Likud-Beytenu is the last political entity that will actively campaign during this coming election season. The party's campaign will officially begin on Tuesday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be joined on stage at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center by Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman and 50 other candidates who comprise the joint Knesset slate formed by the two parties.
In recent days, veteran Likudniks have expressed frustration over the Netanyahu-Lieberman strategy of downplaying the election campaign as per the recommendation of noted American political guru Arthur Finkelstein. At Likud campaign headquarters, however, officials reject this assertion outright. They said that starting next week, after the other parties have already wasted large sums of money on highway billboards and Internet ads, they will begin flooding the country with ads and signs which blare the Hebrew letters “MAHAL,” the note which voters slip into ballot boxes if their choice is Likud.
Party officials said that any rumblings about a dormant campaign will either be quickly forgotten or will be retroactively ridiculed once the real campaign gets underway. They are quick to note that Likud-Beytenu is the Knesset list that has the vastest financial resources at its disposal, and that it is their intention to put this money to use in the most effective, efficient manner possible.
The political establishment is still hard at work to find a signature issue for this campaign. The Labor Party is eagerly promoting the economic issue, Yair Lapid is banging the drums in favor of military enlistment for the ultra-Orthodox, Tzipi Livni has come out against the settlements. It is clearly in the Likud’s interest that the political dialogue continues to revolve around the diplomatic and security issues, which are topics where Netanyahu has a clear advantage over the others. Nonetheless, Environment Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, who is serving as the chairman of the Likud’s election campaign public response team, insists that the ruling party will not shy away from addressing economic issues.
“These elections are first and foremost a question of who is capable of leading the state of Israel during a period in which the Middle East is transforming, the regimes around us are crumbling, Israel is faced with real threats like the strengthening of Hamas in Gaza and Judea and Samaria, and, of course, the Iranian threat hovers over us,” Erdan said. “So people need to ask themselves: Who has the résumé and the international understanding to face down these very real threats? The other parties, from both the Left and the Right, will try to confuse voters and distract them regarding this issue. The answer, of course, is obvious to everyone.
“The second question is the size of the ruling party and the number of Knesset seats it will win,” he said. “Will voters allow the leader to concentrate on the issues and tackle them with full force? Or will they put their trust in a coalition, where all of the parties pull the ship in their own separate directions? This is what the public needs to take into consideration. That is the reason that we merged the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu lists.”
Q: What other reasons are there for the merger?
“Take the issue of universal conscription. If Tzipi Livni wasn’t so hell-bent on dividing Jerusalem and instead would have joined the government, today there would be universal conscription. An ultra-Orthodox male who serves in the police or volunteers with Magen David Adom (emergency medical service) perhaps contributes more than a soldier who spends his service as a reporter for Bamahane (the military newsmagazine), and that’s not intended as a slight to anyone else who does military service.”
Q: Does the Likud prefer that the next government be devoid of ultra-Orthodox parties?
“I can tell you what my personal preference is, and not that of the prime minister. I don’t rule anyone out as possible coalition partners, including the ultra-Orthodox. But I think that in order to solve the issue of universal conscription as well as the housing crisis — and we have a clear interest to launch an intense, nationwide campaign on these subjects — the prime minister, who himself is a major supporter of reform in these areas, needs to be immune from political threats that could topple the government. I don’t rule out the ultra-Orthodox, but I want to see a large coalition with the ultra-Orthodox on one side and (the Center-Left) Yair Lapid on the other.”
Q: Tzipi Livni has long claimed that Netanyahu would never do anything to harm his natural partners. Will he do so this time?
“Livni told boldface lies over the course of the last four years. She constantly claimed that she never capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox, and that she never agreed to subsidize the yeshivas (religious schools), yet just this week she explicitly said that she would have been willing to agree to their demands but that Shas chairman Eli Yishai told her he had already cut a deal with Netanyahu.”
Q: You didn’t reply to the essence of her claims.
