Lapid’s Downfall

Who is “Mrs. Rikki Cohen of Chadeira” and why does everyone keep mentioning her name to Lapid?

What coalition will be assembled after the elections? And how will Lapid’s dismissal and the early elections affect the housing market?

********

Last Wednesday, as always, the Knesset was attending to the usual Wednesday business of debating legislation proposed by the members of the Knesset (as opposed to laws proposed by the government, which are discussed on Mondays and Tuesdays). The process, until that point, had always followed a set pattern: The members of the opposition proposed new laws, and the vicious, unyielding coalition tossed every single one of them into the dustbin of history. But this time, things were different: The government had decided to support a bill advanced by a group of Knesset members, whose goal was to dissolve the Knesset.

By the time night arrived, we had been treated to a clear example of how things can change in Israeli politics in a matter of hours. At a press conference in the prime minister’s office, Binyomin Netanyahu denounced Yair Lapid with every deprecation imaginable. Shortly thereafter, Lapid held his own press conference, at which he accused Netanyahu of being a “disconnected” prime minister who thought only of himself. All this took place when the two had been working together just a day earlier.

Before we quote two of the speakers at the Knesset plenum last Wednesday, we must first quote the finance minister under the previous government and current intelligence minister, Dr. Yuval Steinitz, who took the podium to announce that the government was in favor of the bill, and who then took advantage of the opportunity to launch a full-scale attack on his successor, Finance Minister Yair Lapid. For Steinitz, this was a way to settle a score, since Lapid has never missed an opportunity to announce to the country that his predecessor left him a hopeless mess.

What Will the Elections Bring?

At the Knesset podium, Steinitz declared, “Today, Mrs. Rikki Cohen of Chadeira is saying to herself, ‘Ribbono Shel Olam, what have I done? How was I taken in by a fancy haircut and slick public image? How?’ Just two years ago, Mrs. Rikki Cohen of Chadeira was indeed taken in by someone whom the whole country recognized, a man with a powerful presence on the television screen. This man received the blessing of the media, and as a result, Mrs. Cohen became an admirer of Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid. Today, Mrs. Rikki Cohen of Chadeira has a broken heart – but her brain, at least, is still working. She is not a fool. She understands very well that you have succeeded, in less than two years, in transforming Israel from the nation with the greatest level of economic growth in the West to one with a rapidly declining economy. And she knows that she, Mrs. Rikki Cohen of Chadeira, and her husband, who works in the hi-tech industry, will be paying the price.

“No, Mrs. Rikki Cohen is no fool. She is clutching her head today and lamenting, ‘Why was I fooled? Why did I give 19 mandates to a party filled with hot air, a party that has no experience managing either the nation’s finances or its security needs? What have I done to myself and to all of us?’”

“Rikki Cohen” is not Steinitz’s invention. Yair Lapid’s campaign promise two years ago was that he would improve the life of “Rikki Cohen of Chadeira,” a hypothetical member of Israel’s middle class who works hard for a living, along with her husband, yet cannot afford to purchase an apartment or to go on vacation abroad. Lapid introduced the concept of “Rikki Cohen” into Israeli thought and public dialogue, promising to better the lives of the thousands of “Rikki Cohens” in Israeli society.

And Steinitz did not stop there.

“I have one final word for Finance Minister Lapid,” he continued. “I have a piece of advice for you – friendly advice, which will be of benefit both to you and to us. You are not a bad man and you are not a foolish man. Your neglect of the basic principles of economics and the responsibilities of your post stemmed from conceit, not foolishness. On television, you were an excellent entertainer. Both Rikki Cohen and I enjoyed seeing you on the screen. I advise you to go back to the job you were good at doing. Go reclaim your role as a television star and leave the matters of national finance and national security to serious, responsible people, who may have a bit less of a flamboyant haircut, but who will handle these matters with much more seriousness and responsibility. That will be the best thing for all of the citizens of Israel.”

Steinitz then turned to the Knesset Speaker. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “we are certainly in favor of dissolving the Knesset. The State of Israel needs responsible leadership, and the current coalition makes it impossible to maintain the seriousness, the responsibility, and the discipline that are necessary in order to lead this country to safer shores in the economic sense, in terms of security, and in all the other important areas. Thank you,” he concluded.

Is that indeed what will happen now? Perhaps it will, and perhaps not. Even after the elections, we might find ourselves in the same situation: with a government that is not friendly to the chareidim. But it is not likely that this will happen. Netanyahu has learned his lesson. Lapid, for his part, has refused to answer the question of whether he would join a government led by Netanyahu after the elections. Instead, he has asserted with arrogant confidence, “Netanyahu will not be the prime minister in the next term.” He speaks as if he runs the world, but it is that same arrogance that has brought him failure and shame time and again. It is almost certain that the elections will restore the traditional coalition to power: Likud and the chareidim, alongside Lieberman and Bayit Yehudi.

