It was supposed to have been the fight of a lifetime. While various political bodies were trying to artificially breathe life back into last year's social justice protest movement, which effectively died last year, and as the prime minister was dipping in the polls and in public opinion, this was supposed to be the opposition's shining moment of glory.
The prime minister's tough austerity plan fell directly into the laps of all those who wanted to see the government fall like a ripe fruit at the end of July. But, at least the way things look now, that is not happening. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sailed through the first part of getting the austerity plan approved — the cabinet vote and the Knesset Finance Committee vote. There is no indication that anything dramatic will alter the balance of power next week when the plan reaches the finish line, the Knesset plenum vote.
Ostensibly, there is no political logic behind the extreme economic measures that Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz orchestrated this week. There is no way to make it pretty — tightening the belt always hurts. The public pays, but holds a grudge. Unlike drafting the ultra-Orthodox to the military, or other burning issues on Israel's agenda — forgotten issues that pop up and disappear in accordance with the political needs of politicians and commentators — the financial difficulty always exists. Everyone will be getting a reminder of that at any minute now.
Politically, Netanyahu will not gain anything from this move, but there is something encouraging about the incessant digging into the economic situation. In Europe, governments have fallen over it. The entire presidential campaign in the U.S. has been focused solely on it for months. Here, however, like the inside of a powderkeg, all we ever talk about is the security issue. One upon a time, countries like Spain or Greece were looked upon with longing and envy. Today, who would have believed it? The words Spain and Greece are synonymous for nightmare.
And then there were two
Contrary to forecasts, the public outcry against the austerity plan didn't manifest itself in political battles within the government or the Knesset. Even the coalition parties didn't take advantage of the situation, and fell directly into line with Netanyahu's decision. All this despite assessments that general elections are right around the corner.
Because his latest moves are nearly impossible to explain, Netanyahu launched a media blitz on all the newscasts of all the TV channels this week. In his televised interviews the prime minister insisted that he did not have any other choice, and that the dramatic budgetary steps stemmed mainly from Europe's failure to recover from the economic crisis it is suffering. Netanyahu even explained that the plan he was promoting together with Steinitz was meant first and foremost to forestall the imminent recession, which could bring about the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.
You can believe that Netanyahu's plan will save the day just as easily as you can believe assessments suggesting that Netanyahu's plan will make the situation 10 times worse. But even Netanyahu's biggest opponents have to admit this time that the prime minister truly believes in the path that he has taken. If you put aside all the populists and the political opportunists, what you are left with is a pure and distilled ideological debate: Netanyahu on one side, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich (who has very vocally opposed the austerity plan) on the other side. Bibi or Shelly. Shelly or Bibi. All the rest are insignificant.
Fledgling politician Yair Lapid most likely isn't happy with the sudden shift in public discourse. If up until recently the public's sentiments were anti-haredi, on which Lapid purports to be the authority, suddenly the talk has turned to social-economic issues, an arena where his opinion doesn't garner much interest.
Wednesday, Aug. 1, was supposed to be a day of celebration for Lapid — the day that the Tal Law, which has effectively exempted haredim from mandatory military service, expired for good. Lapid should have been able to skip joyfully from one television studio to the next, turning himself into a wanted media commodity. Instead, he found himself barely wedging into a debate on a topic on which not only does he have no knowledge, it appeared that he also had no interest in it. He seemed like a child trying to force his way into a conversation between adults. The main message Lapid conveyed during the passing week was: The economic situation is bad because Netanyahu's government is bloated. No joke, he actually said that. He is liable to ask Bar-Ilan University to grant him a doctoral degree in economics for that remark. If only it could.
Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz, last week's media star, has also now been pushed out of the frame. When he was elected to head Kadima, he rushed to announce that he would lead the social justice protests this summer. But while this year's only significant demonstration was underway, Mofaz was already knee deep in the coalition, advancing an entirely different agenda — drafting haredim to the military. Now he is back in the opposition, the haredi draft issue has subsided, and the economic agenda is hot again. If Mofaz was competing in an Olympic slalom event, he would surely win a medal.