“I think we ought not to rule out any coalition partner. The prime minister is not preoccupying himself these days with putting together a coalition. Instead, he is managing the affairs of the state, whether it’s the price of food or arranging for universal conscription or changing the system of government. We need to allow the ruling party to handle these affairs freely instead of empowering niche parties with narrow, sectorial interests. We will detail our principles during the campaign, and whoever agrees to support them will be welcome with open arms into the coalition.”
The right flank
Q: It has been suggested by some that the personal tensions between Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett could play a decisive role in determining whether his party will be invited to join the coalition. Is there something to these claims?
“I don’t know of any personal tensions between them. I heard Bennett say that he is fond of Netanyahu. Those who know the prime minister know that the only thing that determines his course of action is what is in the best interests of the State of Israel. Whoever is disseminating disinformation about whom the prime minister will invite and whom he won’t is doing so to bolster his or her own campaign.”
Q: Officials in Habayit Hayehudi claim that there is much fear among Likud-Beytenu officials over a defection of voters. Is there any truth to this?
“There is no specific fear or concern that is relevant to one party or the other. Actually when one speaks of the national-religious constituency, I think that this voting bloc, which is an integral part of Israeli society and which has taken leadership positions in numerous areas, including the military, academia, and others, needs to be integrated into the leadership of the state through the ruling party, and not through sectorial factions that will make demands that will be perceived as narrow and specific to that constituency even if those demands are justified and rational.
“We have proven that the national-religious public has wielded significant influence in the Likud, like when the budget for the national year of service program became a fixed part of the basic budget for the first time without the need to haggle in negotiations every year. The solution that Bennett offers is a narrow, sectorial one. It will effectively render any demand by the national-religious public as an extraordinary demand that will require negotiations. When you are part of the ruling party, then these demands become a basic, obvious fait accompli.”
Q: On the other hand, the ruling party also agreed to freeze settlement construction and also agreed to the principles of the Bar-Ilan speech.
“The timing of the Bar-Ilan speech was at a very particular juncture. This was at the beginning of the government’s term in office, when the prime minister had to take into account the existential threat to Israel coming from Iran as well as the need to put together a wide, international coalition led by the United States to stop Iran’s nuclear program. We needed to remove the Palestinian issue from the agenda in order to concentrate on building a coalition against Iran.
“Today, there is no doubt that in practice this worked. The entire world is preoccupied with the issue of Iran’s nuclearization and how to stop it, while [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas has been exposed as a non-partner. It is clear that there is no step that we could have taken that would have brought him back to the negotiating table. This is what the Israeli public thinks, and this is because the prime minister managed to expose who the real obstinate party is.”
Q: The world doesn’t appear to be convinced of this.
“Unfortunately, the left-wing parties in Israel are only interested in scoring short-term political points at the expense of what is in the best interests of the state. Instead of backing the prime minister after seeing Abbas' obstinate, rejectionist behavior, and instead of finally telling the truth about the conflict, they are fanning the flames against Israel in the eyes of the world, and afterward they complain about the international condemnations against Israel.
“They are the ones who encouraged these condemnations. The diplomatic damage against Israel was caused first and foremost by the behavior of party chiefs on the Left. You cannot expect the European governments, who are dealing with a growing Muslim minority in their countries, to be more Zionist than the left-wing parties in Israel. When Livni and Lapid condemn construction in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, obviously European government will immediately join in the condemnations.”
Q: Does the Likud-Beytenu rightward shift not alienate centrist voters?
“I don’t think there has been a rightward shift. What we have here is the nationalist platform that the Likud has spearheaded for years. Building in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria is not a rightward shift. It is something that the Likud has done since the day it was founded. There is no rightward shift here. Instead, we are presenting a legitimate position, not a sectorial one, and it is a position that serves the wider public.”
Q: Lieberman has been served with an indictment. It is still unclear whether he will be deemed fit to serve as a government minister. That is an issue that will be cleared up after his legal affairs have been resolved. Isn’t this liable to cause damage in the run-up to the elections?
“I don’t think so. I think that whoever supported the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu was aware of the investigations that dragged on for many years against the former foreign minister. I remember well how Lieberman was persecuted by Moshe Mizrahi, who was the head of the Police Investigations Branch and who was removed from his post on the recommendation of the attorney-general because he had illegally transcribed secretly recorded conversation. The public also remembers this.
