A Political Force in Athletic Shoes

Yosef Paritzky is fed up. For over a week he has been waiting for a meeting of the economic cabinet. For over a week a series of important topics in his ministry, the Ministry of National Infrastructure, have been awaiting a decision, and silence! Total disregard! Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the cabinet, is busy with other things. With Vicki Knafo and her friends, of course.

Yosef Paritzky is fed up. For over a week he has been waiting for a meeting of the economic cabinet. For over a week a series of important topics in his ministry, the Ministry of National Infrastructure, have been awaiting a decision, and silence! Total disregard! Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the cabinet, is busy with other things. With Vicki Knafo and her friends, of course.

No less important matters, such as a change in the structure of the Israel Electric Corporation, the desalination of water, the introduction of natural gas into the electricity system (a step that the minister claims will save the country $250,000 per day) - everything has been put on hold until Vicki and her friends are placated, until the social conflagration threatening the Likud and Netanyahu's status is extinguished, or at least begins to die down.

Paritzky is tired of the demonstration of hypocrisy and self-righteousness on the part of his fellow politicians. "It's impossible to be a finance minister [guided] by Vicki Knafo," he says, with more than a hint of disdain:

"You have to decide whether you are the economic leader of the State of Israel, who sits with the ministers and decides on economic policy, or whether you are rejecting everything. Are you the finance minister? Did you pass your economic policy in the Knesset?

"Are there very important projects that have to get underway and require decisions? If you want to carry out populist policy along the way, it doesn't go together. You have to decide whether you're Zevulun Orlev [the minister of labor and social affairs - Y.F.] or the finance minister. You can't be both the finance minister and a popular tribune. It doesn't go together."

How will it end, in the minister's opinion?

"With some populist solution or other, and with pizzas. There'll be pizzas."

How easy it is to be Shinui these days. Actually, not only these days. How crystal clear is the picture reflected through the thin-framed glasses of Shinui. The frenzy that has taken hold of the political system in the face of the popular revolt of the down-and-out members of Israeli society, has passed over Paritzky and his colleagues. No matter what happens, who wins and who loses, Shinui is out of the picture. It doesn't interest Shinui's voters.

That's why Paritzky can say openly what others prefer to say quietly. On Monday, the political factions met on the fifth floor of the Knesset for their weekly sessions. Labor-Meimad invited Ilana Azoulay, a single mother from Arad, and her handicapped son Yossi, in plenty of time.

To ensure that no other faction would steal Azoulay for itself, one of the party members waited for her at the entrance to Jerusalem. He marched the last kilometer to the treasury with her, and didn't budge from her side until she entered the conference room with her son and sat at the head of the table, in the place reserved for party chair Shimon Peres.

Serious satire

The Labor Party room has witnessed many embarrassing scenes. One could say that the concept "embarrassment" was born and grew up there. But on Monday, they broke the record. Had it not been for the fact that this is a woman in real distress, it could have been a wonderful satire: Hand in hand with Peres, Azoulay expressed regret for her voting patterns and those of her friends. "Shimon, every morning I'm sorry and I reproach myself for leaving you and going with the Likud," she said. "I'm finished with the Likud in a big way. They've destroyed us."

Nu, how many times in his life has Peres heard this sentence, in one version or another? How many times has he seen it proven false and shattered to smithereens? The members of the faction looked at Peres and Azoulay holding hands, and didn't know where to go with their laughter and their frustration.

Hundreds of speeches and proposals and shouting on television's "Politika" forum didn't do what she and her friends succeeded in doing in athletic shoes.

The situation didn't improve when Binyamin Ben Eliezer took the floor. "This is the reason why we left the government," he said. "This is the reason!"

He forgot that the Labor ministers, under his leadership, voted in June 2002 in favor of the economic plan of then finance minister Silvan Shalom, which included most of the decrees involving single-parent families. They left the government in October, when the smell of the defeat in the primaries was in the air.

Not all the members of Labor took part in the orgy of groveling and arrogance. Baiga [Avraham] Shohat, in a snide comment directed at Peres, suggested that the faction declare that until the economic program is changed, it won't join the government, even if it is ever offered the chance.

