Politics: A tale of Tu Bishvat revenge

Barak made all the headlines with his maneuver in bolting the Labor Party. But the originator of the move was actually Shalom Simhon.

Independence faction 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Independence faction 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
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.
But all 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 planters’ council.
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 surprise.
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 table.
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.
Barak 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 maneuver.
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 maneuverability.
But Simhon was unaware that every Labor MK had to agree to let Ben-Simon leave, and Ben-Eliezer refused to let him go.
Ben-Simon 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 the move.
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 JNF.”
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.
Netanyahu’s 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.
The only 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 whim.
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.