Two important stories recently emerged simultaneously. There was no connection between them other than timing. This illustrates the unique, even bizarre and somewhat disconcerting reality we live with here: fighting for survival against our external enemies while fighting internal battles against ourselves.
The top news item was the controversial budget passed by the government and Knesset and the resulting populist firestorm of opposition, frustration, anger and feelings of betrayal, directed almost exclusively at new finance minister, Yair Lapid. The other major story that day was the release of the findings of the committee of inquiry established by the Ministry of Strategic affairs to investigate the truth behind the Mohammed al-Doura incident. In 2000 a father and son were ostensibly caught in crossfire between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers killing the young boy. The incident was documented by a Gazanbased film crew on behalf of the France 2 network, which claimed that fire from Israeli soldiers killed the boy. It became the penultimate Palestinian symbol of the second intifada, their Iwo Jima moment if you will. Strong suspicion emerged that the film might have been staged by the crew.
But that has not stopped the Arab world from naming streets, squares and cultural festivals after a-Doura, nor has it stopped vilification of Israel throughout the Western world. With a disintegrating Syria on our northern border, