Of Yeshiva Stipends and Angry Voters

Why haven't Shas officials been jumping on the bandwagon to force through stipends for yeshiva students? Because they recognize that these tactics create hatred.

The 2011-2012 national budget, which was approved in its first reading by the Knesset this week, is the last budget the Netanyahu government will pass. Since the next budget is an elections budget (October 2012 ), he simply won't be there.

After the budget receives final approval, on December 30, Netanyahu will have two years of safety, without the Knesset bringing him down.

No one in the coalition predicts this government will last another two years. The optimists give it a year and change, until early 2012 at the latest. Since all involved know this, the next two months will bring a blackmailing binge. It is no coincidence that the problems began to pile up on the cabinet desk this week: the protest by the disabled, the threats of a general strike by the Histadrut labor federation, the demands of the Center for Local Government, the demands of the Haredim and the demonstrations by students demanding equality in entitlements - they all know this is a liquidation sale.

The saga of the "yeshiva bill," which accompanied the budget deliberations this week, began with the amateurish behavior that typifies the Prime Minister's Office. About five months have passed since the High Court of Justice ruled it illegal to give income supplements to ultra-Orthodox who choose yeshiva study over working. In those five months it would have been possible to establish a committee, to sit quietly with the Haredim and the other leaders of the coalition parties, and to cook up something calmly. But who there thinks five months down the line?

Kadima, which during its three years in power paid out to the Haredim far more than Netanyahu did, identified an electoral gold mine. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni rushed out to be photographed with college students demanding that if the yeshiva students get stipends, they should too. Avishay Braverman, a contender for the leadership of the Labor Party, managed to steal half a headline when he disappeared from the plenum during the vote so as not to have to support the bill (later it turned out that his vote had been paired with that of another absent MK voting against the stipends ).

The only loser was Netanyahu. As finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government, he mercilessly cut allowances and demanded that the ultra-Orthodox go out to work. As premier, he is turning his back on that same uncompromising ideology and his courageous policy from the first half of the decade.

Amos Biderman

The main battle for the yeshiva students' law was conducted by MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, who is also the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. Shas, the party with the most yeshiva students, wasn't there.

"We're against his method," said a senior Shas member this week. "We don't need all those headlines. Such things can be concluded differently. He can threaten from today to tomorrow that the Haredim will leave the government. But we won't. We have already proven more than once that we can sit in a government even without the Ashkenazim," referring to UTJ.

"The quasi-compromise that was invented, to give a stipend to undergraduate students who are 22 years old and have three children, is a farce. Everyone understands that. That's one of the things that only make the general public angry at us. Why do we have to give the impression that we're against the students? What good is that?

"That always happens to us when we're in a right-wing government. Sitting in a right-wing government may be convenient for us in terms of our voters, but to the general public we look worse and worse. All the belligerence this week was unnecessary, harmful and foolish."

Only Shas Chairman Eli Yishai joined Gafni's festivities. Among the Shas heads, he is the only one who gets dragged along with the extremism of the Ashkenazim, time after time. They say that even Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had reservations about the bill. Shas contains not only Yishai's camp, but also a camp of others such as Ariel Atias and Meshulam Nahari. They don't believe Shas should position itself as an ultra-Haredi party. Most of its voters are not yeshiva students, after all. Being dragged after UTJ's Gafni and MK Meir Porush is likely to cause them another trauma like that in 2003, when Ariel Sharon formed his second government with anti-religious party Shinui instead of Shas. Leading Shas officials are concerned by the powerful anti-Haredi sentiment aroused by the ethnic segregation at the Immanuel girls' school and the affair of the "dry bones" that halted construction at Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center, a feeling that was revived this week by Gafni's whim.

Who moves Shas

Last week we wrote here about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's surprising summons for Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (Likud ). Yosef invited them into his home to bless them after the circumcision ceremony of deputy minister Yitzhak Cohen's grandson. This week it turned out that the move was initiated by Housing Minister Ariel Atias. The rabbi listens to Atias just as much as he listens to Yishai.

At the beginning of the week there was a surprise party for Atias' 40th birthday. Only 40 guests were invited to the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem to participate in the celebration. Its theme was "Ariel Atias, a once-in-40-years project," playing off the aggressive advertising campaign of a certain construction company.