Shalom Simhon told his colleague not "to be too belligerent," because one day, he said, maybe they'll have to provide a solution to the situation, and there is no solution, except for work incentives. Yes, confesses Simhon, there is logic to what Netanyahu is saying.

Avraham Burg advised his colleagues, after the faction meeting, "not to hitch a ride on this revolution, because it's opportunism, but not to ignore it, either, because that would be insensitivity." Burg doesn't ascribe any importance to the women's statements to the effect that they won't vote for the Likud any more. He sees the statements as part of their struggle, and he doesn't think that his party will be saved by the residents of the development towns. In his opinion, in the next elections Labor has to present "a party of people who work, serve in the army and pay taxes." In other words, a party that will address Shinui voters who support Bibi [Netanyahu], and offer them a balanced and more moderate social program. "I don't need Vicki Knafo to vote for me, and as a party, I am absolutely forbidden to take stands only in order to bring in voters."

The battle is all Netanyahu's

The treasury this week called the meeting of Labor "the pathetic attempt of a shattered party to gain votes." But the Likud was also overcome by weakness and indifference. None of the ministers, with the exception of Netanyahu and the minister who works with him, Meir Sheetrit, turned to the editors of radio and television programs, asking to be interviewed on the subject of the single mothers. This battle is entirely Netanyahu's. His failure is his failure. His success is their success.

Senior officials in the Likud warned this week of what awaited the party in the elections to the local councils at the end of October. "We will be punished severely," said one of the ministers. "The Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] will punish us because of Shinui, and the poor will punish us because of the [economic] decrees." How do Likud voters punish their party? They don't bother to vote. The Likud list is liable to be erased or to decline significantly in many local councils. If one adds to that the anarchy in Likud party branches, as a result of not establishing a supreme `intervention committee' that is allowed to release a popular mayor from primaries and you get a collapse." (Only the party convention is authorized to approve the establishment of such a committee, but Prime Minister Sharon isn't calling a convention because he's afraid of losing the vote.)

This week has also seen the spread of stubborn rumors in the Likud regarding an upcoming decision on one or more of the subjects being investigated by the police that have been linked to the prime minister. One Likud minister said he had received information from legal experts close to the prosecution that evidence against Sharon is piling up in one of the cases. If it's true, and if it is decided to submit an indictment, Sharon will be forced to suspend himself from office or to resign. That means a battle for inheritance in the Likud, a cessation of the peace process and a slowdown in the rate of implementation of the economic program.

Sharon's voice, as usual, was not heard. He was in London, and then in Norway. Yes, he expressed his total support for Netanyahu, but not in front of the cameras, only in telephone conversations between them.

A few years, ago the annual report on poverty was published when Sharon's predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Barak, was in London. Barak stormed the cameras and called on the citizens of Israel to open the refrigerators in their homes and to give some food to the poor. This statement haunted him until his defeat in the elections. Sharon learns from the experience of his predecessors. He knows that his fate depends on Netanyahu's, but he isn't volunteering to get himself into any unnecessary hot water.

We can assume that we won't see him inviting Vicki Knafo to his office either, the way Barak invited the representatives of the handicapped.

Netanyahu, wisely, canceled his planned trip to Washington, where he was supposed to appear before the members of Congress. He didn't want the news programs to show their viewers, starting tonight, the following line-up: Vicki, Ilana and the girls on the sidewalk, perspiring in the heat, fainting from hunger. And the finance minister, in his good suits, strolling at his ease in the air-conditioned corridors of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin yesterday recalled an internal debate that took place about two weeks ago in a side room of the Prime Minister's Office. This was when Vicki had just begun her march from Mitzpeh Ramon to Jerusalem. "We have to nip this in the bud," said Rivlin to Sharon's advisers. They didn't take him seriously. She won't be able to walk all that distance, said one of them.

"If there's anything Sharon understands today more than ever," said a senior Likud official this week, "it's the clear, unequivocal connection between the state of the economy and the political process. Between recession, unemployment and the job market, and cooperation between Israel and Abu Mazen's government." Therefore, concluded the official, when the prime minister leaves for Washington 10 days from now to meet President George W. Bush who wants, according to reports that have reached Israel, to pressure Sharon to accelerate the implementation of the road map, he will be accompanied, in spirit, by Vicki Knafo.