If Netanyahu Can't Pass the Budget, There's Always War With Iran

If Netanyahu believes he can both pass a moderate budget and avoid being punished by the electorate, he’ll go for it. If not, he’ll move up the elections. Meanwhile, he’s doing a little personal damage control.

The ministers don’t understand what’s happening to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Are the two of them interested in passing a budget full of painful cuts and in seeking a majority among the coalition − or are they simply bluffing until after the holidays, when the Knesset will be dissolved and the elections moved up?

Steinitz and Netanyahu, mainly the former, continue to assure us that our economic situation is still much better than that of many European countries. What will they look like when the true dimensions of the hole in the budget are discovered? The ministers are becoming confused and angry. The memory of the 2006 elections, when the Likud was punished because of the edicts of then-Finance Minister Netanyahu, and saw its representation dwindle to 12 seats, is still fresh in their minds.

This coming Sunday, the government was supposed to conduct a very belated, initial discussion of the budget; it was canceled, and a new date has yet to be scheduled. The feeling in the corridors of power is that chaos reigns. At the end of this week, Netanyahu’s office announced that the coalition partners are actually tending now toward supporting the 2013 budget, since none of the parties is
interested in early elections.

Even if that’s true, it’s not important. What is important is what Netanyahu wants: If he believes he can both pass a moderate and reduced budget, and avoid being punished by the electorate, he will go for it. If not, he will move up the elections and pass a budget after they are held, even if his natural allies agree to everything he asks of them and beg him not to opt for an early ballot.

Netanyahu is presently in a weak position, and any additional economic decrees certainly won’t improve his situation. To date he has refrained from cutting the budget in three areas: security, education and infrastructure. For him this is a matter of ideology. For coalition reasons he has also avoided cutting back allowances to the weaker strata of the population, many of whom are Likud voters. Today he cannot avoid cutbacks there.

There are some who think that even if a budget is passed and the incumbent government continues to serve until the end of 2013, there will still be a need for an additional budget cut, some time in June or July of that year, right on the eve of the elections. And that’s even before we’ve begun to talk about Iran. A war will cost the economy hundreds of billions of shekels.

On the other hand, when the entire nation is a battlefront, Netanyahu will have no difficulty passing whatever he wants. It is no coincidence that one of the ministers who has consistently opposed an attack says: “Don’t worry, war with Iran will solve all the problems.”

At times like these we must pay attention to Yisrael Beiteinu head and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

For his part, he is already deeply involved in an election campaign. In his sights are Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ‏(Abu Mazen‏) and the Palestinian leadership. When it comes to his previous enemy, Egypt, he actually spoke this week with the requisite diplomacy when he invited President Mohammed Morsi to visit Israel, “as the guest of President Peres.” At least he spared Morsi the second part of the sentence that he hurled at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from the Knesset dais a few years ago: “And if he doesn’t want to come, let him go to hell.”

Pundits wondered whether it was by chance that Lieberman didn’t bother to mention Netanyahu as Morsi’s host. After all the Egyptian president fills an executive position, and his counterpart in Israel is the prime minister. Lieberman is certainly aware of that.

Given the good, some say very good, relations between Lieberman and Peres, no option should be removed from the table. We can assume that in Netanyahu’s bureau, where the level of suspicion is always a bit above the maximum, they took note of the foreign minister’s statement.

A slip-up in conduct

If Netanyahu could turn back the wheel a month or so, he wouldn’t have told the family lawyer, David Shimron, to ask for permission in writing from the state comptroller to make a number of changes in the prime minister’s investment portfolio. Netanyahu made a mistake, says one source in his bureau ‏(a rare statement‏). He understood that he had done so even before the question relating to his investments from Haaretz’s Zvi Zrahiya landed in his office. Netanyahu changed his mind, claimed his associate, on August 22, in another letter he sent to the comptroller − even before he heard from Shimron that the comptroller had agreed to his original request, subject to government approval. Zrahiya approached the bureau five days later, on August 26.

The resulting attack on Netanyahu by opposition leader Shaul Mofaz ‏(Kadima‏) and his predecessor in that role, Shelly Yacimovich ‏(Labor‏), was extreme. Netanyahu’s behavior was legal. Although it wouldn’t have hurt if he had followed Yacimovich’s own lead and explained to the public the nature of his investments and his assets.

Netanyahu didn’t fail, in essence. But where did he slip up? In his conduct. With a bit of forethought he could have spared himself this unnecessary embarrassment. After all, in the end he was the one who changed his mind, because he understood the public ramifications of altering his portfolio on the eve of a possible attack ‏(or not‏) in Iran, and on the eve of a possible recession ‏(or not‏) in the world, as well as here in Israel.

Why do these things always happen to him? Why does he make decisions and change his mind, after the damage has already been done? Maybe he doesn’t have sufficiently experienced people around him. Netanyahu is living in a protected bubble. He hardly ever meets with real people. For that purpose he has advisers who are mere mortals, who are supposed to tell him how things will be received by his subjects, and to prevent him from making mistakes.

