Bulldozer Katz

Eyeing the top spot, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz is ready to lock horns with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz ride an Israel Railways train (photo credit: ELIYAHU HERSHKOVITZ/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz ride an Israel Railways train
FOR SOME time now, Yisrael Katz has been preparing for the day after Netanyahu.
The bulldozer Minister of Transport, Intelligence and Atomic Energy sees himself as the heir apparent, Benjamin Netanyahu’s natural successor as Likud leader and prime minister.
Many inside the party tend to agree.
They point out that several potential heavyweight challengers are no longer around. Gidon Sa’ar is still on a break from politics; Moshe Kahlon left to form his own rival party Kulanu; and Silvan Shalom quit after an alleged sexual harassment scandal.
That leaves just three front-runners in the Likud succession stakes: Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, 65, who has lost ground in the strongly right-wing party over his outspoken pretrial criticism of a soldier who, without being ordered to open fire, shot a prone, disarmed but still living Palestinian terrorist dead in late March; Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who at 45 is considered a tad too young and inexperienced; and the 60-year-old Katz, who as the unstoppable road, rail, subway, port and airport building Transport minister for the past seven years has enhanced his reputation as a man who gets things done.
The hawkish Katz says becoming prime minister is often a question of chance, being in the right place at the right time. And while on the face of it, it seems that Netanyahu still has many years ahead of him as leader, some astute politicians don’t rule out the possibility of a sudden implosion in the country and in the party, the way there was, say, with David Ben-Gurion in Israel or Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Katz aims to be ready if and when that happens.
Chairman of the Likud Secretariat, he has long been one of the most powerful people in the party. Last December, he was able to get his candidate Haim Katz (no relation) elected chairman of the party’s key central committee ahead of Netanyahu’s preferred choice, Tzachi Hanegbi. A measure of his standing can be seen every year on Sukkot when thousands of Likudniks from all over the country descend on the Katz household in Moshav Kfar Ahim near Kiryat Malachi in the south to pay their respects and talk politics. This last year the post-Netanyahu prime minister question was palpably in the air.
Katz’s main calling card is his impressive construction record as transport minister.
During his term dozens of major projects have been launched, many of which can be seen as work in progress across the country.
He claims that he has been able to overcome obstacles where others before him have failed and that he has a unique capacity to find ways to create facts on the ground, tie loose ends and find budgets.
“I am changing the face of the country,” he boasts.
In what Katz calls a “transportation revolution,” roads, railways, bypasses, bridges and tunnels are being built and upgraded across the country. In 2010, he launched “Netivei Yisrael,” a master plan for highspeed linking of Jerusalem and the periphery, north and south, to the Greater Tel Aviv center. The premier road project is the widening and rerouting of the main Jerusalem- Tel Aviv highway. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will also be linked by new high-speed trains, cutting journey time by almost half to under 30 minutes. In Greater Tel Aviv itself, after at least half a dozen false starts over the years, a new light-rail system, some of it underground, is finally under construction.
New railway lines in the Galilee are set to link Haifa-Afula-Beit She’an and then Tiberias-Tzemach; a line linking Karmiel and Acre is nearing completion with plans to go on to Kiryat Shmona; and in the Negev the already running fast Ashkelon- Beersheba line will be expanded to include stops at Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim; a high speed line from Beersheba, already linked to Tel Aviv, will be extended to reach the southernmost resort and port city of Eilat at a later stage.
Katz has also been the driving force in launching major maritime and air transport projects. He has pushed through plans to build two new state-of-the-art deep water seaports at Ashdod and Haifa, fighting off stiff opposition from the powerful existing Ashdod and Haifa Ports works committees and the Histadrut Labor Federation. The new ports will be run by private Dutch and Chinese franchises, and will compete with the existing ports in an effort to increase efficiency and reduce costs.
On Katz’s watch, Israel signed an open skies agreement with the EU and began work on a second international airport to be located in the Negev, just north of Eilat, and named for Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003.
