labor Party split and left the coalition, his influence has declined. Now he has a chance to restore it.

People in the corridors of politics are wondering how Netanyahu will regain control of the media agenda. One possibility: In about a month, the government committee investigating the phenomenon of economic concentration is due to publish its report. It is supposed to include recommendations that would cause serious financial harm to tycoons like Nochi Dankner, Yitzhak Tshuva, Ilan Ben-Dov and their pals. Netanyahu intends to put himself at the forefront of the battle against the magnates.

Another scenario under discussion involves the return of captured soldier Gilad Shalit. If that deal starts rolling, the middle-class revolt will drop out of the headlines. Who would dare complain about Netanyahu after he returns our collective native son to his parents?

There is also the option raised by MK Zehava Gal-On of Meretz. "I don't totally discount the possibility that Netanyahu, in his cynicism, will replace the Rothschild protest tents with reservist encampments," she suggested.

Would he start a war? Would he attack Iran?

Gal-On: "A war is a major thing. But he may heat things up, call up reservists and create hysteria around the Palestinians. He will try to scare people. Look what he did before the flotilla and the fly-in - and, it goes without saying, the United Nations General Assembly."

Aren't you getting a bit carried away?

"No. He can't afford two fronts. He needs domestic quiet if he wants to face down the Palestinians and the world in September. He will not go to war because he is more calculating and more cowardly than [his predecessor Ehud ] Olmert. But he is also a spinner and he will do everything he can to divert discussion from social issues, which demand solutions, to matters where he is strong - terrifying people."

The Prime Minister's Bureau did not respond to Gal-On's remarks by press time.

Likud trivia

On Monday, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar gave the Likud faction members a lesson in political trivia.

"In the past 20 years, every time the election campaign revolved around a socioeconomic issue, Likud lost. And every time the issue was political or security related, Likud won," he said.

"The 1992 the slogans were 'We are fed up with the corruption' and 'Israel is waiting for Rabin.' In 1999, the elections revolved around that old lady in the crowded hospital corridor. In 2006 the campaign was definitely social: Amir Peretz and the pensioners prevailed. We paid for the economic decrees that rescued the economy from a deep crisis but irritated our voters," he explained.

"However," continued Saar, "in 1996, the elections were held in the shadow of the Oslo agreements and the suicide bombings. In 2001 and in 2003, the elections were held amid the second intifada. In 2009 we headed to elections after the Gaza disengagement failed and the country was facing rocket fire in the north and the south.

"The question isn't whether we are right or whether we have improved people's well-being. That is secondary. The question is how things are perceived. Even when our economic arguments are correct, it doesn't 'speak' to the public emotionally. It's more of a generational discourse," he explained.

"Under these circumstances, we need to speak to the emotions. At the moment we are in a 'social' period. These periods pass, but they do reflect something real that is happening in society. Fortunately for us, this is happening now, when the elections are far away. We have enough time to address the issues and get results."

Netanyahu listened. The previous day, while meeting with the Likud cabinet ministers, Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan suggested that he open communication channels with citizens - mainly, online.

"Give me proposals," said Netanyahu. Eitan prepared one and sent it to the Prime Minister's Office. He did not get a reply, so he addressed the public on his own, asking them for their views, in general. Within 24 hours, between Tuesday and Wednesday, the minister received 600 letters. He had to censor only two of them due to inappropriate language; the rest were sent to the Prime Minister's Office.

Unlike Netanyahu's spokesmen, who have tried to paint the protest in leftist colors, Eitan says: "Likud voters are coming from the demonstrations and saying to me: 'Mickey, we are suffering.' They are telling me: 'True, the left controls the demonstrations, but the vast majority of participants aren't from any particular party and the problems are not only the left's: They are everyone's problems.'

"We have to enable communication with the public. In this era, that's easy. People feel alienated. People don't believe us. I understand all the protesters. A person with housing problems can shout, 'Bibi go home!' This is not a political demand, but rather a demand for a fix. Likud members are shouting at Bibi to go home, too."

