The Big Freeze

Issac Herzog has declared a revolution in the Housing Ministry: All outstanding tenders have been frozen and will be reexamined. The settlements' budget party is over.

Last Friday morning, the acting cabinet secretary assigned neophyte Construction and Housing Minister Isaac Herzog his first task as a representative of the state. Herzog was asked to represent the state at the funerals of two victims of the Karni crossing terrorist attack. Since serving as cabinet secretary under Ehud Barak, Herzog is all too familiar with the excuses offered by ministers, many of whom prefer to dodge these tasks. He decided to act otherwise and to go to Sderot with only a few minutes' notice. Maybe because he is still agog over the prize that has fallen into his lap, and is willing to do everything and anything that is asked of him. Or maybe because he's just a good guy.

He was confronted by several Gush Katif residents at the funerals. Your grandfather (the former chief rabbi of Israel, Isaac Halevy Herzog - Y.V.) wouldn't have allowed this thing, disengagement, to happen, they railed at him. Others present - residents of Sderot - argued with him. They didn't yell. They didn't curse. It's hard to curse Herzog. He doesn't arouse these emotions. "I listened to them all," he says, "with respect, with sensitivity. I only got stronger in my belief that disengagement and the stabilization of an international boundary that is recognized by the world, which would enable us to inflict painful blows in Gaza should the terror continue, is the best solution. It reminded me of the period leading up to the departure from Lebanon."

Last Tuesday, he entered the Construction and Housing Ministry in place of Tzipi Livni, "full of energy." A Labor Party prince had replaced a Likud princess. He has only the highest praise for Livni's work in the ministry. It was she who began to make order in the ministry, subject it to standards, but she was there too short a time to treat all of its troubles and ailments, of which there are many. He has already identified some of them on his own and is receiving much information, through a variety of pipelines, about actions taking place contrary to the norms.

"During the tenure of Yitzhak Levy and Effie Eitam (both from the National Religious Party) and Natan Sharansky (at the time, of the Yisrael b'Aliyah party), most of the resources were diverted toward Judea and Samaria," says Herzog. "That practice is about to end. The money will now go to the Negev and Galilee, to development areas, to distressed settlements in central Israel, to economically weak classes, to those who are entitled.

"Which is why," he says, "the first step I took at a meeting of the ministry administration was to order a freeze on all of the tenders related to the ministry. All of them have been frozen and will be carefully scrutinized to determine their legal status and to ascertain if they conform to the new priorities and needs. Special attention will be placed on Yesha (the Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza). The illegal settlement outposts will not receive any more money from the ministry to build sidewalks, lighting or infrastructures. That will cease."

Herzog nevertheless differentiates between Yesha and Yesha. Settlements located near the Green Line, in what is called the "settlement blocs" that in any future peace accord are expected to remain under Israeli sovereignty, will not be harmed. "You can't compare between Ma'aleh Adumim and an isolated settlement somewhere in central Samaria," he says. "But I came to the ministry to help people who are truly suffering, who are groaning under the decrees of the treasury. This is a social ministry par excellence."

The battle for the cabinet

In partisan political terms, the Construction and Housing Ministry, which was the second of the more desirable ministries to fall into Labor's hands, is a more worthwhile ministry than the Interior Ministry, which was picked by the highest ranking Labor minister, Ophir Pines-Paz. This kind of talk, about freezing funds to settlements and transferring them to the Negev and Galilee, is net political profit. It gives the minister quality exposure, is worth its weight in gold and comes with no downside.

Herzog promises not only to talk, but to do. In the short period of time he will be there (a year and a half at best, under a year at worst), he must notch up achievements, demonstrate leadership and show he is not afraid of a fight so that he can secure his position at the top of the Labor list for the next Knesset. To that end, Herzog also needs to cultivate a diplomatic-security persona. He is now wrangling with his party chairman, Shimon Peres, over a spot in the inner diplomatic-security cabinet. In Herzogian terms, this is a tooth-and-nail brawl. After Peres decided to appoint Binyamin ("Fuad") Ben-Eliezer, Dalia Itzik and Pines-Paz as non-rotating members of the cabinet, despite the recommendations he received, Herzog went to have a talk with him. Peres heard Herzog say some things that he doesn't usually hear from people as polite as the new housing minister.