Another project that will win Katz kudos nationwide, if it comes off, is a scheme to drastically cut the costs of new cars and spare parts. After years of delay, the relevant legislation finally passed the Knesset committee stage in late March.
Over the past seven years, Katz was able to get the government to budget more than 70 billion shekels ($18 billion) for transportation infrastructure and to raise an additional 35.5 billion shekels ($9.1 billion) outside the budget – 27.5 billion shekels ($7 billion) for Netivei Yisrael and 8 billion shekels ($2.1 billion) for the ports.
This is the record Katz will ask to be judged by, if and when he makes his prime ministerial bid. The high visibility of his achievements will play strongly in his favor.
However, he lacks charisma, and there is no necessary connection between his bulldozing successes as transport minister and his suitability for the top job.
Moreover, his rising star has already led to an almighty feud with Netanyahu which could cost him. Katz, widely recognized as a smart political operator, was instrumental in forming the strategic alliance between Likud and Shas, which brought Netanyahu rather than Kadima’s Tzipi Livni to power in 2009. He also worked closely with Netanyahu as a strategic adviser in the run-up to the March 2015 election.
In return, Netanyahu promised him one of the three top jobs: defense, foreign affairs or finance. Katz, wary of Netanyahu’s long history of broken promises, got the agreement enshrined in writing, in a legal document drafted by top attorneys David Shimron for Netanyahu and Yaacov Weinrot for Katz.
When despite the written agreement Netanyahu reneged, a furious Katz was compensated with a second portfolio, intelligence and atomic energy, and given a seat on the prestigious nine-member security cabinet. But relations between the two men have been strained ever since.
Over the past year, Katz, as Likud Secretariat Chairman, has deliberately taken anti-Netanyahu positions – for example opposing him over the choice of the Central Committee chair and initially over early leadership primaries.
The bitterness erupted in late January in a cabinet slanging match over the Uber taxi system. Netanyahu, fresh from a meeting in Davos with Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, slammed Katz for delaying introduction of the system – by which people use a smartphone app to summon Uber drivers using their own cars at rates regular cab companies cannot match.
Katz shot back at Netanyahu insinuating that he was again backing the interests of foreign tycoons instead of those of ordinary Israelis – especially the existing Israeli taxi companies, many of which could find themselves out of business. Before allowing Uber in, Katz says he wants to work out a deal with the existing companies. He reckons it will take around 8-9 billion shekels ($2.1-$2.3 billion) to compensate them.
Three days later Katz, banished to the second row in a group photo with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, stormed out in a huff. He is now experiencing the same derogatory treatment from Netanyahu as others who seemed to be rising too high, too fast. Kahlon and Sa’ar found it too demeaning and left; the more thick-skinned Katz, who can already see the finish line, is not going anywhere.
Katz is an inveterate political hawk, resolutely opposed to any two-state solution with the Palestinians. He fell out with his political mentor, Ariel Sharon, over the 2005 disengagement from Gaza which he opposed. And when Sharon left to form Kadima, Katz chose to remain in the then much truncated Likud.
He dismisses talk of a binational state as left-wing propaganda designed to frighten the government into giving up West Bank territory and insists that it will never happen.
Without spelling out the details, he seems to envisage a form of Palestinian autonomy, with the Palestinians in the West Bank continuing to live under Israeli sovereignty but voting for a Palestinian parliament with limited authority.
Gaza, however, is a very different story.
And if Katz does become prime minister, there could far-reaching changes. For years now he has been pressing for a “complete break from Gaza,” after which Israel would no longer be seen as the responsible power.
In Katz’s blueprint, the break would be achieved by building an artificial island with a port and airport about three miles from the Gaza shore. Israel would still be in control of maritime security, but the Gazans would have a window to the world and a new capacity for international trade. The basic idea is to give the Gazans the tools to run their own economy without compromising Israel’s security. And in Katz’s view, the artificial island would allow both.