No responsibility for Shas

On Tuesday morning, someone entered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's room and placed a copy of Haaretz in front of him. The issue included a survey examining the public's opinions on the tent protest. "Your honor," the person told the rabbi, "look at this professor's survey! Shas went from 10 Knesset seats in the previous survey to 13."

The rabbi looked up. "Fine," he muttered, and went back to reading sacred texts.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Shas chairman Eli Yishai has been interior minister, and is thus responsible for the government planning and building committees. Shas' No. 2, Ariel Atias, is housing and construction minister, and thus responsible for the Israel Land Administration. Netanyahu is blaming these institutions for high housing costs and for the catastrophic housing situation in general. Both of the reforms that he is so proud of are aimed at shaking them up.

And lo and behold, the polls now show Shas gaining three Knesset seats at the expense of Likud, which dropped from 31 (in a March survey ) to 27. Ever since the housing crisis erupted, Yishai and Atias have been acting like oppositionists. Yishai is throwing out threats to resign, comparing the government to tycoons and urging the Knesset speaker to postpone the summer recess. Atias, for his part, is giving incessant interviews and stating that for two years, he has been warning Netanyahu about what was going to happen to the housing market.

The nation is relieving the two Shas people of responsibility and directing its protest exclusively at Netanyahu.

This week's Haaretz-Dialog poll, conducted under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of the Tel Aviv University statistics department, found that Netanyahu is way under the red line for a incumbent prime minister - with 32 percent supporting and 54 percent opposed to him. However, the Likud, right and ultra-Orthodox bloc is maintaining its strength: 66 Knesset seats versus 54 for the center, left and Arab bloc. Even if there were elections today, Netanyahu could still form a government.

The main opposition faction, Kadima, lost four Knesset seats from the previous survey (31 to 27 ). Opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi Livni has been punished for taking stances only on diplomatic issues and not social matters. The Kadima seats are sliding over to the Labor Party, which has doubled its strength since the last survey, from six to 12.

Three of the five contenders for the Labor leadership - MKs Isaac Herzog, Amir Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich - are playing the so-called social card. Peretz is a battered candidate and Herzog is perceived as establishment. Yachimovich is social opposition from head to toe, verging on communism. If her rivals once argued that Labor under her leadership would become a niche party, suddenly that "niche" has taken over the national agenda.

In the survey, 8 percent of the respondents replied that if the elections were held now, they definitely would vote for a new party headed by Aryeh Deri (eight or nine seats ), while 5 percent definitely would vote for a party led by Yair Lapid (six or seven seats ), should he run. Previous surveys have indicated that at the movement of truth, new parties do indeed garner the votes from people who promised to vote for them beforehand.

The survey shows that 12 percent of Kadima voters will definitely vote for Lapid (about three seats ), while 37 percent of the Shas voters are certain they will vote for Deri (four seats ). Only 8 percent of the Labor voters see Lapid as a worthy address.

Deri is already in the political race. He is ostensibly working on setting up a new party, but his hope is that at the last minute, Rabbi Ovadia will bump Yishai aside and anoint him king of Shas again.

Lapid is campaigning from his Friday evening current events show on Channel 2, "Ulpan Shishi," and in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, where he has a column. The tent-and-stroller intifada could be his big moment. He has nothing to say on the diplomatic front, and any case, relations between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox do not look like a major issue in the coming elections.

If Lapid were to announce today that he were resigning from journalism and shifting his affairs to the protest encampment on Rothschild Boulevard, he really could become the young generation's leader. This is a huge gamble. But it is a necessary one: Lapid is apparently planning to run in the next elections in the form of a protest party - as a candidate for change, the representative of the young.

If Yachimovich is elected head of Labor, she could address voters' concerns in those areas. Jump, Yair, jump. Show us what you're worth.