Riding the anti-Orthodox Cycle

When Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai gave a rather banal speech slamming the ultra-Orthodox school system a year ago, no one cared. When he gave it again this week, the earth shook

At an educational conference about a year ago, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai gave the same anti-ultra-Orthodox speech that caused such a big fuss this week. That time, the media wasn't interested. On Monday this week, Huldai announced at a Tel Aviv conference on higher education that he intended to deliver the same speech "with slight changes." This time, the earth shook.

The rise in anti-Haredi sentiment is a cyclic phenomenon. In 1999, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first term in office with his coalition of right- wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, the audience at Rabin Square shouted at Ehud Barak - who became prime minister for the Labor Party and is now defense minister - "Anything but Shas!" Tommy Lapid's Shinui party came into the Knesset with six seats. Four years later, Shinui, with its explicitly anti-Haredi agenda, had 15 seats. Prime minister Ariel Sharon was able to choose between it and Shas. He chose Shinui.

In 2006, the tide changed direction: Shinui was wiped out and Shas came back into Ehud Olmert's government with renewed strength, where it held the balance of power. The most harmful ultra-Orthodox laws were passed under Olmert's tenure, including the one exempting the lower yeshivas from teaching core subjects, and the law reincarnating the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which had been closed down under Sharon, as the Ministry of Religious Services.

In 2009 the second Netanyahu government was established. Shas came back to the Interior Ministry, the last government office where a Shas minister should be ensconced. The National Insurance Institute child stipends grew and the yeshiva stipends ballooned.

At the same time, the sense of repulsion and disgust grew to the point where a mayor who says obvious, almost banal things wins front-page headlines and stirs up a "storm" as though it were a new Holyland affair.

The question engaging many politicians this week is: Who will be the next Lapid? Kadima chair Tzipi Livni has adopted an anti-ultra-Orthodox line ever since she found herself in the opposition. Livni, who as foreign minister in Olmert's government supported all those ultra-Orthodox laws, has made an about-face in the hope that the public will not remember and hold her record against her.

And of course there is the natural heir - Tommy Lapid's son, media personality Yair Lapid. As moderator of the Friday evening current events program on Channel 2, Lapid has intelligently woven his political web: in favor of education and against the ultra-Orthodox. Add his campaign on behalf of children at risk and his nice personality and you get, perhaps, the next Lapid.

That is, unless Huldai enters the national race. He is everything Lapid is not: He is not amiable, he is not chummy, he is not trendy. He has done a number of things in his life: He commanded the air force base at Hatzor, he was principal of a high school and he has been an excellent mayor of Tel Aviv for quite a few years now. He is a real social democrat.

Livni called him this week to congratulate him for his remarks. She is prepared to promise him heaven and earth to join her list. Huldai, for his part, is a Labor Party member and he also isn't about to leave his city. He has a good friend, Amram Mitzna. Huldai watched his good friend, a major general in the Israel Defense Forces, abandon the mayorship of Haifa and jump headlong into the murky waters of national politics, in the party that eats its leaders. He left battered and bruised, and has ended up in exile in Yeruham. If there is a reason Huldai will not run for the leadership of the Labor Party, it will be Amram Mitzna.

But what about a new party? People who know him say that if he were forced to choose between the national swamp and the Tel Aviv swamp, he would prefer to remain prime minister of Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu's coalition control

At a meeting of the Likud cabinet ministers two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pounded the table when he found out most of his ministers were planning to support the legislation proposed by Likud MK Haim Katz and Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich to limit executive pay in government-owned companies. At the ministers' meeting this past week, Netanyahu's fist again banged on the table, and again he raised his voice, and again the target of his ire was MK Haim Katz, chair of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. Two days earlier, Katz had buried the Wisconsin welfare-to-work plan, together with Yachimovich and other members of the coalition.

"This is a populist move," fumed Netanyahu. "It's the weak who are going to get hurt. I am informing you that within two months I will bring a new proposal to replace the Wisconsin Plan." The Likud ministers could not figure out why they were the audience for his remonstrations.

