When the new ministers of Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s nascent Independence
faction were sworn in at the Knesset on Wednesday evening, the holiday of Tu
Bishvat had just started.
The date was appropriate, because the holiday,
which coincided with the 62nd anniversary of the Knesset, symbolizes renewal and
laying down new roots.
It was also meaningful because the entire
Independence political maneuver originated with a man who wanted to plant trees:
former agriculture minister and new Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom
Simhon had been trying for almost a year to leave the cabinet and
the Knesset in favor of one of the plum jobs in Israeli politics: World chairman
of the Jewish National Fund, which for more than a century has planted the
country’s forests. The JNF is a fiefdom with a positive image and large budget
that Simhon (who at 54 is considered young for a politician) could have
controlled until his retirement.
The problem was that the job was already
occupied by a Labor man, Effi Stenzler, who unlike Simhon, has few enemies in
the party. To get the post, Simhon tried changing Labor’s constitution, bylaws
and voting procedures, and even stacking the voting body in his favor. When
Stenzler repeatedly took him to court, Simhon tried to get elected as a
representative of Meretz and the Reform movement instead.
attempts to block a vote in Labor’s governing executive committee failed, and
Stenzler ended up defeating Simhon by a wide margin in a December 19 vote. The
man who carried Stenzler to victory was Labor strongman Binyamin Ben-Eliezer,
who together with his ally, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini, holds a blocking
majority in Labor institutions.
Ben-Eliezer told Simhon at that morning’s
cabinet meeting that he would not come to the vote, but he showed up at the last
minute, kissed him on the cheek and defeated him.
SIMHON AND Ben-Eliezer
have long been locked in a bitter personal dispute, and the two haven’t spoken
in months. Simhon upset Ben-Eliezer by bashing him on Army Radio, and
Ben-Eliezer irked Simhon by blocking his appointments to the national nut
Shortly after Ben-Eliezer blocked Simhon from getting
the JNF job, Simhon started plotting his revenge via a methodical, well thought
out maneuver that culminated in Ben-Eliezer’s ouster and Simhon getting sworn in
to his job.
Simhon’s partners in the maneuver were Barak, Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin and Natan Eshel, the prime
minister’s chief of staff. Every step was taken under a veil of secrecy that
allowed the maneuver to take the entire Knesset and the press completely by
Netanyahu wanted to end the situation whereby Ben-Eliezer,
Avishay Braverman and Isaac Herzog were constantly threatening to leave his
government, and another five Labor MKs were acting as an opposition inside the
coalition. He felt they were giving the Palestinians false hope that his
government would soon fall, which he believed was encouraging Mahmoud Abbas to
reject international overtures to return to the negotiating
Barak’s associates said he was sick and tired of all the criticism
he was enduring from within his own faction, which culminated in Braverman
accepting as fact a false Haaretz story about White House officials being mad at
Barak and MK Daniel Ben-Simon being the only coalition MK who voted against the
2011-2012 biennial state budget.
Simhon persuaded Barak that rather than
fire Braverman or force Ben-Simon to quit the Knesset, the time had come for
them to leave a sinking ship.
Time was of the essence, because Braverman
and Herzog were advancing their proposals for a Labor convention that would vote
on leaving the coalition and advancing the party’s leadership race.
raised the issue with Netanyahu at their weekly Friday meeting at the prime
minister’s weekend home in Caesarea. Simhon worked out the details of the
maneuver with Eshel.
Five MKs were needed to legally divide the 13 MK
Labor faction, due to a law requiring a third of a faction’s MKs to split. But
Elkin learned from failed efforts to split Kadima that if you need five MKs, you
better shoot for six, because one can change his mind at the last minute (as it
is now known that Kadima MK Ya’acov Edri did) and ruin the entire
But Labor did not have a sixth MK with whom Barak was willing
to live. So instead, last week Simhon tried to entice Ben-Simon to leave Labor
on his own and bring the faction down to 12 MKs, which would have lowered the
number needed for a split to four and given Barak a spare MK and more
But Simhon was unaware that every Labor MK had to agree
to let Ben-Simon leave, and Ben-Eliezer refused to let him go.
later said that efforts to let him leave were made because MKs Matan Vilna’i or
Orit Noked were not on board yet, but the truth is that at the time, both had
already met with Barak at his home in Tel Aviv’s Akirov Tower and acquiesced to
Barak wanted to bring the split to the Knesset House Committee
last Wednesday, but Elkin was sitting shiva for his father, so despite the great
risk of a leak that would have resulted in enormous pressure on MKs to stay, he
waited until Monday morning to announce the move. The delay forced Barak to play
along with a meeting Friday at the office of Labor law committee head Amnon
Zichroni, in which he promised to reach a compromise on a date for a Labor
convention by Tuesday.
Elkin played a key roll in passing the split in
the House Committee immediately Monday morning and signing a coalition agreement
with Barak’s new Independence faction Monday night, before other coalition
parties could protest the four ministries given to Barak’s allies and escalate
demands to reopen their own deals.
The coalition agreement Elkin signed
with Simhon had only one clause that was unexpected. Clause five states: “The
Likud will work to ensure that the coalition in the World Zionist Organization
will support an Independence representative becoming chairman of the
WHO IS Simhon’s candidate for the job now that both he and Vilna’i,
who also wanted it, have both received promotions in the cabinet? The answer is
Abe – not a political ally of Simhon, but an acronym for Anyone But Effi. Simhon
got his revenge against Ben-Eliezer, but he is still determined to see revenge
meted out against Stenzler.
On Sunday morning, Simhon will hold a
ceremony formally turning over the reins of the Agriculture Ministry to Noked.
No such ceremony will be held with Binyamin Ben-Eliezer at the Industry, Trade
and Labor Ministry.
Ben-Eliezer will be busy on Sunday attending a
marathon Labor faction meeting in which the party’s remaining MKs will debate
how to work together despite their ongoing differences and find their niche on
the political map. They will issue their first noconfidence vote on Monday and
then try to remain relevant until the next general election.
associates are confident that they have finally achieved the coalition
discipline and political stability they sought. They expressed hope they could
still manage to split Kadima as its MKs grow frustrated with the prospect of
nearly three more years in the opposition and seeing Tzipi Livni bring more and
more public figures into Kadima as their potential replacements.
threat that they see on the horizon is the behavior of Foreign Minister Avigdor
Lieberman, following an expected indictment that reportedly could be announced
by the State’s Attorney’s Office as early as next month. They expect such a move
to also end up strengthening the coalition, but they see Lieberman as a loose
cannon, who can take his 15 MKs and force an election for his own interest at a
But regardless of whether the goals of strengthening the coalition
and delaying the next election are ultimately achieved, Simhon’s associates said
he was tremendously relieved by the successful ploy. And sources close to Barak
said that seeing the look on Ben-Eliezer’s face at the press conference in which
he announced his resignation, and hearing him talk about how surprised he was by
the move, made the entire maneuver worthwhile.