“After the most serious suspicions against Lieberman were dropped, it is unfortunate that prosecutors decided to issue an indictment over a peripheral matter in the investigation, but I don’t think that this will have any impact on the public. Now he will have the opportunity to prove his innocence in court, and I hope that this is what indeed transpires.”
Q: Many are convinced that your campaign will focus exclusively on diplomatic and security matters. Are they right?
“No, they’re not. The campaign will deal with all issues, because this government has achieved great things in all areas, particularly in the economic realm. This is evident when one compares everything that has happened in Israel in the last few years. In every area, Israel’s situation has improved. While foreign governments made severe cutbacks and laid off workers and slashed salaries, here we have raised the minimum wage to over $1,100. We boosted the wages of doctors, teachers, and police officers at a cost of billions.
“We have provided free education to hundreds of thousands of families and free dental care to children. We’ve lowered the cost of cellular telephone usage. We have built urban parks throughout the country. We did all this at a time when the global trend was in the opposite direction, and despite being forced to invest a great deal in defense projects like the fence [along the border with Egypt] and Iron Dome. All of the Left's theories about the Middle East have collapsed. Twenty percent of the state budget is allocated to defense. Despite this, we have succeeded.
“This is also an issue in which the leadership exhibited by the prime minister and the manner in which he perceives the prevailing circumstances constitute a tremendous advantage. As an international leader of great stature, the prime minister has proven that he is capable of dealing with challenges and facing down the idle chatter and cacophony of the party chiefs from the left. Nobody has amassed the experience in these issues like he has. So as a result the campaign will deal with all issues.”
Vying for a spot in the next Knesset, Tzipi Livni built her new party Hatnuah on the foundation of the already registered Hetz (“Arrow”) Party headed by Avraham Poraz, the former interior minister. Although the party has never been voted into the Knesset, it is still active. Not only is it alive, but it has not changed its name, nor has it replaced its chairman. Avraham Poraz is still listed as party chief. After failing to break the minimum vote threshold in 2006, Hetz was sued by the state, which demanded that it return the public funds it received so that it could subsidize its campaign.
This was the first time that the state had demanded a political party reimburse it for money after it failed to cross the minimum vote threshold. Poraz, who is also the party’s legal representative, refused. He claimed that after almost 60 years it was inconceivable that he would be the first to be required to pay for a party’s campaign just because he failed to win the necessary votes to enter the Knesset.
The Jerusalem District Court ruled in favor of the state, requiring Poraz to put back NIS 7 million into the public coffers. Poraz did not give up. He appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed with a number of his counterclaims. As a result, the court significantly reduced the amount that Poraz was required to pay to just NIS 1.7 million.
Three week ago, seven members of Kadima sought to break off from the party so they could form their own independent faction that would link up with Livni’s new Hatnuah movement. During the deliberations in the Knesset House Committee announcing the move, MK Yisrael Hasson, who served as the Kadima campaign manager, revealed the existence of the large sums of money in the Hetz account.
Kadima MK Shai Hermesh asked Poraz: “Why did you give them NIS 2 million, Mr. Poraz?”
“Because I love them,” Poraz answered.
“You love them?” Hermesh answered. “Then love me too and give me a couple million.”
The other lawmakers joined in the exchange of accusations and one-liners. They also demanded to know what motive lies behind Poraz’s decision to serve as a “philanthropist,” in Hermesh’s terminology. They failed to receive a serious response from Poraz on the issue. During the discussion, he repeated the refrain that Livni and the other defectors were representatives of the Hetz Party of which he is chairman.
“I’m the landlord in this party,” he said immediately after he was permitted to speak.
After the vote which officially authorized the defections, House Committee Chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud) said: “The Kadima faction has split. Kadima now numbers 21 members of Knesset. The defecting faction, the Hatnuah faction led by Tzipi Livni, will number seven members of Knesset who signed a letter requesting the split.”
At this point, Poraz interjected. “The emphasis here is on their addition to the party,” he said. “They represent Hetz in the Knesset.”