Mofaz's meaningless declarations on the austerity plan were rivaled only by Lapid's silly remarks. In one instance, the Kadima chairman didn't even try to formulate his own opinion, issuing a statement to the press that was written by none other than popular musician Shalom Hanoch. "The lowly citizen is once again forced to pay, big time / He keeps serving in the reserves and counting the money that is not there," he quoted, in all seriousness, from Hanoch's legendary song, "Messiah Isn't Coming." "Pretty Yardena" from that same song wasn't available for comment.
Yachimovich, who currently heads a party that holds eight Knesset seats but is forecast to win many more seats in the next election, has been anxiously waiting for the day when she can stand tall, head to head with Netanyahu. She is tired of being dismissed and wants to be seen as a viable alternative to Netanyahu's leadership. In the polls she has been at No. 2, behind Likud, for a long time. But among the public, she lags far behind. U.S. presidential hopeful Mitt Romney dared to stand her up at the last minute during his recent visit to Israel. When she was the head of the opposition, foreign leaders ignored her. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't meet with her. Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't even register that she existed. Now she is back in the saddle.
Even though Netanyahu insisted on presenting his economic plan as being completely free of political motivations, citing the consequent decline in his popularity as proof, it is very hard to believe that the prime minister won't try to earn some dividends from this maneuver. First of all, the plan could result in the approval of the 2013 budget — the same budget that no one believed could be passed without holding general elections. The 2013 budget is now starting to look like a viable budget. It won't be as bad as previously thought. If this miracle happens, the elections will be held on the predetermined date, meaning October 2013.
In an interview Netanyahu gave to Channel 9, which caters to Israel's Russian-speaking sector, the prime minister said, "It has always been my intent to carry out this government's term through to the end. I am actually interested, and even happy, to see now that the coalition parties will support, I believe, the decision we are putting to a vote on Monday. It is like getting half the budget approved."
In other words, Netanyahu sees the current move as being halfway to getting the budget approved. There's only another half to get through at the end of the year, and that's it.
Asked when he thought the next election would be held, Netanyahu said, "We are facing tremendous challenges, in terms of security, our economy and diplomacy. And here you have a stable and strong government that is going to complete a four-year term. It will be the first time this has happened in decades. I think that this contributes to our ability to handle these challenges. The elections will come when they come, but I have no reason to hold them early.”
Netanyahu and Barak
In the course of getting the austerity plan approved by the cabinet, there may have been a few casualties along the way. The political arena focused its attention mainly on the relations between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and relations between Netanyahu and Welfare Minister Moshe Kahlon, two ministers who opposed the austerity plan.
Most of the legwork needed to get the plan approved was done in the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday. The man who coordinated the political efforts, besides PMO employees, was Coalition Chairman MK Zeev Elkin.
Working long hours, lasting well into Thursday and creeping into Sunday, when the Tisha B'Av fast was observed, Elkin and Netanyahu managed to recruit a solid majority in favor of the plan. Independence Party ministers were expected to oppose, since the plan included a cut to the budget of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry (headed by Independence member Shalom Simhon), except for Independence party leader Barak, who was expected to support the plan because the defense budget would be unaffected. All the Likud ministers were expected to vote in favor of the plan, including Kahlon, whose Welfare Ministry budget was to remain untouched.
On Monday, voting day, everything changed. Kahlon announced that he had decided to oppose the plan on moral grounds. Netanyahu was furious, but even more furious were his fellow Likud ministers. What? Kahlon would emerge as more socially responsible than they were?
The drama surrounding Kahlon's opposition was compounded by the fact that the most dominant figure in Netanyahu's vicinity these days is Elkin, who will soon be challenging Kahlon over the chairmanship of the Likud Central Committee.