For nearly a year, the plan was just sitting there in the Knesset, subject to the good graces of MK Katz, whose intentions were known. And in the Prime Minister's Bureau, the warning lights were blinking. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor ) warned Netanyahu several times that the plan was dead in the water. Netanyahu could, for example, have transferred the plan to the Knesset Finance Committee, given committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ) a fistful of shekels for the yeshivas, and caused it to keep running. This is accepted practice in the Knesset. Netanyahu did not do this. It was only last Wednesday, a day before the plan was to get the chop, that Netanyahu scrambled to make a series of phone calls to Katz, who wasn't scared.

This was supposed to have been the week in which Netanyahu reinforced his grasp on Likud and the coalition in the wake of his sweeping victory in the internal vote to postpone the elections for the party's central committee, which his associates described as a historic turning point. And then at the end of the week, a member of his own party and members of the coalition parties slapped him in the face with the cancellation of the Wisconsin Plan. Two or three days later, he suffered another humiliation in the Knesset plenum when the Yisrael Beiteinu MKs, including the party's ministers, demonstratively abstained from voting for him in a no-confidence motion. The abstention was to protest the Ministerial Committee on Legislation's decision to reject one of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's proposals for a loyalty oath law.

These are small and insignificant cracks. Netanyahu will make it safely through the Knesset summer session, which runs through July. After that the four months of "proximity talks" with the Palestinians will end, parallel to the end of the construction moratorium in the territories and then, at the beginning of the fall, things will heat up.

Leaders of the nonexistent diplomatic process

The Labor Party cabinet ministers who have recently threatened to quit the government in the absence of a diplomatic process weren't home this week.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in the United States; Ben-Eliezer went to Egypt with Netanyahu, came back and two days later flew off to Brussels. Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog paid an official visit to China, where he met with heads of the regime. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon came back tanned and full of stories from an exhausting trip to explain Israel's positions in Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Gabon.

One of the ministers said in all seriousness: "The Labor Party was at the center of the political process this week." It's just that there still isn't any political process.

Requiem for a kingmaker

On Sunday afternoon Avraham (Avrum ) Appel was laid to rest in the old cemetery on Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv. There were a number of mourners: family members, friends and bodyguards who arrived with the prime minister and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. No newspaper covered it. No photographer was present at the funeral of the legendary Likud central committee activist, the kingmaker, the man who never shouted and never lost his cool, who never sought sinecures, who always operated in closed rooms, always in a suit and tie, with all the Jabotinskian majesty - the man who influenced Likud politics and national politics more than many Knesset members and cabinet ministers whose funerals were and will be much larger and more glamorous.

Also present were former cabinet ministers Aryeh Deri (Shas ) and David Levy, friends of the son David Appel who a week earlier was convicted of bribery; Likud MK Danny Danon; and Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman from Migdal Ha'emek, who at the family's request eulogized Appel, along with Netanyahu and Rivlin.

The prime minister hardly ever attends funerals or any other private events; this entails an extremely complex and costly security operation. Nevertheless Netanyahu came and stayed for nearly the whole ceremony. He did this because he knows, as do the select few who were present at the cemetery, just how much he owes to Appel.

About 25 years ago, when Netanyahu was still Israel's ambassador to the United Nations and was visiting Israel from time to time for vacations, the central committee member adopted him as a son. Appel would tell everyone: "One day this little guy is going to be prime minister." Others scoffed. Netanyahu? Prime minister? What about Ariel Sharon? Moshe Arens? And what about the princes: Ronnie Milo, Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Begin Junior?

"Netanyahu will be prime minister. You'll see," declared Appel.

Between the time he returned from New York in 1988 and his election as head of the Likud in 1993, Netanyahu became Appel's project. In his eulogy, Netanyahu related that on Thursday morning, two days before he passed away, Appel commanded that he be brought one of the four mobile ballot boxes the Likud had organized for disabled central committee members in the vote on postponing the elections to the committee. "'I have to help Netanyahu,'" the prime minister said Appel had said.

Taught by bitter experience, some of the funeral participants went to check Netanyahu's story. To their surprise, they found it was true.