Nobody had any idea as to why it was so important for Poraz to portray the events in this manner, even though from a legal standpoint he is absolutely correct. Still, after the committee discussion, questions remained as to why Poraz allowed Livni and Hatnuah members to use his party and take advantage of his generous largesse, ostensibly in return for nothing.
The most important job that a lobbyist has in the Knesset is to enlist MKs to support the cause that he or she is championing. MKs wield tremendous power by submitting proposals, authorizing legislation, amending laws in committees, and voting in the plenum.
Sometimes, one vote can make the difference.
On the Knesset’s website, Poraz’s name appears in the section devoted to official lobbyists. In the past, Poraz has represented the Israel Organization of Consulting Engineers and Architects as well as the Hof Hasharon Regional Council.
In the next Knesset, lobbyists will continue to try to chase down lawmakers to advance their interests. If polls are any indication, then Livni’s Hatnuah will have somewhere between nine and 11 members of Knesset. All of them will owe their political existence to the Poraz-led Hetz Party, as well as to the NIS 1.8 million that he put in their coffers out of the goodness of his heart.
This is unquestionably a problematic situation if Poraz continues to work as a lobbyist in the next Knesset.
In response, Poraz said: “The money that was left over will not be used to subsidize the campaign of Hatnuah. The funding will be based solely on the subsidies that the state will give to the seven MKs who broke off from Kadima.”
Q: It may not subsidize the campaign, but the money will still be available for use by the party.
“The money will indeed remain in the party’s account.”
Q: In the Knesset House Committee, you emphasized that you were still party chairman.
“That is true. I am the owner of Hetz. I’m party chairman. The Hatnuah movement represents Hetz in the Knesset.”
Q: Don’t you see the problematic element in allowing members of Knesset to run for parliament on the platform of your party without getting anything in return while also allowing them to use NIS 1.8 million, all this at a time when you are a lobbyist?
“As a lobbyist, I represented contractors, and I’m also a lawyer. What do you think? That the seven MKs are dishrags who will vote whichever way they are told?”
Q: They just might in exchange for the possibility of running for Knesset under the umbrella of your party and in exchange for NIS 1.8 million that you left for them.
“I don’t think there’s a legal problem here. If anybody thinks differently, then they should submit a complaint with the Knesset’s legal adviser.”
This week, we learned of the supposedly close collaboration between the Israelis Party and the political duo of Haim Ramon and Tzipi Livni. Sources familiar with the formation of the new party revealed the relationship. One of the sources was MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, who has kept silent ever since she failed to win a realistic spot on the Likud list.
Perhaps it was seeing the Israel Hayom story revealing the contacts between the Israelis Party and Livni-Ramon that prompted her to tell her side of what went on behind the scenes of the new party’s formation. She also explains why she suddenly decided to quit Kadima and how she ended up leading an economy-oriented faction.
“After the Likud primaries, I decided that I wanted to chair a party of my own,” she said. “In fact, this was always my dream. I felt that I wasn’t given an opportunity to get a slot in the Likud because of the computer malfunction (in some voting stations her name did not appear on the computerized system). I understood that I could only put into practice the things I believe in if I were the head of a party so I decided to found a party and promote the things that I believe in.
“With this mindset, Yoel Hasson asked me to join the seven Kadima MKs who broke off so that I could then break off from them and form a one-person faction,” she said. “I told him that I have no faith in the people who were orchestrating this move and that I would agree only on the condition that they sign a statement recognizing me as a one-person faction after the split. That was the agreement.
“At the same time, I made contact with David Cohn, the anchor of the news on Channel 9, which I helped found,” she said. “I made him an offer to join the party that I would lead. He said that he has fielded many offers, and that we should meet. During our meeting, Cohn told me that he wants to be in the party’s top slot. He told me that he had recently been in contact with Haim Ramon, who asked him to head a party that would be a satellite faction for Hatnuah. Cohn also said that he was urged to take Marina Solodkin and Robert Tiviaev on board after they would break off from Kadima. He said that Ramon didn't want them in Hatnuah, and that his only use for them would be in splitting up Kadima.