The person who behaved with blind loyalty, as expected, was attorney Shimron. In a conference-call press briefing this week for business reporters, he said he was the one who had pressured Netanyahu “in the past year, and even before” to make changes in his solid portfolio, which is composed for the most part of bonds, in light of fluctuations in the world economy. At the end of a year and more fruitless nagging, Shimron continued, Netanyahu gave in and gave the attorney a green light to approach the comptroller.

Shimron’s explanation is actually discomfiting. Does Netanyahu − who has unparalleled expertise about everything that moves in the global and local economy, and even serves as the minister of economic strategy − really need the financial advice of attorney Shimron? Does Netanyahu, whose assets are worth about NIS 40 million that he himself earned, according to Forbes magazine, need to be urged to change the contents of his investment portfolio if its losing money?

That’s not the Bibi that we know. But if the attorney said so, the attorney is always right.

Where’s the magic?

The “text-messaging powers,” as they are called by the Likud ministers, started working at sunrise, even before the cabinet meeting on Sunday, when the cell phones began to vibrate. Migron on the line. The burglarized Cossacks are once again pleading and cursing people such as Ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Benny Begin, who went out of their way for them, as well as the prime minister, the State Prosecutor’s Office, the High Court of Justice.

This time, the settlers and the magical power they usually wield over the Likud’s elected officials did not deliver the goods: The ministers did not go out of their way to help the illegal outpost and its residents; only two Likud MKs ‏(Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon‏) came to their assistance. All the rest stood aside and watched how a group of shameless people waste the political capital of the settlement movement on the wrong hilltop and on an unworthy objective.

After the residents of Migron had exhausted the government and its representatives, a new settlement was built for them with public funds, on nearby Givat Hayekev. In return for violating the law, the offenders thus received a gift worth NIS 30 million from the government. When you have to placate our pioneers on the other side of the Green Line, there are no limits to generosity. When you have to rescue a television station that sinned with one investigative report too many, the government’s fist is tightly closed in fury.

The government’s generosity did not prevent the settlers from coarsely attacking even the members of the settlement department of the World Zionist Organization ‏(who worked day and night to build the new houses‏), and from complaining that the houses were not ready.

Not only in the judicial arena did these people absorb the blow they deserved by law two days ago. In the public political arena too, residents of Migron, with their great talent, also turned victory into defeat. Threats against “their” politicians were of no avail. Their large appetite and rudeness, and their aggressive “We deserve it!” mentality, managed to put off the prominent supporters of the settlement movement in the ruling party.

“They always have a right to more. They will always want more. They don’t have the wisdom to cut their losses, or to celebrate achievements. After all, they have a thousand better issues to fight over. But nothing interests them,” said a senior member of the Likud this week, who is not suspected of leftist leanings, in evident disgust.

Part of the problem, in his opinion, stems from the fact that there is nobody in charge. “There is nobody to restrain them, to exercise authority. To call them to order when necessary,” complained the official. “Since the rift between the settlers and the Yesha ‏(Judea and Samaria‏) Council − as a result of the failure of the struggle to prevent the evacuation from Gush Katif − there is no authority there. Everyone does what he wants. Netanyahu is building thousands of residential units. Not only in the settlement blocs, but even in Kiryat Arba.

This is the most settlement-friendly government. But with every small crisis, they curse us and Netanyahu.”
Two days ago I asked Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, how it is that Likud ministers are accusing the settlers of chronic ingratitude. Dayan realized that his comments would be published while the residents of the outpost were busy packing their belongings. But it’s hard not to understand what he really thinks of his clients.

“There’s no question that mistakes were made in the handling of the Migron issue, quite a few of them by the people of Migron. But the time has not yet come to do this accounting,” said Dayan, even before the High Court decision. “You don’t do that when you’re in the eye of the storm and the residents are facing their most difficult hour. There was no place at this time for [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak’s letter signed by [Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Eitan] Dangot, for the threat by Bogey [Ya’alon] and for the cold shoulder from Begin, even if I completely understand where it’s coming from.

“Of course the power of the leadership has been undermined. What there was before Gush Katif won’t return, and what there was when we were only 100,000 settlers will not return. But these are the problems of the well-off, because today we’re almost 400,000 people.

“As was the case after the uprooting of Elon Moreh, when three settlements were built in place of the original one − that will also be the case with Migron. Here too, three settlements will be built. Their locations are already known. It’s true, because of our conduct, that is seen as a failure rather than an achievement. And that’s a pity.

“Local compromises can be made, and we have to work together with the government rather than against it,” recommends Dayan to the settlers, “and to help the government vis-a-vis the prosecutor’s office rather than opposing both the government and the prosecution. Unfortunately, not everyone understands that, just as not everyone understands that the power of Likud members won’t always solve everything. It won’t.”