Grapevine February 5, 2021: Political uncertainties

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein visit a clinic in the Negev. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein visit a clinic in the Negev.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
 ■ VERY LITTLE in this world is certain. When Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli joined together with Daphni Leef, who initiated the 2011 mass protest movement for social justice, they seemed destined for prominent roles in national politics. Both Shaffir and Shmuli were subsequently elected to the Knesset as Labor Party legislators. Leef declined all political offers, which in retrospect might have been a wise decision. 
To many, Shaffir and Shmuli seemed like a breath of fresh air – young, enthusiastic and energetic, with the promise of a bright political future. In fact, they acquitted themselves very well, with good attendance records at committee meetings and relentless battling for the causes in which they believed. Shaffir fought a little too fiercely to the annoyance of the chairpersons of Knesset committees, and on more than one occasion was ousted from a meeting. Shmuli was much better behaved, and even got to be a minister. 
Shaffir quit Labor after losing a leadership contest to Amir Peretz, who later joined the unity government after swearing that he would never sit in the same government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shaffir now heads the Greens. Both Peretz and Shmuli left Labor after Merav Michaeli won the party’s leadership race and ordered them to leave the government. They opted to stay on as ministers and forfeit their allegiance to the Labor Party. Neither Peretz nor Shmuli nor Shaffir are running in the March 23 elections. Yet three years ago, few people could imagine that the three would not be representing Labor in the Knesset, or that they would not be in the Knesset at all.
■ ANY SEASONED political strategist knows the worst thing politicians can do is believe their own publicity and the positive things other people say to their faces. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai was certain that after winning municipal elections time after time, he was ready to move into the Prime Minister’s Office. This belief was bolstered by former justice minister and former Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn, not to mention Huldai’s own king-sized ego. However, surveys indicated that he would be lucky to cross the 3.25% electoral threshold, especially after Nissenkorn, realizing that he had bet on the wrong horse, left him and decided to take time out from politics. 
Benny Gantz entered the political arena as an uncrowned king who was the most likely to replace Netanyahu. He came close when he merged his Israel Resilience Party with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem to form Blue and White, but then committed a cardinal error and joined Netanyahu in forming a unity government. Lapid and Ya’alon promptly broke all connection with Gantz, and what was left of Blue and White began to go into decline. In recent weeks, Blue and White ministers and MKs have left Gantz like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
Ya’alon and Lapid stuck it out together for a while, but then went their separate ways. Ya’alon discovered that while he wielded a lot of clout as IDF chief of staff and as defense minister, when he no longer held either of those positions, both his power and his popularity waned, and so Ya’alon, who once saw himself as a replacement for Netanyahu, decided not to compete in the upcoming Knesset elections. 
Ofer Shelah, who had long been Lapid’s right-hand man and had wielded considerable influence in the Knesset, also discovered that just as “the clothes make the man,” so does the post. Though very cocky when he parted company from Lapid, the polls indicate that he is unlikely to cross the electoral threshold.
Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom built on the success of another former Mossadnik, the late Rafi Eitan, who in advance of the 2006 Knesset elections was asked to head a new party called Gil, which in Hebrew can mean happiness or age. In this case, it was the latter: a party founded for the purpose of protecting the dignity and rights of senior citizens. Political pundits didn’t think the party had much of a chance, but to everyone’s surprise, including Eitan’s, it won seven seats. However, at the next elections in 2009, it failed to cross the threshold.
Yatom, who had twice served in the Knesset, thought it was time to revive a senior citizen’s party, but then discovered that the campaign funds which had been promised were not forthcoming, and that the campaign itself was not eliciting much support, so he bowed out rather than suffer the humiliation of not crossing the threshold. Curiously, Eitan died two years ago on March 23, the date of the upcoming election.
■ IN 2019, Gideon Sa’ar challenged Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, and gave the impression that he was confident of winning. In December of that year, after the votes were counted, Netanyahu won by a 72% landslide. Almost exactly a year later, Sa’ar thought he was ready to try again to wrest the leadership from Netanyahu, but this time he wasn’t vying for the Likud leadership. His ambition was to be prime minister. He left Likud to establish his own party, New Hope, and initially, enjoyed the same adulation that had engulfed Gantz early in his political career.
Several former Likudniks have joined Sa’ar, most notably Ze’ev Elkin and Benny Begin. Another member of the party is Dani Dayan, the former Israel consul general in New York, and before that, chairman of the Yesha Council. Nonetheless, according to the polls, the early anticipation that this time Sa’ar might actually succeed appears to be fading. Despite anti-Netanyahu demonstrations in many parts of the country, but primarily in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Caesarea, and media onslaughts about Netanyahu’s alleged mismanagement of the corona crisis, Likud is still way ahead of any other party. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Sa’ar will be unable to form a government if President Reuven Rivlin tasks him to do so, but it all depends on the recommendations that Rivlin receives from parties that pass the electoral threshold.
What is really sad is that people who put their hearts and souls into a campaign run by a prominent political figure who decided to drop out of the race will not be compensated for their time, effort and broken dreams. Some of these people were truly altruistic and were not on an ego trip. But with the game of political musical chairs that we have been witnessing lately, for many legislators it is ego above all else, plus the perks that legislators receive. Unlike so many other Israelis, they were not given an extended furlough without pay. They continued to receive their monthly salaries of NIS 45,274, while ministers received NIS 50,673 each month. As far as is known, their salaries will be frozen throughout 2021, but that is of small comfort to those people who have lost their monthly incomes. The average monthly salary in Israel before the pandemic was NIS 11,000.
■ USUALLY AT this time of the year somewhere between 4,500-5,000 Chabad women emissaries come together in New York for an annual gathering of inspiration, personal stories, exchange of ideas – and even family reunions. Chabad families are usually very large, and when the birds leave the nest, many of them become emissaries in far-flung countries and do not see each other from one year to the next. Thus siblings and their parents come together from many parts of the world at the annual international conference for Chabad emissaries. 
There’s an all-male conference followed by an all-female conference. Over the past year, the overwhelming majority of Chabad conferences, regardless of whether they were local, national or international, were held online, and sometimes attracted more than 35,000 participants. This year, the two conferences will be held online on Sunday, February 7. As a prelude to the conferences, the Jerusalem-based Chabad Women’s Circle of Talbiyeh-Mamilla headed by Rabbanit Chanie Canterman held an online commemorative event to mark the 33rd anniversary of the passing of Chaya Mushka, the wife of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
■ AUSTRALIAN TRADE Minister Dan Tehan is working toward fast-track negotiations with Israel to conclude the details for a free-trade agreement by July, according to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald. When finalized and implemented, the agreement will boost innovation, defense and cybersecurity for both countries. A tweet from the Israel Embassy in Canberra confirmed the expansion of commercial relations, adding that it will mean exciting opportunities in the three areas mentioned above.
■ GOOD DEEDS should be acknowledged, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, wasted no time in thanking President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev for his support of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community, emphasizing that it is the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. In their online conversation, President Aliyev described the local Jewish community as valuable citizens of Azerbaijan, saying that they, like representatives of other religious and ethnic communities, have lived in the country for centuries in an atmosphere of kindness, brotherhood and friendship.
Schneier asked Aliyev to continue his support toward helping the growth and development of the Jewish community so that Azerbaijan can continue building its Jewish infrastructure.