Netanyahu Sees Opportunity in the Social Protests

The prime minister sounds truly committed to tackling the issues brought up by the protesters, writes Yossi Verter, but that doesn't mean he likes the protest leaders themselves, whom he thinks wish him ill.

"Why is it so expensive here? Why? Labor is certainly not more expensive here than in Italy or France. So why do we pay so much more for everything here? For diapers. For cheese. For apartments. Not to mention cars.

"I'll tell you why: because there isn't real competition. Because it's all cartels and monopolies. That's the main problem and I am going to change this. We will address this, we will lower indirect taxes, we will build many more apartments and we will lower the cost of buying and renting.

Netanyahu - Daniel Bar-On - June 29 2011
Daniel Bar-On

"This could be our big opportunity. Are they saying that after this protest the country will be different? Definitely. Very different. You can't complain about the economy. The economy works. Education, communications and transportation work. There are complaints, justified complaints, about the cost of living. My political strategy for the coming year is simply to address all these problems seriously."

The speaker of these words was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his marathon discussions with his cabinet ministers and advisers, held mainly at night, Netanyahu sounds like he is committed to change and like he identifies with the protest and its enthusiasm. He doesn't necessarily sound, however, like he identifies with those who are leading and fueling it, whom he thinks wish him ill.

"That's Netanyahu," says one of his associates. "He is convincing himself that this has always been his philosophy."

The prime minister knows that as long as he has Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, his government will last forever. He believes the opposition striving to topple him faces two main obstacles: his coalition's political stability and the time remaining until elections. He has at least a year and a half to revise and improve. Today's agenda is not the agenda of late 2012. He is hearing politicians calling Habima Square his Tahrir Square. He is not amused, as he watches his friend, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, caged in a Cairo court. "Tahrir Square? Have I sent an army to shoot demonstrators?" he asks.

Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

A recent survey found that Likud has hardly been damaged by the protest. It's Kadima that's losing votes, to parties to the left. "Kadima was and still is a fragile party," Netanyahu tells his associates. "It could be eroded. Right now by Labor and Meretz, tomorrow by Yair Lapid. Ultimately there won't be much left of it. No protest is going to change this."

The National Housing Committees Law, which the Knesset passed Wednesday, is his pride and joy. Not for a moment did he consider the protesters' demand that he delay passing the law so it could be changed.

"What do they want?" he asks. "Many more apartments, so the price goes down, right? This law will inundate the country with apartments within a year and a half. What is the biggest monopoly in the country? Housing. Land. We've addressed this."

He is telling himself: Many European economies are asking what they can cut. In Israel, the question is who gets money. Who is responsible for the flourishing economy? A responsible, wise economic policy, which he is leading. He wishes he were getting credit.

Yet he knows that no matter what he does, he will not get the tent protesters to pull up camp. As of yesterday, he had not decided whether to meet the protest leaders. He is not eager to do so. He is due to announce who will be on the team that will hear the protesters' demands, formulate a thorough document and submit it to him. He wants a plan by mid-September, ahead of the High Holidays.

Playing for time

September will also bring the United Nations General Assembly vote on recognition of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu sees an opportunity here. The Palestinians, encouraged by international recognition, may at long last agree to come to the negotiating table.

An economic opportunity and a diplomatic opportunity offer Netanyahu a chance to restart his term. He intends to have his plan by mid-September, and then on September 20, Palestinians are expected to launch mass marches in the West Bank, as a top Palestinian spokesperson said this week. Then comes the UN vote, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the first rains. The demonstrators' horizon is limited.

Netanyahu and the demonstrators are playing for time. Last Monday was a bad day for the tent encampment. The leaders' childish demand to meet with Netanyahu on camera created an ill wind among the tents. The young men and women who birthed this protest on Facebook and imbued it with new rules did not realize that the rules apply only to them, not to the other side.

Fortunately, they had someone who got them back on track before they completely derailed: National Student Union chair Itzik Shmuli. If President Shimon Peres, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and Histadrut labor federation head Ofer Eini are the responsible adults, Shmuli deserves the title of responsible youngster. He radiates intelligence, judgment and seriousness. He is in contact with Eini. Were it not for Shmuli and the battalions of students at his disposal, there may not have been any protest right now.

