(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni has finally woken up from her yearlong slumber thanks to the wake-up call sounded by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. In a weekend Haaretz interview, Livni called on the Likud and Kadima to join forces and remove the haredi parties from the levers of power, thus providing the first sign that she is beginning to understand she needs to make her voice heard if she wants Kadima to remain a relevant force in Israeli politics.
There’s no shame in a politician jumping on a passing bandwagon, and Livni was right to capitalize on the surprising media attention Huldai achieved earlier this month when he called on the “silent masses” to rebel against the allocation of state funds for private education in the haredi sector. Due to the haredi parties’ political power, said Huldai, “Israel is funding and fostering large groups of separatists and, if you will, the ignorant, whose number is growing at a shocking rate and endangering our societal and economic strength.”
Now there is nothing new in Huldai’s remarks. He himself made them in a similar speech last year, which received little attention, and, of course, Tommy Lapid’s Shinui enjoyed a few years of public support on precisely this issue at the beginning of the millennium before the party imploded.
WHY HULDAI’S remarks should have sparked such strong media interest this time around is unclear, although he was probably helped by the growing public disquiet with the level of haredi influence on secular life, as demonstrated with the farce concerning the delayed construction of a new emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon due to a few pagan graves.
Huldai’s speech also followed the recent release of the Taub Center’s “State of the Nation Report: Society, Economy and Policy,” which highlighted the dangers to the wider society of the haredi refusal to provide their children with educational tools needed to enter the modern job market. Prof. Dan Ben-David, the center’s executive director, has pointed out that about two-thirds of all haredi adults do not, and are not looking for, work, prepared to live off the handouts provided by the state, an economic model which is simply untenable.
Ben-David also provided a stinging rebuke to Moshe Gafni, the United Torah Judaism MK and chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, who ridiculously tried to combat Huldai’s speech by arguing that it was the haredi public that was financing the secular public and not the other way around.
According to Gafni, because the haredi public (due to their larger families) spends proportionately more than the secular population on indirect taxation, such as value-added tax, “through these taxes, the haredim are the ones who fund the secular as the haredi public spends more than secular people on those taxes.”
As Ben-David dryly noted, even if the haredim were paying the most value-added tax, they were simply returning the 16 percent at which VAT is charged from the 100 percent of state funding they receive to make these purchases in the first place.
SO LIVNI was standing on fertile ground when she called for the state to cut off funding immediately for schools that don’t teach the core curriculum and prepare their students for the job market. She also didn’t mince her words in describing the Israel of 2010 as a country “in which women ride in the back of the bus, dry bones take precedence over saving lives, conversion is a mission impossible, the Zionist vision has blurred and defining the Jewish state has been given to a monopoly of haredi politicians who are taking advantage of the system and politicians.”
Importantly, Livni did not restrict her interview to simple haredi bashing. She called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to combine the forces of Kadima and the Likud, “the two large Zionist parties,” to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as well as bring about societal change.
In doing so, Livni is laying down her marker for the autumn, when Netanyahu will be forced to do the thing he hates most: make a decision. The next four months will be taken up with proximity talks with the Palestinians that are scheduled to end at the same time as does Netanyahu’s unilateral settlement construction freeze in the West Bank.
Come September and the end of the holidays, Netanyahu will have to decide whether he is prepared to negotiate in earnest with the Palestinians and present a diplomatic plan that covers all the core issues – settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the right of return – in return for a peace agreement that provides for an end to the conflict.
The present composition of Netanyahu’s government makes the
presentation of such a plan most unlikely, hence Labor Party leader
Ehud Barak’s recent calls to expand the government. Given that Barak is
the person most responsible for preventing Livni from taking over from
Ehud Olmert as prime minister without the need for elections, this does
sound a bit rich, but nevertheless progress on the diplomatic front can
only be made if Netanyahu ditches Shas (as well as the smaller
right-wing parties in his coalition) for Kadima.
Now that Livni has finally roused herself after a disappointing first
year as opposition leader, she has to ensure her words turn into action
and that Netanyahu either invites Kadima into his government or Barak
quits, leaving the Likud leader to deal with the consequences of his
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.