Circumventing the Zero-VAT Law

There is no doubt that Lapid’s downfall resulted partially from the fact that he failed to make any improvements for the middle class, for whose sake he claimed to have been elected to his post. He rose to power in the wake of the social protests that took place in Israel three years ago, focusing hundreds of thousands of people’s attention on the social and economic injustices the protests brought to light. Lapid used his status as a television star and the owner of a major entertainment program to his advantage, and he spoke nonstop about “Rikki Cohen,” the chareidim, and the middle class. Was it ethical? Almost certainly not, but that did not bother him.

Speaking of television, in one of his last programs before he announced that he was entering the political fray – and therefore resigning from his role on the screen – Lapid dealt obsessively with the case of a child from Beit Shemesh. Do you remember that? It was a libelous accusation that a group of “extremist chareidim” had spit on an innocent little girl. A popular American Jew, one who was either a bit naïve or a bit odd, was Lapid’s partner at the time. Lapid milked the subject as much as he could, and he succeeded in creating an atmosphere of animosity toward the chareidi populace. That, too, helped him secure a number of mandates, and the American who aided him received his reward: He was elected as a member of the Knesset on behalf of Yesh Atid. That man is the chareidi mascot of this anti-religious party.

There is a humorous quip going around among the members of the Knesset: Yair Lapid began his political career with a spitting incident, and he is ending it in the same way. He built himself up based on the alleged spitting incident in Beit Shemesh – one that actually never happened, as the police concluded several months later when they closed the case. And he is concluding his career with a different sort of “spitting”: The political establishment as a whole, and Binyamin Netanyahu in particular, has “spit” on him.

No one disputes the fact that Lapid has acted in a most arrogant and insulting fashion throughout his tenure in the Knesset. He has belittled his subordinates in the Finance Ministry, ignoring their advice. He has disparaged the economic experts who warned him against taking irresponsible steps. He has shown disdain for the prime minister, for his fellow members of the government, and, of course, for the chareidi community. He has also shown disdain for his own colleagues, the other party leaders in the Knesset, and he has shown record contempt for his own constituents. As his two years of public service draw to a close, Yair Lapid has no accomplishments to present to the public, neither on behalf of the middle class nor on behalf of the country in general.

The “zero-VAT” law, for instance, was his flagship initiative. He has spent an entire year trying to get the law passed, without success. The Knesset members in the Finance Committee have turned the law into a symbol of the government’s obstinacy and folly. The experts have presented their opinions that the law will not help apartment purchasers in any way, and that the contractors will simply raise their prices, pocketing whatever benefits the law was supposed to provide for homebuyers. But Lapid remained stubbornly indifferent to their views.

Lapid began his struggle to pass this bill in an effort to enshrine blatant discrimination against the chareidi community in law. His original proposal was that the law should benefit only homebuyers who had served in the IDF – in other words, to the exclusion of chareidim and Arabs. When he saw that this version of the law would not be passed, he modified it to add a ceiling to the benefit: Anyone who had not served in the IDF would be entitled to benefit from the law only if they purchased an apartment at a cost of less than 600,000 NIS. But that version of the law soon blew up in his face when it was discovered that no such apartment exists: There is not a single apartment for first-time buyers in the State of Israel that costs less than 600,000 NIS.

Lapid still clung fiercely to his zero-VAT law, to the point that it ultimately led to his downfall. Some began referring to the bill simply as “the zero law,” with others going so far as to dub it the “zero Lapid law.” Even at his last meeting with the prime minister last Tuesday night, which was meant to straighten out their differences and to determine whether the failing government could continue to hobble along until the next elections, the discussion revolved around his bill. Netanyahu presented an ultimatum: Drop the bill. Lapid’s response was equally unequivocal: No way. And the result was that Lapid received a blistering letter of dismissal that Tuesday night. A similar letter was sent to Tzipi Livni, his new partner (after a year with Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi, and then some time spent partnering with Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman). Ultimately, the man who rose to power promising to practice “new politics” has come to be viewed as the very embodiment of the “old,” dirty politics.

Lapid brought all of his natural traits to bear on the issue of the zero-VAT law. First of all, there was his utter lack of understanding of economics. Second, he exhibited obstinacy on a level that is simply unacceptable in politics, the art of compromise and conciliation. And then, of course, there was his completely baseless, excessive self-confidence, his arrogance, and his contempt for others. He displayed the same traits last year, when he delivered an ultimatum that if his close associate, MK Ofer Shelach, was not appointed to the post of chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he would topple the government. At that time, Lapid gave in and the matter was somehow forgotten. This time, though, he crossed every line, insulting the prime minister in a manner that Netanyahu could not disregard.