On Monday, Netanyahu's associates wanted to organize a show of support. They called the Likud local council heads and sat them at the huge oval table in the Knesset faction's conference room. Nesher Mayor David Amar called the protest movement "a protest of water pipes, guitars and sushi." Most people present broke out in laughter. The next day the headlines screamed: "Likud opposes the protest." And the Rothschild encampment breathed a sigh of relief.

On Tuesday I received a phone call from Sharon Shahaf, "from the Rothschild tent camp." She called herself a camp spokesperson, even though she was calling from an office.

"Yesterday we had a bad day in the media," she said. "People here have lost their excessive zeal, and that's a good thing. People have realized they need to be more modest. We had some days of very good, supportive publicity. People with a bit more experience certainly would have understood this wasn't going to last forever. But we do not have much experience. We've made several real mistakes and we learned. In our demand to negotiate in front of cameras, we wanted to say that we oppose agreements sealed in the middle of the night. But it turned out very bad for us, and we quickly retracted it."

Where are you going from here?

"It's scary what's happening here. There are social groups that have been dreaming for decades that something like this would happen, and they don't know what to do with it. There are leftist groups here that have been talking about the diplomatic situation, the territories and the Palestinians for years, and they haven't been able to get people out into the streets. Now they don't know what to do when thousands turn out for a social protest. We're having trouble handling the pace of growth here. This is challenging. This is not an Ashkenazi leftist protest and we don't intend to topple the government. And I am saying this even though I am from the left."

Crazies at the tent camp

Yesha Council head Naftali Bennet has been trying since day one to prove to people living within the Green Line that the settlers are not monsters. His Tuesday appearance at the Rothschild tent camp is part of the grand plan. In truth, it's odd that Bennet, who has healthy media instincts and not a bad sense of timing, waited nearly three weeks.

Perhaps you were just envious of the tremendous public support for the protest, which is sweeping up voters from the right, and of the success of the Saturday night demonstration.

"Not at all. This protest has been our protest from the start. But when we saw who was leading it, we were in no hurry to join. Anarchists - people who have taken on Israel Defense Forces soldiers. We don't want any connection to them. We have no problem cooperating with the left, but not with anarchists."

So why did you decide to join now? The anarchists are still there.

"The blow they received yesterday [the criticism over their call to negotiate with Netanyahu] decreased their weight. Meanwhile, the weight of the protesters with whom we have no problem has increased: the students, the people from the periphery, the Jerusalemites - in short, the sane people."

Weren't you concerned about being greeted angrily, like MK Miri Regev (Likud )?

"Not at all. I have no less a right to this country than anyone there does. We were greeted courteously. No one badmouthed us or spoke unpleasantly."

No one there said that if Israel hadn't invested nearly $100 billion in the settlements, maybe the situation here would look better?

"Utter nonsense. Our presence in Judea and Samaria is preventing bombings on Rothschild. Israel's economy was on the skids before the Israel Defense Forces reentered Judea and Samaria in Operation Defensive Shield."

The IDF, not settler families.

"If we leave Judea and Samaria, the economy here will collapse. There will be missiles on Tel Aviv. As long as there are Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, the State of Israel is safer and its economy is more stable."

After Bennet and the settlers' appearance Tuesday, National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari showed up Wednesday, accompanied by his parliamentary aide, the well-known social democrat Itamar "Che" Ben Gvir, and veteran social justice fighter Baruch "the Red" Marzel. As Bennet said, the weight of the sane people at the encampment has increased by leaps and bounds.

Meanwhile, Lindenstrauss

Unseen and unimpeded, Netanyahu's close associates since 2002 (the year he returned to the political arena as foreign minister, then as finance minister and then as opposition leader, before his re-election as prime minister in March 2009 ) have been slipping away to the offices of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. One after another, Netanayahu's current and former bureau chiefs, campaign chiefs, advisers and representatives are being summoned to testify in the "Bibi tours" affair.

The investigative report on Netanyahu's tips aboard, which Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker broadcast on "Hamakor" in March, raised serious questions about the funding Netanyahu and his wife received for their many trips abroad. A short time thereafter, the comptroller decided to open an investigation.

People in politics say Netanyahu has cause for concern. This investigation will take months. The ultimate question is whether the comptroller will pass on his conclusions to the attorney general, who could decide to launch a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, another team is looking into all travel by ministers, past and present, and it, too, is finding interesting things.

Prior to all this, the comptroller is slated to publish his reports on the Marmara incident and the Carmel forest fire. Netanyahu does not have cause for concern - but rather, causes .