But the even more dramatic story is the one happening between Netanyahu and Barak, if it is indeed happening. It seems that the people who have been trying to drive a wedge between these two longtime allies for the last three years have finally succeeded in infusing some tension into their close relationship on the issue of the austerity plan.
Barak opposed the plan in the cabinet vote, contrary to Netanyahu's expectations, but since then the two have mended their differences and agreed that Barak, together with the rest of the Independence ministers, would support the plan in the upcoming Knesset vote.
But the budget issue isn't the real point of contention. The entire conflict arose in the wake of an opinion piece penned last week by Haaretz Editor- in-Chief Aluf Benn, urging support for Barak as the next prime minister. Netanyahu's camp believed that the article was a product of Barak's coaxing.
From this point forward, there are two possible scenarios: In one version, Netanyahu was angry and spoke to Barak, demanding a clarification under Barak's name in Haaretz, where the article appeared. The clarification was indeed printed. In Sunday's edition, in the letters to the editor section, a short note was printed: "I wish to clarify that Defense Minister Ehud Barak never said that Benjamin Netanyahu was 'a weak, paralyzed leader running in place and constantly looking around like a weathercock for what the public wants to hear.' Relations between Defense Minister Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu are based on trust, and the two men work in tandem to further Israel's security." The letter was signed by Barak Seri, Barak's media adviser.
But there is another possible scenario, in which there was no correlation between Barak's initial opposition to the austerity plan and the fact that he was forced to issue a printed clarification. In this scenario Barak Seri operated on his own accord and issued a clarification that explains that Benn's sentiments, written as though they were Barak's, were actually never uttered by Barak or any of his associates.
The fact that Barak chose to point his arrows at Steinitz this week and not at Netanyahu suggests that the second scenario may be closer to the truth. If he was interested in starting a fight with Netanyahu, Barak would have taken advantage of this opportunity immediately. Now only time will tell.
Netanyahu and Barack
While some people were trying to drive a wedge between Netanyahu and Barak, others were trying to do the same to Netanyahu and Barack — that is, U.S. President Barack Obama.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, was received in Israel with the usual pomp and ceremony. Just as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received then candidates Obama and John McCain in 2008, if Obama had bothered to visit Israel now, there is no doubt that he would have also been received by Netanyahu with open arms.
But beyond the ceremony and the formality and the personal considerations of past acquaintance, there is also a state. In the grand scheme of things, there is no doubt in my mind that it is in Israel's clear interest for Romney to win the American presidential election. Netanyahu can't publicly pick a favorite, but the absolute majority of the Israeli public backs Romney, justifiably.
Indeed, there are those who derive intense satisfaction from seeing Obama impose his will on Netanyahu, like forcing him to freeze settlement construction, but the vast majority of Israelis feel that first and foremost these imposed policies hurt Israel.
Obama likes to boast that no previous U.S. administration has ever contributed to Israel's defense as much as his administration has. There is merit to this declaration, but Israel is also expected to pay a price for all that support, and some people feel that the price is just too high. Never before has the U.S. withheld its veto in the U.N. Security Council, or conditioned it on moves that harm Israel, the way Obama has done. Never before has the U.S. stipulated that the border of the future Palestinian state must run along the 1967 lines with territorial swaps, the way Obama stipulated. The U.S. has also never before abandoned Israel to fend for itself in the face of dangerous and critical discourse in Europe and in the U.N., as Obama has.
Not to mention the regional damage created by the leadership of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The Arab world has never been more extreme, violent or dangerous than it is now. Israel warned the U.S. not to fall for the false hope of the Arab Spring and the mass longing for democracy. But Obama let himself scoff at Israel's warnings and continued to lead the toppling of one regime after another.
In one of the interviews that Netanyahu gave this week, he was asked about his possible preference for Romney over Obama. "You can keep trying, but it won't work," he replied. "I refuse to enter that lane. I have enough politics right here."