Winners and losers in the coalition’s first fight

All of the protagonists came out of the coalition crisis over sanctions against draft dodgers as both victorious and bruised.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
June 1, 2013 08:31
Finance Minister Yair Lapid/

Lapid looking sullen 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

 
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In sports, there is almost always a clear winner and loser. In war, who won and lost is often open to interpretation. In politics, there are times when it is obvious who won and lost, like in almost every election and the passage of legislation through parliaments.

But there are also political battles in which all the main protagonists both win and lose. That was the case with the first crisis inside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which took place this week over criminal sanctions for draft-dodgers.

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The ministerial committee headed by Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri, of Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, passed a haredi draft bill – including its controversial criminal sanctions clause – ending the coalition crisis.

There may be Hebrew publications this weekend that attempt to allocate titles of winners and losers among Netanyahu, Lapid, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett and the haredim. But the truth is that each can rightly be declared both winners and losers. Perhaps five years from now, it will be clear who won in retrospect. Until then, here is why each of them both emerged victorious and suffered a humbling defeat.

Why Netanyahu won: Had Netanyahu not intervened in the dispute between Lapid and Ya’alon, the headlines of the papers this weekend would be about the ongoing crisis. The longer the crisis went on, the worse Netanyahu would look. So even though he did not believe the crisis was real, he decided he had to take action to end it.

“When you have a fictional crisis, you do what you need to do to put a stop to it,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “He wanted to kill it in the press, where he was not scoring points.”

Hours before the crisis erupted, Netanyahu told Likud ministers that everything would proceed according to the coalition agreement. In the dispute between Ya’alon and Lapid over how to sanction draft-dodgers, Ya’alon followed the agreement by insisting on only economic sanctions and Lapid violated it by seeking criminal sanctions.



But Netanyahu is a veteran politician, and he has learned that it is more important to be smart than to be right. He has also learned that in political disputes, sometimes it helps to let someone else win in the short run so you can win in the long run.

Lapid got his criminal sanctions and called a Knesset press conference to celebrate them. But that does not mean there will actually be criminal sanctions. They could be stopped in the Knesset or the courts or because of a change in the coalition over the next four years.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu succeeded in doing something he has unsuccessfully tried to do since before the coalition was formed: Break up the bond between Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi, which sided with Ya’alon against Lapid and voted against the haredi draft bill.

Why Netanyahu lost: It was the first time that the former boxer Lapid flexed his muscles at the prime minister. He halted the Peri Committee’s proceedings and released a statement declaring a coalition crisis at 1:50 a.m. Monday. He vowed to not back down in his faction meeting hours later.

Even though Netanyahu mocked Lapid at his own faction meeting an hour later by calling the crisis fictitious, by the 8 p.m. nightly newscast five hours later, the prime minister gave in to Yesh Atid and ordered Ya’alon to surrender.

By giving in so easily, Netanyahu lost his deterrence ahead of the disputes that are soon to follow. When Netanyahu was the king that Time magazine declared him, he could not be extorted by empty threats. Now he is weaker and in Lapid’s hands, and it showed.

Even worse, Netanyahu and his party have once again let themselves be cast as the defender of the haredim in their unpopular battle against the rest of the population. The prime minister reinforced the bad rap he got for disbanding the Plesner Committee on the same subject in his last government, and for trying unsuccessfully to form a coalition with Shas and United Torah Judaism at Lapid’s expense.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who is a savvy political operator, warned Netanyahu and Ya’alon in Sunday morning’s Likud ministerial meeting to verify in advance if Yesh Atid had any stunt up its sleeve ahead of Sunday night’s vote in the Peri Committee.

Had they taken his advice, perhaps the crisis – and the damage to the party that resulted from it – could have been avoided altogether.

Why Lapid won: Lapid has had some bad weeks lately. That happens when you are finance minister, and he knew that when he took the job. He got vilified by his middle class constituency for raising taxes and cutting benefits.

He knew there would be more protests against him this week as the Knesset convened to raise the value-added tax from 17 percent to 18%.

What better way to distract the public from its fate than to declare war against easy prey like the haredim? Instead of headlines in red about bank accounts falling below zero, the headlines are in black about the haredim. Lapid’s constituents are happy again, in a week in which they really should be very upset.

Knowing that you don’t really win unless you celebrate your victory, Lapid called the Knesset press conference in which he declared that his party had kept its campaign promises and that historic changes would take place in the country.

Lapid’s real celebration is taking place Saturday in Paris. He flew there late Thursday for meetings with OECD finance ministers that he delayed due to the crisis. He paid for his wife Lihi to join him for the weekend, for a short but much-needed celebratory vacation.

Why Lapid lost: In the shallow, “Twitterized” world we live in, people’s attention spans for speeches have become much shorter. So even though Lapid got across many points he wanted to in his victory speech, the Hebrew press focused instead on his US President Barack Obama-style teleprompter.

The teleprompter made Lapid look less genuine and sincere. Instead of referring to it as the “speech to my haredi brothers,” as Lapid called it when he sent it to the press, Army Radio called in the “teleprompter speech.”

Lapid distracted the public from the VAT raise, but only for a few days. The huge rise in haredi conscription is set for 2017. The VAT raise takes effect midnight Saturday night, and all Israelis will feel it every day.

To make it to Paris, Lapid missed the VAT vote in the Knesset, which made him look like a leader who abandoned his troops.

And by resorting to a coalition crisis, extortion, and threats, Lapid has utilized the same “bad old politics” he vowed to resist during the election campaign. His adversaries in Shas could be proud that their nemesis has learned their trade.

Why Ya’alon won: Ya’alon won because he stood up for his principles, and for what he believes is necessary for the IDF and Israeli society. He also secured support from the haredim, which could help him in a future race for prime minister.

Why Ya’alon lost: The defense minister lost because he had to vote against his conscience.

Giving in at the behest of the prime minister – his boss – did not make him look like the tough guy a military man is supposed to be.

Why Bennett won: Bennett won because he was able to pay back religious-Zionist rabbis who helped him get elected, by securing 300 draft exemptions for top national religious Torah scholars and preventing a raise in the minimum army service for Hesder yeshiva students beyond one month.

Why Bennett lost: Bennett lost because as a veteran of elite army units, he does not believe in helping his own constituents avoid service. The political maneuver his party executed to help them marred Bennet’s clean image and makes him look like a religious political apparatchik.

Why the haredim won: The haredim do not believe that what passed this week will ever be implemented. The Peri Committee’s proposal will actually enable more haredim to avoid army service over the next three years until the conscription requirement kicks in. Shas was purposely silent this week for a reason.

Why the haredim lost: Nevertheless, this was a terrible week for the haredim, who compared it to pogroms in the Ukraine that took place a century ago this week.

Although Lapid tried to tell them why the bill is for their own good, legislation that could result in the imprisonment of thousands of haredim advanced, and the antiharedi atmosphere in the country that could result in more harsh decrees has never been stronger.

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