Former IDF spokeswoman's supporters say defeat of proposed VAT on produce is just the beginning.
By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
Less than four months ago, she was sitting behind a name tag at the new MKs' orientation, but on Monday, Miri Regev scored a political victory that would be considered an achievement even for a much more experienced Knesset hand.
Regev, the last candidate on the Likud list to make it into the 18th Knesset, went head-to-head against her party chairman, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, serving as the focal point for the opposition to proposal to charge VAT on produce. Taking to the open markets of Israel's poor urban centers and periphery development towns, Regev pushed a solution that would cancel the proposed levy, and make up the lost funds by nixing the proposed reduction of income tax for the wealthier sectors.
The struggle was not just for the VAT issue, but was an opening shot in a larger effort to determine the face of Israel's governing party.
"We need to not just speak about social issues, but also act on social issues," said Regev late Monday night. "It is time to establish a real social front in the Likud and I am a person who means what I say. I mean to do basic work in the field to represent the people who vote for the Likud. I have the will, the motivation and the necessary sensitivity and I hope that with the help of the people we will succeed."
The struggle has over the past few weeks given Regev a breakneck course in political activism. The former IDF spokeswoman was attacked by fellow Likud lawmakers for disregarding party discipline in her opposition to the tax - and thus to the state budget itself.
"I simply could not lie to myself," said Regev. "There were 9,000 people who elected me in the Likud primary and I will not cheat on them. People within the party criticized me and called me a populist, but I said that if that means that I protect my public, I can take it."
"It is always fun to associate with the wealthy and the strong," said the native of Kiryat Gat. "But I remember the place I came from."
Last week, during the Likud faction meeting, party officials warned that MKs who broke party discipline by opposing clauses of the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill would be punished by losing their Knesset committee positions. The threats increased earlier this week, and Regev admitted publicly Sunday during a rally in Or Yehuda that Likud officials had threatened to ruin her political future if she continued.
The rally, from Regev's perspective, was a bright point in the struggle, as 180 party activists from across the country gathered in a Bukharan restaurant to show their support for Regev's campaign.
While Regev said at the rally that she still strongly supported her party and Netanyahu, and did not intend to create a split within the Likud - she refused to "rubber stamp this [tax] law."
She said she couldn't stand idly by and allow those with power to take advantage of those without. Regev sees the government's proposal as a regressive tax, since many low-income and underprivileged families buy their produce in markets that sell goods at unregulated, low prices. "We're sealing the mouths of those that elected us to the Knesset," Regev told the crowd on Sunday night. "It's shameful for the Likud."
Regev remained steadfast in her opposition, holding a press conference Monday, hours before Netanyahu's announcement canceling the measure, during which she said she would not step down willingly from her position on the Finance Committee, but would have to be forcibly removed. Later Monday, said Regev, minister after minister attacked her during the weekly faction meeting.
"I sat in the faction meeting, and after I left I felt just terrible. I went back to my office, and began to get ready for the long evening ahead of me. And then the calls began asking me for a response to Bibi's announcement," Regev said. "I was moved to tears when I heard. I immediately congratulated Netanyahu for acting as a great leader, and understanding the will of the people."
Regev's social agenda has already won her a following.
Celebrating together with Regev and her staff Monday night, Shilon Darwish, the chairman of the Merchants' Committee in Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda Market, said that "in the name of the merchants in Mahaneh Yehuda and all over the country I thank Miri Regev, who led the struggle. I don't know what we would have done without her."
Darwish said Monday's victory was a beginning, not an end.
"This is the starting-point of the struggle. In the future we will learn more about the Economic Arrangements Bill and its various clauses that hurt the weak sectors," he said. "We have a leader who has proven herself - Miri Regev - she is the one who for us is the future address in the near and far future. I would be the first to support her for prime minister. She showed leadership and bravery and went with her truth to the end. She was willing to pay a great price. I would be happy to see more people like her in the Knesset."
Regev, after less than a year in politics, says she would "like to wait and learn much more about the political world" before she even considers such a step. But with the support of Mahaneh Yehuda - often considered a key election barometer - and a victory against the prime minister behind her, Regev has set for herself a tough act to follow.
Sarah Ramler contributed to this report.
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