The Real Existential Threat

No, it's not the Iranian bomb or even our Arab neighbors that has sent our prime minister into a frenzy. His foremost concern is that CEOs will still get top dollar - or, alternatively, that Likud elections will not be delayed.

Most of the Likud ministers who arrived for the weekly meeting on Sunday at the Prime Minister's Office intended to support a bill co-sponsored by MKs Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) and Haim Katz (Likud) that would cap the salaries of CEOs in public companies at 50 times greater than the salary of the company's lowest-paid employee.

They found Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overwrought. He informed them that he intended "to study the issue" and that "at this time" (the same theme he used to urge the Likud Party Central Committee to postpone internal elections), it would be wrong to take rash steps which might prove harmful to the economy.

The ministers weren't cowed. They made it clear that they intended to support the bill, which was to have been voted on later that day in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

"Don't forget that we have a responsibility to the Israeli economy," Netanyahu added, cajoling. To which Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar retorted: "We also have a responsibility to deal with the social disparities in this country, and if the regulatory agency did its work properly we would not find ourselves in a situation where legislation is needed."

"What's with you?" Netanyahu replied. "No such legislation exists anywhere in the world."

"So maybe it's time we became a light unto the nations," Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon said.

Netanyahu raised his voice, pounded the mahogany table with his fist and dispatched his finance minister to have words with Yachimovich. When she failed to be persuaded, he unleashed the smooth-talking attorney who also serves as his justice minister, Yaakov Neeman. Neeman hammered out a compromise formula under which Yachimovich and Katz agreed to a 60-day postponement for discussion of their bill, until the government submitted legislation of its own - never mind that the government should have dealt with this long ago, at its own initiative.

For her part, Yachimovich was immortalized this week in two political cartoons that put her on a pedestal equal to Netanyahu. In the Knesset she ran into members of the Likud central committee who had come to lobby and be lobbied on the eve of the party elections vote, which took place yesterday. They shook her hand warmly and urged her to keep pressing for the legislation "at the expense of those bastards at the top."

Yachimovich says she had no intention of moving ahead without cooperation from the government in any case, because it's clear to her that without such support, her bill will die before being enacted.

Why did you agree to a 60-day postponement? After all, you had a majority in the ministerial committee.

Yachimovich: "I had no other choice. When the prime minister makes a request like this, it's almost illegitimate not to accede, because doing that shows ulterior motives on the part of those sponsoring the bill."

Yachimovich suspects that on Shabbat, the day before the Likud ministers met, Netanyahu received phone calls from his wealthy pals, urging him to torpedo the bill, come what may.

Netanyahu's aides deny this vehemently. This is something he is passionate about, they say. He could have won plaudits from the public by lending a hand to the bill. But he is convinced that putting it through, in its present form, would have an adverse effect on the national economy, prompt CEOs to resign and result in companies moving to other countries. He has a clear and coherent policy on these matters, and that's why he took it to heart the way he did.

Whistle-stop Bibi

Contrary to the prevalent notion that everyone gets his 15 minutes of fame once in a lifetime, Moshe Feiglin enjoys his brief period of glory year after year. And year after year, the person with his hand on the stopwatch is Netanyahu.

Yesterday's vote by the Likud central committee on Netanyahu's proposal to postpone elections for party institutions was supposed to conclude at 10 P.M., after this section of the paper goes to press. In the days preceding the vote, Netanyahu devoted almost his entire agenda to mustering votes from central committee members he normally doesn't give two hoots about. Some of them will have voted against him yesterday - just to teach him a lesson.

In the meetings the prime minister held this week, he continued to turn a marginal phenomenon in Israeli politics into an existential threat to the Likud and the foundations of the country's democracy. He reached the conclusion that this was the only way he could shake the 2,500 committee members out of their apathy and drag them to 28 polling stations around the country.

"Only the daring win," he likes to say - quoting the slogan of the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, in which he served. Netanyahu's assessment was that if he did not devote every ounce of energy to this issue, he would definitely lose, but he could win if he threw everything at his disposal into the campaign.

He rushed from meeting to meeting, trying in the meantime to scrounge a few shekels from the members of the Likud Knesset faction in order to pay for the gatherings. As of yesterday, there were quite a few who chose to thumb their nose at him and his financial difficulties.

In the meetings, Netanyahu spoke against messianism and rejectionism, and in favor of the Supreme Court, against extremism and in favor of a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Yet even though he was supporting the side of all the sane values that the majority of the nation espouses, he woke up yesterday to a virulent, mocking and skeptical media, which excoriated him for trying to sabotage internal Likud democracy and also cast doubt on the sincerity of his motives.

It's difficult not to draw comparisons between Netanyahu and his predecessor as head of the Likud, Ariel Sharon: Preserving the internal democracy in the Likud was of less interest to Sharon than the condition of the wool on the sheep at his ranch. During his time as Likud head, he balked at no maneuver, when it served his purposes, to trample the party's constitution. In the face of the central committee members' thuggery, Sharon was also able to make use of the values of political moderation, sloughing off the messianic elements and declaring a commitment to the courts.

The difference is that in the case of Sharon, all this worked. He always had the sympathy of the media in the battles he waged against the extremist elements in Likud. The more he ignored the party's constitution and its binding decisions (such as the referendum among party members about the Gaza disengagement, a vote he lost) - the more his public popularity grew.

It's not that Sharon wasn't sometimes under pressure. When he was concerned that he might lose to Netanyahu in the party primary, he convened an urgent press conference, had air force commander, Dan Halutz, who was also a family friend, sit down next to him and shouted: "Go and vote!" That too was hysteria.

But Sharon was forgiven for everything, whereas we are not willing to pardon Netanyahu for anything.

Olmert: Still in business

On the occasion of the second anniversary of the death of businessman Benny Gaon, a few of our policy-makers have been invited to an event which will be held 10 days from now in Tel Aviv, within the framework of the Social Economic Forum established by his son, Moshe Gaon. The theme of the event is "the new Zionism." Scholarships will be awarded to top business administration students and there will be a panel of senior CEOs moderated by the television journalist Ilana Dayan. The keynote speaker at the symposium will be none other than former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Of course, he's innocent until proven otherwise, but he is on trial in three cases of public and personal corruption, and hovering above him is the Holyland affair, of which the end is not yet in sight. As this was being written, yesterday morning, Olmert had not yet been summoned for interrogation.

"Olmert was invited to speak in the light of what he did as prime minister, by which I refer mainly to the talks with Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]," said Moshe Gaon. "I am not judging him. I am very interested to hear what he has to say about those talks, how far they got, and how Israel should end the conflict with the Palestinians." Gaon added that his late father and Olmert were on excellent terms.

Did you consider getting someone else in the wake of the Holyland affair?

Gaon: "Not for a minute. I very much hope he will come."

There will certainly be a large media turnout. "I will be very happy if journalists come. You will learn a few things about my father."