At last Wednesday's meeting of the Labor ministers, the subject was brought up for discussion, against Peres's wishes. The injured parties - Shalom Simhon, Matan Vilnai and Herzog - demanded rotation, as was the case in the previous unity government. "I am willing for rotation to take place right in the middle of the term of office, nine months from now," says Herzog. "And I am willing for Fuad, and of course Peres, to stay in the cabinet, without rotation. But the other two (Pines and Itzik) have to be switched."

Peres didn't respond. A few members of the forum have the impression that he is afraid of Itzik. "Rotation is the right thing to do," Herzog told Peres. "It has a precedent, and your decision not to carry out rotation sends a signal that we have come into the government for only a short while."

Peres, say aides, will decide when to decide. He's in no rush. But Herzog is. In his opinion, upgrading the younger leaders will help the Labor Party. "Although Labor is not making great advances in the polls, I'm convinced it has the potential to grow stronger. That obligates Ophir, Shalom Simhon, Eitan Cabel and me to be an important part of the process of revival and rejuvenation of the party. We are the quartet," says Herzog, "that is meant to have a key role in this process."

Herzog doesn't plan to concede. In the past two years, and mainly in the past two months in which he campaigned for the post of cabinet minister, he has learned something: that leadership is taken, not given. Certainly not in his party, certainly not from Peres. If it were up to Peres, Herzog would not be a minister today. At most, he might be a Knesset committee chairman. And Pines would be a junior minister. Herzog battled, and won. It's a good thing he didn't listen to the entreaties of some of the higher-ranking faction members, who tried to persuade him not to run for a cabinet post.

"They told me, you're still young. Why are you getting ahead of yourself?" he recalls with satisfaction, looking down from the heights of second place on the list of Labor Party ministers. All of those people who tried to dissuade him from throwing his hat in the ring ended up with lower spots on the list.

Fed up with Bibi's bad-mouthing

Silvan Shalom has had it. He's simply had it. Every week for the past two years he has had to listen to his successor in the Finance Ministry, Benjamin Netanyahu, tell the nation how he, Bibi, was given a shattered, collapsing economy, at the edge of the abyss, on the brink of catastrophe and apocalypse, and how he, Netanyahu, saved the day. In private conversations, Shalom calls it the "Finkelstein mantra" - if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. Netanyahu, say Shalom aides, is not telling his listeners that the cutback in allowances, of which he is so proud, was conceived during the first Sharon government, back when Shalom was finance minister. The same is true for the tax reform.

Last week was apparently one interview too many. On Tuesday, the day the new cabinet convened for its first festive meeting, Netanyahu walked up to Shalom. I want to meet with you, said the finance minister to the foreign minister. There's no chance, replied the foreign minister. Why, wondered the finance minister (after all, relations between the two have improved in recent months, and they are in the practice of meeting and talking on a regular basis). Because I'm fed up with hearing you repeat this thing every day, said the foreign minister, explaining exactly what he meant. The finance minister tried to rationalize his behavior, and explained that he does give credit to his predecessor, but his predecessor was not persuaded. They parted without scheduling any meeting. The chilly wind and hostility that once characterized their relationship was back, at least until some middleman makes peace between them - again.

Silvan was angry for no good reason, say the finance minister's close associates. They claim that Netanyahu is aware of the matter's sensitive nature and that he actually makes frequent references to his predecessor's activities at the Finance Ministry. The aides even quote an oft-repeated statement of Netanyahu's to anyone whose memory has betrayed him: "You have to remember that only two years ago, the economy was on the verge of collapse, but steps taken by my predecessor, Silvan Shalom ..." Netanyahu utters this line on many occasions, assert his aides. In at least 80 percent of the interviews that he gives, he makes positive mention of his predecessor's actions.

Evidently, Shalom is bothered by the remaining 20 percent. Apparently so, say Netanyahu's people. In any event, that same day, Tuesday, Netanyahu appeared on "open line" on Army Radio, responding to questions from listeners. He took pains to mention Shalom's role in pulling the economy out of the recession. That same evening, Netanyahu appeared at a political gathering in Or Yehuda, in front of members of the Likud. There, too, he doled out praise for Shalom. Netanyahu is a quick learner.