A Government Based on Excluding Chareidim

Lapid singlehandedly destroyed his own political career. If some people saw in him, years ago, the promise of a better future, they are now aware that it was nothing but an empty promise. The bubble has now burst. In every election campaign, there is one party that manages to fool the public into thinking that it will usher in a period of utopia. We have now seen that Yesh Atid, which raked in an incredible 19 mandates in the previous elections, was nothing but a harbinger of false hopes.

In this, Lapid has simply followed in his father’s footsteps. The elder Lapid also stunned the nation with the number of mandates that he managed to win with his Shinui party. His campaign slogan was, “There is a lapid [light] for the chilonim.” He also built his power base on hatred for the chareidim, which he cultivated through terrible incitement. He was sharp and coarse. Yair Lapid has tried to be different. But in terms of their arrogance and conceit, father and son are both the same. The elder Lapid’s party was rejected by the Israeli public and vanished from the political scene.

And there is another similarity: Yair Lapid’s father and his fellow government ministers voted against the national budget and Arik Sharon fired them immediately, on December 2, 2004. Yair Lapid himself was also fired last Tuesday, December 2, 2014. History repeats itself; even the date is the same. And after his dismissal, the elder Lapid accused Sharon of making a “deal” with the chareidim, the same accusation that Yair Lapid has launched against Netanyahu.

Back to the Knesset plenum. The following is a brief excerpt of the speech delivered by MK Moshe Gafni, who presented the proposal for the bill to dissolve the Knesset on behalf of Yahadut HaTorah: “When his government first arose, I predicted that it would not last more than a year and a half. But the truth is that even I didn’t believe my own words. I didn’t think it would happen that quickly and in such an explosive way. I have been here for many years. I have been in the coalition and in the opposition, and I must say that the degree of loathing among the five party leaders of the coalition – which must now be called the former coalition – has reached dimensions that I have never seen. There have always been personal frictions, there have always been other interests at work, and there have always been ideological disputes. After all, a coalition means that the government is not led by a single party, and even within one party, there can be division. But to see hatred on this level? This is not something that human beings could have created. This has been sent by Hashem, to cause this government to disband.”

And here is another quote, this one from MK Aryeh Deri, who presented an identical bill on behalf of Shas: “To be holding elections within two years of the previous ones is a very bad thing. It is not a good thing; it is not a happy day for the Knesset. The people of Israel need stability. It is not good for the economy. It is a waste of money, and under ordinary circumstances we should all be standing here and voting against it. When a government is elected, it is elected for four years, and there is no need for new elections, nor is it a good thing. In fact, it is a terrible waste. But despite all that, when I weigh these considerations against the other factors – the government that exists today, the government that we are about to dissolve and the reasons we are dissolving it – I say that this government, unfortunately, was born in sin. For that, I accuse – among others – the parties to that famous ‘pact of brothers’ – who seemed to be celebrating such a joyous occasion on that day, when we all watched them embrace each other with such triumph. This is a government that based itself on the exclusion of entire sectors of society, on a spirit of extraordinary hatred for an entire sector of the population of this country.”  He was referring, of course, to the infamous ultimatum issued by the “brothers,” Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, who agreed to join the government only on the condition that the chareidim would be excluded.

“With all my pain over the dissolution of the Knesset,” he went on, “it is better to go to elections now, since the lives of the weaker sectors of society, and the lives of almost a million children living below the poverty line, are more important than this government and this Knesset.”

The Cloud Lifts

And now we come to the ultimate question: What effect will the dismissal of the finance minister and the new elections have on the housing market in Eretz Yisroel? According to Hillel Yaakovson, a contractor and developer in Israel, the situation will benefit apartment purchasers, at least for the simple reason that the cloud of uncertainty that has been hovering over the real estate market in Israel in general, and over projects geared to the chareidi community in particular, has finally lifted. Nothing, he asserts, is worse for this field than uncertainty, and the chareidi public should be glad that elections are at hand and that the zero-VAT law is no longer a consideration. Many projects have been delayed as the developers waited to see which way the political winds were blowing, and a new wave of construction is now beginning, while the projects that have already been through the entire process are now entering the marketing stages.

On Tuesday night, in his campaign speech, Netanyahu spoke about the blatant injustice of the zero-VAT proposal. He echoed the sentiments that have been expressed by the chareidi representatives on the Finance Committee throughout the discussions over the bill, and he repeated the opinions that have been given by the country’s foremost economists over the past few months. This bill, he explained, will benefit no one. Netanyahu, in effect, adopted the idea that Aryeh Deri advanced in his no-confidence motion at the Knesset podium: The billions in tax reductions would be better put to use to cancel the VAT applied to basic goods.