“Cohn spoke with Solodkin and Tiviaev, and they both turned him down,” she said. “He said that he had to be first on the list because he attracts votes. I laughed in his face. He eventually admitted that placing him first on the list was really a condition that he set for Haim Ramon, who promised to help only if he was in the top slot. In the meantime, Meir Sheetrit also joined the defecting faction, so they didn’t need me anymore.
“Cohn then called me and told me that he would be willing to be my No. 2 on condition that I bring funding to the party,” she said. “I then went back to Yoel Hasson. He told me that they didn’t need me anymore. I decided that I would submit a request to quit Kadima. Then I get a phone call from Boris Elkon, who told me that Cohn was offered the 7th or 8th slot with Hatnuah. When that didn’t work, they offered me the chairmanship of the party. He also repeated Ramon’s demand that Cohn stand at the head of the list. He said that Ramon had another precondition — Marina Shorer would be the No. 2.”
“The Knesset House Committee turned down my request to quit Kadima,” she said. “Cohn realized that I couldn’t bring the necessary funds. Elkon called and asked if I would be willing to serve as his top deputy. I turned him down. He once again repeated Ramon’s insistence that Cohn be in the top slot, and that’s the point in which we broke off contact. That’s when I arrived at the Economy Party. It came about after Danny and Benny Goldstein, two American businessmen who decided to move to Israel to remedy the bureaucratic mishaps that made it difficult for them to do business here in Israel, asked me to come aboard.”
“They came to the conclusion that I’m the right person to lead the party because they really identified with my pet issues,” she said. “The Economy Party is going to be a party that addresses the daily problems faced by citizens, and its goal will be to make their lives easier. We’re not saying Yesh Atid (“There is a future,” which is the name of Yair Lapid’s party), but we are saying that the future starts in the present. We are going to focus on putting a stop to the abuse inflicted on the average citizen by public institutions. Reforming the National Insurance Institute is at the absolute top of the agenda, and that is work that I started doing in the previous Knesset. We are going to turn the National Insurance Institute into the Social Insurance Institute.”
“We are going to determine a new standard for the welfare of the Israeli citizen,” she said. “We’re going to provide a roof for the disadvantaged by building small apartments and hostels for the elderly and by finding housing solutions for young couples. People between the ages of 35 and 40 don’t marry because they have nowhere to live. This is also why they don’t have children. We need to strengthen family values here in Israel. We will also deal with the gender-based discrimination against divorced fathers.”
“We are going to help small businesses because they are the key to a healthy economy,” she said. “People only talk about them during election time. The torture that the authorities put these small businesses through is simply unforgivable.”
An official from the Hatnuah movement told Israel Hayom: “Hatnuah is focused on advancing the principles and ideas upon which it was founded and it will continue to do this solely within the framework of Hatnuah.”
The Israelis Party said: “Tzipi Livni did indeed inquire as to [party chairman] David Cohn’s willingness to join Hatnuah. Haim Ramon was also involved in these contacts, which did not bear fruit. Ramon did not help raise one single shekel on behalf of the Israelis Party, nor was he ever involved in soliciting financial assistance for the party.”
“There is no connection whatsoever between Hatnuah led by Tzipi Livni and the Israelis. As part of the process of formulating a slate of candidates for the Israelis Party, inquiries were made with Robert Tiviaev and Marina Solodkin out of a desire to add politicians who were well known among the Russian-speaking public. One needs to understand that even if these two members of Knesset had joined the Israelis Party, they would not bring with them any eligibility for public funding of the election campaign as stipulated in the campaign finance laws because the laws lay down a clear condition: one-third of the number of members of Knesset need to break off from a party if they hope to receive funding for an independent faction. Alternately, according to the amendment to the law that was made in 2009 and which earned the moniker ‘the Mofaz Law,’ there needs to be at least seven MKs for a party split to be considered legitimate.”
“MK Yulia Shamalov Berkovich did offer David Cohn the No. 2 slot on the list. Cohn refused. The Israelis Party was formed by the late professor, Gideon Doron, and it ran for a spot in the 18th Knesset. Both David Cohn and Boris Elkon took part in the founding of the Hayisraelim Party in its current incarnation.”