It would be built by the international community over a period of 6-10 years at a cost of between $5 billion and $10 billion. Besides the port and airport, it would have a power station and a water desalination plant to provide for Gaza’s water and energy needs and free Israel from the need to do so.
There would also be tourist hotels for added revenue but no residential areas.
The island would be joined to Gaza by a three-mile-long bridge with a checkpoint in the middle manned by international forces for a period of 100 years mainly to prevent smuggling of weapons and military/civilian dual purpose materials. Most of Gaza’s food, medical and other needs would be imported through the island. In return, the Gazans would agree to a long-term ceasefire with Israel.
Should the Gazans abuse the system or violate the cease-fire, Israel would be able to suspend the agreement by bombing the bridge, but leaving the port and other island facilities intact for better days. Katz claims the island idea has substantial international and Palestinian backing.
In fighting the current wave of Palestinian terror, Katz adopts a tough line, looking to the political space to Netanyahu’s right.
Rather than bending over backwards to differentiate between terrorists and the general Palestinian public, the government, he says, should consider steps that show the Palestinians as a whole that they have much to lose if the terror continues. For example, imposing closures on parts or all of the West Bank, preventing Palestinian workers from crossing into Israel, banning Palestinian vehicles from roads where attacks have taken place and expelling families of terrorist perpetrators to Gaza or Syria.
Like the rest of the government, Katz dismisses talk of the occupation as a potential cause of violence, and sees no need to end it. Nor does he fear any international, especially US, backlash. On the contrary, he is confident America will not abandon Israel under any circumstances, as it is too valuable a regional ally.
Katz is typically blunt and outspoken.
After the late March terror attack in Brussels, he declared that “if the Belgians go on eating chocolate, they won’t be able to defeat terror,” a remark that irked European leaders across the continent but played well on the Likud right. If he does make it to the top, Katz may find that he needs to invent a more diplomatic persona – not to speak of more moderate policies.
Katz was born on September 21, 1955 to Holocaust survivors. He grew up on Kfar Ahim, a farming community with a large dairy, orchards and an olive press. Little of this is left on the moshav where he still lives today. Katz attended a yeshiva high school, Or Etzion, which explains his easy access to the Haredi parties. His kippa came off in the army, where he rose to the rank of captain in the paratroopers.
As head of the Hebrew University Students’ Union in the early 1980s, he clashed with Arab and left-wing students, once reportedly using chains together with his then close friend and political ally Tzachi Hanegbi to disperse an Arab student gathering.
Katz also once locked the rector in his room, and called the dean a “babysitter.”
Eventually he emerged with a BA in political science and international relations.
It was then that he became Sharon’s protégé. Both moshavniks, paratroopers and seriously overweight, they had much in common. (Late last year, Katz underwent bariatric surgery and has since lost a great deal of his girth.) Sharon backed him for chairman of young Herut; he lost to Michael Ratzon, the candidate of the rival Yitzhak Shamir-Moshe Arens axis. But soon afterwards, at just 29, Katz was appointed Sharon’s special assistant in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. From Sharon he learned to set goals and the use of bulldozing and manipulative tactics to achieve them.
He became a Knesset Member in his own right in 1998, when Ehud Olmert was reelected mayor of Jerusalem and forced to resign his seat. In February 2003, Sharon, by then prime minister, appointed him minister of agriculture. Between 2005 and 2007, Katz was investigated by police on allegations of having illegally appointed Likud cronies and approved dubious transactions with suppliers. The police recommended indictment. But the case was closed in September 2009, not long after Katz’s return to government as minister of transport.
It was in this job that Katz found his métier, using Sharon-like bulldozing tactics to get things done and catapult himself from the faceless back benches to contention for national leadership.
In the 2013 election, he told Netanyahu that he wanted to continue as transport minister because there was still much to do. But by 2015, he was ready for promotion to foreign minister, defense minister or finance minister.
By the time the next election comes round, he may want more.