House-hunting on Mars
Hebrew media review

House-hunting on Mars

A compromise by the treasury to discount taxes on mythical homes under NIS 600,000 has one ultra-Orthodox politician packing his bags for space

Cranes building new apartment buildings in Beit Shemesh, in 2011. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Cranes building new apartment buildings in Beit Shemesh, in 2011. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The winners and losers in the battle over a plan to offer tax-free homes dominate the print media Monday morning, with two of the three major dailies leading with the story (only Yedioth Ahronoth relegates its coverage to the business page).

Haaretz tries to cut right to the upshot of the government decision, leading with the somewhat inaccurate headline that Arabs and ultra-Orthodox will not get tax-free homes. In fact, the government’s decision was to give much larger tax-free benefits to those who served in the army or did national or civil service. However, those who did not will still be getting a tax break if they buy a first home worth less than NIS 600,000, not to mention the fact that some (though not most) ultra-Orthodox and Arabs have served the country and will thus be eligible for the increased benefits.

While the paper paints the addition of the clause that provides a smaller benefit for those who did not serve as a capitulation of Finance Minister Yair Lapid to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, many see the compromise as essentially inconsequential. The paper quotes Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, who is against the plan, as saying that there are no apartments available anywhere for less than NIS 600,000 ($175,000), and the paper says sources in his ministry were shocked to find out that Justice Ministry bureaucrats negotiating the particulars of the plan knew nothing of the Israeli housing market.

“The ministry swallowed the treasury’s tales without checking,” a source says in the paper.

Ariel isn’t the only one unhappy with Lapid’s so-called compromise, with both papers noting that legislators think it has little chance of passing the courts, let alone the Knesset. Israel Hayom quotes Shas MK Yaakov Asher, who is the winner of the daily Godwin’s Law contest. “The Finance Ministry’s criteria wouldn’t embarrass an anti-Semitic government. Maybe Haredim will buy apartments for NIS 600,000 on Mars,” he proposes.

The paper’s Hezi Sternlicht, who has been against the idea from day one, says the addition of a clause allowing for the smaller benefit does nothing to address the fundamental flaws of the plan. “The criteria are not good news, but just another tick of a time bomb that will explode in the housing market, not helping to lower prices, expanding gaps and creating dangerous distortions.”

Bibi’s revenge

Yedioth Ahronoth, meanwhile, aims its focus on another controversial plan that has an uphill battle: pushing off the presidential election or getting rid of it altogether. The paper bills the campaign as a personal fight by Netanyahu against Reuven Rivlin, a popular Likud politician considered one of the frontrunners for the race, who recently fell out of favor with the prime minister.

The paper quotes a Likud source tracing Netanyahu’s opposition to Rivlin’s presidency to a snide comment years ago during a government meeting. “By me, my wife doesn’t decide,” Rivlin reportedly told Netanyahu. “For Netanyahu and his wife Sara, that was the last nail in the coffin for Rivlin’s presidential run,” the source tells the paper.

According to Yedioth’s reporting, about half of the ministers would vote against the plan, while the other half have not voiced any opinion.

Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu apparatchik and current commentator, comes out strongly against his former boss’s designs. “Personally I am against getting rid of symbols. They are just as important as the laws which set the character of the state. And if despite that, most of our representatives think differently, it is their right and duty to have a public discussion … You don’t just get rid of the vision of Herzl and the home of Shimon a month before elections. This isn’t how you build a state and this isn’t how you dismantle its symbols.”

In Haaretz, Yossi Verter calls the idea of getting rid of the symbolic office, chosen in a closed Knesset vote, an affront to democracy, comparing the prime minister to el toro loco.

“[Netanyahu] is running amok, he’s crazed, say his interlocutors. They describe him as a raging bull that sees nothing but the red cape whirling and provoking him, and he is determined, determined to strike at Israeli democracy. … He is determined to keep Reuven Rivlin, whom he loathes, out of the President’s Residence. And he’s even more determined to do away with the presidency altogether, because at stake is the ultimate thing: the source of the continued existence of the state and the entire Jewish people − his next term as prime minister.”

Making readers lobbyists

Not surprisingly, Israel Hayom, seen by many as a Netanyahu mouthpiece, does not even mention the issue (it was the sole paper to support the plan Sunday).

Instead it devotes yet another two-page spread to its personal battle against legislation to outlaw free newspapers. This time, the paper goes ahead and publishes the phone numbers and email addresses of seven politicians who support the bill, hoping its loyal readers will act as lobbyists on its behalf.

The paper also enlists Eli Pollack of Israel Media Watch, a watchdog group, to weigh in. Pollack does not disappoint, calling MK Eitan Cabel a Bolshevist and making a case that despite claims to the contrary, Israel Hayom’s free model, funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has not destroyed the print ad market.

“Since Israel Hayom came on the scene, the exposure of daily newspapers in Israel has risen,” he writes. “The public is exposed to a wider variety of information, and the cost is low. The ads get to a larger public, and thus even poorer players can get in on it. And there are also other free papers that compete with Israel Hayom.”

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