The Man Behind the Panel

Netanyahu's choice of Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg to formulate an emergency plan to address the protesters was far from obvious.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's choice of "Manu" - Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg - to head the team formulating the government's emergency plan to address the mass protest is not an obvious choice. It would be akin to Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas appointing former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni to head a committee examining the rights of labor migrants.

Trajtenberg (whose name means "thinking mountain" in Yiddish ) knows Netanyahu's socioeconomic doctrines well. Two years ago, they drove him to resign as chairman of the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister's Office, a few months after Netanyahu took the place in the Prime Minster's Office of Ehud Olmert, who had appointed Trajtenberg in 2006.

Netanyahu, Trajtenberg panel
Amos Ben-Gershom

Trajtenberg participated in the first two protest marches in Tel Aviv. Last Saturday he could not join the demonstration - he spent four hours at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, with Netanyahu pressuring him until he agreed to take the job.

Trajtenberg, 61, was born in Cordoba, Argentina, and holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. He came to Israel at age 16, and like many people from South America, his Hebrew still has a distinct accent. After he resigned from the Prime Minister's Office, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar appointed him head of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, where he is responsible for NIS 7.5 billion a year. He is a likable, amusing and easygoing person.

Sa'ar's father was also born in Cordoba, and the two families knew each other. This explains the strong tie between the minister and the man he appointed to implement the higher-education reform.

Until recently, the minister's wicked humor made Trajtenberg's nights shorter. Sa'ar, who is a fan of the Argentine national soccer team, liked to watch the South American Cup tournament matches, which began airing at 2:30 A.M. Israel time. Argentina lost match after match. At 4:30 A.M., Sa'ar would send a frustrated text message to Trajtenberg: "With deep sorrow I must inform you that our beloved team has lost again." When Trajtenberg protested that he was waking him, the minister replied: "You suffered for one minute, I suffered for a whole night."

Trajtenberg implemented the higher-education reform following endless negotiations with National Union of Israeli Students head Itzik Shmuli, 31, who is now the protest's most prominent leader. They are on friendly terms and also often exchange text messages. During the long meetings they would send each other curses in Spanish.

Netanyahu had not realized the two were friends. In the week Trajtenberg spent debating whether to take the job, he consulted with Shmuli. Time will tell how their relationship will play out around the negotiating table this time.

This week people asked Trajtenberg how the task makes him feel. He compared it to what he felt in 1967 during the Six-Day War, when he was living in a kibbutz near the Jordanian border and the radio broadcaster announced: "The Temple Mount is in our hands."

He feels these are historic times. He believes more than "correction" or "change" is needed. He would not have agreed to do this were he not convinced that Netanyahu has undergone a genuine transformation. He believes the events at Tahrir Square contributed quite a lot to what has been happening in Israel during the past month. Some say Netanyahu has even agreed to raise corporate tax rates, and not simply to not cut them.

Nevertheless, Trajtenberg is not entirely certain he knows how to read the prime minister, who has not committed a priori to adopting all the Trajtenberg committee's recommendations.

"I am glad I didn't get a promise like that," the professor has told associates. "Otherwise, it would be too easy. I know that to some extent I can expect disappointment. Not all my recommendations will be adopted. But the processes that are under way today are much more important than anything the socioeconomic cabinet decides, and there is no Netanyahu in the world who can stuff the genie back into the bottle."

Trajtenberg believes Israel is suffering from two main problems. The first is that in recent years it has focused on poverty, but forgotten the middle class.

The second problem is the increasing inequality, which is part and parcel of the globalization process. Israel is a small country, and land and electricity are complete monopolies. In parallel, since 1988 Israel has been quickly privatizing and opening up to the free market. The citizens feel the state is abusing them.

Trajtenberg believes that if there were a peace process, the protest would not have broken out. A lack of hope and the feeling that everything is stuck is part of what's fueling the protests, he says. When asked whether he defines himself as a socialist or a social democrat, he skillfully sidesteps the land mine: "I am a fervent Zionist who devoted three years of his life to bringing Jews to Israel, an Israeli patriot with a South American soul and a doctorate in economics from Harvard."

He never sought to become famous. He wanted to focus on higher education, and he was planning to participate in the "million man march" on September 3 like any rank-and-file citizen. It is doubtful he will be able to do so now that everyone knows who he is.

In a year from now, on September 1, 2012, Trajtenberg will complete his term as chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee. He will be able to continue for another term if he wants. But in government circles, they are already discussing the next position awaiting him: Bank of Israel governor.

Netanyahu's conversion

When someone appoints a person like Trajtenberg to such an important, sensitive position, he is not playing games. Netanyahu entirely understands the power of the moment. He is in the midst of an economic conversion. This would be his second conversion in his current term, after he recognized the Palestinians' right to a state and suspended construction in the territories for 10 months. The problem with Netanyahu is that he always catches on late.

His recognition of the need for a Palestinian state came after three prime ministers before him already had done so over the past decade, and after he had already scrapped with U.S. President Barack Obama. The recognition wasn't only late. It was also partial and hesitant, and here we have its results: diplomatic stasis. International isolation. September. Despair.

Judgment over the socioeconomic revolution will be passed not by the world, but by the nation in Israel demanding social justice. Will Netanyahu be found to have missed the boat here, too?

Nearly every day, more and more organizations and non-profits are joining the original protesters. Most will not be satisfied with what the government will give. Violence is indeed an option.

The responsible youngster

Yesterday the protest entered its fourth week. The longer it goes on, the greater the potential for clashes among its potential leaders.

The so-called leaders will be invited to meet with Trajtenberg. This will be their first test. Will they go or not? And if they do go, what will they bring?

A week ago, we called Shmuli the responsible youngster. He does not intend to present an overblown list of demands. He is not interested in seeing the economy collapse. Yes, he does care about the national budget. And he is not talking in terms of "revolution." If his colleagues do not come to the round table, he will go alone, as an emissary of the students.

Expect the unexpected

With respect to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has learned to expect the unexpected. Last weekend, when the Yisrael Beiteinu faction informed reporters that "Lieberman will address political and other issues" at a briefing on Sunday, Netanyahu's bureau tensed. The two men have an unsettled account concerning the proposed law on parliamentary investigation committees.

Netanyahu shot down the Yisrael Beiteinu law not long ago, which caused Lieberman to say the prime minister cannot withstand pressure and imply a threat: "I hope he doesn't get pushed out."

The commentators said at the time that Lieberman doesn't have unsettled accounts. However, now Netanyahu is facing the worst domestic crisis of his term. Speaking with the media, Lieberman did say most of the protesters' demands were justified, but he also praised the Israeli economy, called for acting responsibly and talked about the packed restaurants in Tel Aviv.

Had Lieberman spoken otherwise, the coalition would have been shaken. Eli Yishai and Defense Minister Ehud Barak could not have allowed themselves to be less social than Lieberman.

Plus, Lieberman is not interested in elections being held now. He is still being investigated by the State Prosecutor's Office. He wants to enter the next campaign with a clean slate. And this too: Elections based on socioeconomic issues do not serve him. He prefers to campaign on diplomatic and security issues, tensions with Israel's Arabs, right versus left, loyalty versus citizenship. He will decide over what the government will break and over what it will go into elections.

Ironically, as long as the protest goes on, Netanyahu can rest easy. His government is rock solid.