'The moment you say the truth -- you become a leftist'

Veteran Netanyahu ally: Government ‘captive of extremists’ who will wreck Likud

In scathing attack, Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas says coalition ‘launched every move on the wrong foot’; criticizes judicial overhaul push, tax redirection plan

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Modiin Mayor and Federation of Local Authorities chair Haim Bibas, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Rosh Hashanah toast event for municipal leaders at Airport City, August 30, 2018. (Flash90)
Modiin Mayor and Federation of Local Authorities chair Haim Bibas, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Rosh Hashanah toast event for municipal leaders at Airport City, August 30, 2018. (Flash90)

Haim Bibas, the head of a local authorities umbrella group and a senior figure in the ruling Likud party, launched a fierce broadside against his longtime ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in comments published Wednesday, blasting the current government’s policies and saying they could end up “killing” Likud.

Bibas, the mayor of Modiin and chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, has for years been a close confidant of Netanyahu and one of the strongest voices in Likud’s powerful Central Committee.

But he quickly lost faith in the government Netanyahu formed in late December with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, and he objected to the hardline coalition’s unilateral push to radically weaken the justice system, which was eventually paused amid nationwide protests and strikes to allow for compromise talks with the opposition.

And this week, Bibas launched a major municipal strike in protest of the government’s intention to seize local property tax revenues and redistribute them to benefit poorer municipalities and encourage construction of new homes. The plan has been slammed by opposition leaders as “theft” and as primarily benefitting the constituents of coalition parties.

In a fiery interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Bibas said: “Likud is captive in the hands of extremist parties, and they will end up killing the party.”

He was likely referring to the far-right Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties, and possibly also to the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, all of which secured major budgetary and policy promises from Likud as conditions for forming what is widely regarded as the most right-wing government in the country’s history.

“This is not a broad, right-wing, Zionist government. Rather, it is one that from the outset has launched every move on the wrong foot,” Bibas said in excerpts from the interview, which will be published in full on Friday.

“If the extremists keep pulling Likud downward and want to pass the [judicial] reform unilaterally — this will be our demise,” Bibas said. He praised the protesters against the overhaul as “salt of the earth” and expressed satisfaction that the plan was halted “a moment before we reached the abyss.”

Federation of Local Authorities chair and mayor of Modiin Haim Bibas attends a Knesset Finance Committee meeting in Jerusalem, January 17, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bibas has been mayor of Modiin since 2008 — as a Likud representative — and head of the Federation of Local Authorities since 2014, and he helmed Netanyahu’s Likud primary campaigns from 2007 to 2015. But he started voicing public criticism of Netanyahu around 2020.

Bibas is the latest in a long series of former close Netanyahu allies who have fallen out with the premier. Netanyahu has been decried by many former Likud politicians and heads of formerly allied parties as employing excessively divisive political tactics and policies, and demanding full loyalty and zero criticism of him.

“I am saying my words in a clear manner and I’m not afraid to say them, but the moment you say the truth — you become a ‘leftist.’ The second you say something, everyone takes a shot at you,” Bibas said, adding that many in the ruling party secretly agree with him.

“People in Likud are scared and holding their peace [in public], but they are talking with me and 60 percent of them think like me,” he claimed.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Bibas said that contrary to statements made by hardline coalition members, he believes the judicial overhaul won’t be revived even if the currently logjammed compromise talks fail.

“I don’t see a chance Netanyahu goes back to the reform, he understands this and it now interests him less,” he said. “Likud ministers and lawmakers talk to me a lot and have told me: ‘It’s very good that you stopped the reform because it is destroying us all. We misstepped; we must stop this.'”

Taking aim at the municipal tax initiative, called the Arnona Fund, Bibas said: “This government’s modus operandi is to divide local authorities. They tried to market it as a battle between privileged and marginalized Israelis, but the story is that the government is creating a fund to rob the state’s residents. This is systematic theft, and with a system like this, the country will collapse.”

He argued that his organization had reached agreements with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in March on canceling the tax redistribution fund, and that its resurrection over the past week was “punishment” for Bibas joining the strike in protest of the judicial overhaul in late March before Netanyahu froze the legislation.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on May 14, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Smotrich has argued that Bibas went back on agreements reached last week on the tax fund, which was approved Monday by the Knesset Finance Committee after a stormy session and will now advance alongside the 2023-2024 state budget to the Knesset floor.

The plan will take a percentage of property taxes collected from local businesses by municipal authorities, to be put into a fund that will go to help municipalities that have more modest commercial activity and are located farther from Israel’s center.

Backers of the plan say it will help less wealthy municipalities incentivize residential real estate instead of business — though businesses pay more tax and are therefore currently more attractive to municipal authorities — and have put an emphasis on the fund helping to build communities far from Israel’s center.

Critics accuse the coalition of planning to use the funds to pay for sectoral demands made by coalition partners, like subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox. They also note that settlements in the West Bank are exempt from contributing to the fund, and that it is structured in a way that makes Arab municipalities less likely to benefit. Another argument is that it punishes communities that have already invested in attracting businesses, and takes money that would otherwise be directed toward improving services, such as education and culture.

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