Among the guests described as "close friends" was Tzipi Livni. She is a regular guest at Aryeh Deri's and Atias' events. Over the past two years she has not exchanged a word with Yishai, who blocked her from forming a government in September 2008, after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned. She is betting on Deri or Atias, or both, as leaders of Shas or a Shas-type party in the next elections.

Lieberman's persecution complex

On Friday two weeks ago, Tzipi Livni met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the latter's Jerusalem office. During their meeting, Netanyahu received an important phone call from abroad. Livni volunteered to leave the room. The phone call lasted for about 40 minutes. When it was over, Livni returned to the room and the meeting resumed. A few days later Netanyahu called and asked for another meeting. Why not, said Livni. As of Thursday morning, when this article was being written, no date had been set for the meeting. It may have been coordinated after press time.

Every time Israeli newspapers and websites translate a report on a meeting between Netanyahu and Livni into English, Livni's office is flooded with phone calls and e-mails from U.S. government sources who want to know if she is on her way into the coalition. Every time, Livni and her staff explain that it was only another routine briefing, that she will not enter the current coalition, and that in Israel every prime minister sets meetings with the opposition leader in order to make it seem like something important is about to take place.

Close associates of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believe Netanyahu and Livni are in the midst of advanced negotiations to bring Kadima into the coalition, in place of Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party. A new settlement construction freeze, under discussion by the PMO and the White House, is reinforcing Yisrael Beiteinu's persecution complex and the perception that its days in the coalition are numbered.

At the same time, Lieberman said at a private meeting about a week ago that he'll only leave the government if Netanyahu dismisses him, as Ariel Sharon did in 2005 in order to create a majority to approve the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. Being dismissed for ideological reasons, as both Lieberman and Netanyahu know, brings votes.

A Yisrael Beiteinu minister who is close to Lieberman said recently that at the end of September, on the eve of the end of the settlement freeze, Netanyahu was very close to a decision. "I met people from the prime minister's office," said the minister, "and they told me: Beware, it's close. Start packing, you're out."

The minister was asked if Lieberman's defiant speech at the United Nations a few days after the end of the freeze was an act of revenge. "Of course," he said. "The relationship between Netanyahu and Lieberman is still rife with suspicion."

He described them as circling one another with pistols drawn, each one waiting to see who will shoot the other in the head first. He was asked whether after the next elections, Lieberman will once again recommend that the president choose Netanyahu to form the government. "It will be very hard for him," sighed the minister. "But I'm not saying it's impossible."

Another close associate of Lieberman disagreed. "That headline, the dismissal of Yisrael Beiteinu, is no more than a cliche. The moment Netanyahu makes such a decision, it means that he is making a drastic change in his policy. That means that Habayit Hayehudi will also leave the coalition, that Shas will be in acute distress, that more than one or two of the senior Likud members will face serious dilemmas. From that moment on, Netanyahu will be dependent on Livni and on the Labor Party. We know him. Is he really built for that?"

Beilin's hidden hand

The contest for the Labor Party leadership now appears to be the main time bomb threatening the government. Isaac Herzog and Braverman know they could oust Barak only if all three are rank-and-file MKs, not ministers. Therefore they will be forced to leave the cabinet, and to pull Barak out with them. Only a dramatic diplomatic move on Netanyahu's part could put paid to this theory.

Both signed a letter that was sent at the end of the week to Barak, in which they call on him to convene the party executive committee for a political discussion. The letter is signed by 61 members of that committee. The idea originated with the Geneva Initiative staff. In the letter, the signatories suggest that Labor adopt "a clear diplomatic platform" that includes both the Geneva Initiative and the Arab peace initiative. Clearly the Netanyahu government cannot live with either.

It's somewhat absurd that two ministers, one of them a member of the inner cabinet (Herzog ), are partners to a letter signed as well by 57 total unknowns (two members of the Labor Knesset faction, Einat Wilf and Raleb Majadele, are also signatories ). After all, Herzog can bring the idea up in the cabinet. And both are potentially future prime ministers. Each is important enough to initiate a diplomatic plan of his own. They can always cause an uproar by claiming Barak refused to accept their proposal.

Thus, the author of the Geneva Initiative, Dr. Yossi Beilin, continues to influence the Labor Party long after he resigned from it. To be more precise, he's influencing what isn't happening.