Even the discussions over the zero-VAT law have already caused major damage to the real estate market. Apartment prices have risen continuously. Real estate experts are convinced that the sharp rise in prices will either stop altogether or at least become more tempered now that the proposed law has been cancelled. The more optimistic experts claim that the expanded supply of available apartments will actually lead to a drop in prices, although their predictions seem somewhat exaggerated. Real estate prices have never fallen in the Israeli market. It is logical to assume that apartment prices will indeed rise, albeit at a more reasonable pace and in keeping with the general rise in the cost of living.

Hillel Yaakovson is one of the most experienced men in his field. He worked alongside Rav Avrohom Ravitz zt”l during the latter’s tenure as the Deputy Minister of Housing, and at a certain point he was appointed to head Degel HaTorah’s highly successful home construction enterprise. In 1995, he founded his company, Yesodot Tzur, and worked primarily building residential buildings through nonprofit associations and purchase groups, as well as on independent initiatives. He also built schools. The products of his work can be found in Beitar, Elad, Kiryat Sefer, and, of course, Beit Shemesh.

Yaakovson relates, “The good thing that has already come from the decision to move up the elections is that all the uncertainty that has been hovering over the real estate market since last April has now been removed. It is now clear that the zero-VAT law is not passing, nor is it going to pass anytime in the future. Since April, people have been refraining from making purchases and have been waiting for this benefit. Now they will return to the market and a period of sanity will begin. This period of uncertainty has caused great damage to homebuyers, to contractors, and to anyone else involved in the field.”

This week, the government assessor reported that there has been an average rise of 4 percent in the price of apartments in all the cities in the country. In Yerushalayim, he claims that the prices rose by 10 percent. Is that true?

“It is definitely true, and it is a direct result of the uncertainty that has existed since last April. The freeze in the market led to a shortage of apartments, and a shortage of any commodity automatically leads to an increase in prices.”

Are there developers today who are motivated by the difficulties faced by the public?

“Absolutely. In the chareidi community, there are developers who are concerned with alleviating the distress of young couples and their parents, not with their own profits. Twenty years ago, when he worked in the Ministry of Housing, Rav Ravitz laid the foundations for building projects that would be run through nonprofit or not-for-profit organizations. He brought about a fundamental change in the housing situation for the chareidi community. Until that time – and perhaps many people do not remember the market as it was 30 or 40 years ago – the chareidim always paid much more for apartments than the chilonim. As an example, look at the difference between neighborhoods such as Har Nof and Ramot, and others such as Gilo and Neve Yaakov. All these neighborhoods were built at the same time, but as soon as the chareidim dominated Har Nof and Ramot, the prices shot up. Ever since Rav Ravitz advanced the concept of building through nonprofit organizations throughout the country, most of the apartments sold in the chareidi community have been significantly less expensive than those in the general community, aside from those bought by people who insist on living in Yerushalayim or Bnei Brak. The claims that our apartments are cheaper because of some type of government aid or benefit are completely false. The reason the chareidi community can obtain apartments at such low prices is that we have our own initiatives that are not meant for profit, or that we have developers who are prepared to forgo a large portion of their potential profits. Those projects not only bring down the prices for those who buy from them, but they also affect other developers, who are working for profit, since they have no choice but to lower their own prices in order to compete.”

In recent years, Yaakovson has been working in Beit Shemesh, where Yesodot Tzur has played a role in turning the city into a major solution for the chareidi community’s housing needs. Another company under his aegis, Nof Tzurim, also recently began marketing several hundred residential apartments that are currently under construction. We ask Hillel when we can expect to see residents moving into the new neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh in fulfillment of his vision.

“We are already past that stage,” Yaakovson asserts. “It is no longer merely a vision. Today, it is an established fact: Beit Shemesh is the city of the future for the chareidi community. I am proud to be among those who laid the foundations for this process, which began in 1991, when Rav Ravitz was the Deputy Minister of Housing. The efforts have grown stronger today, with the victory of Rabbi Moshe Abutbol, the mayor of Beit Shemesh, and Moshe Montag, the chairman of the city’s subcommittee on housing and construction.”

No Elections, After All?

On Thursday, as I made my way to the Knesset, I passed the office of the Finance Ministry. Yair Lapid is no longer here. Just an hour before, he left the building for the last time. Now, his aides are packing his belongings. As I passed by, I noticed a few senior officials from the ministry emerging from the building – and unless I imagined it, I believe that their faces bore visible expressions of relief.

The State of Israel is in turmoil at the moment. The Knesset is already preparing for election season. The Central Election Committee, which oversees the election process, is conducting its meetings in the Knesset building. Yet there are still some people who imagine that the elections will not actually take place on the date that has been set, March 17, 2015. These people are busy drawing up a new political map, one that seems fanciful right now, in which Netanyahu somehow manages to establish a new coalition with the chareidi parties, which have 18 mandates together, a number close enough to the 19 of Yesh Atid.

True, it is fanciful, but history has shown us that in the State of Israel, the most unlikely fantasies often come true…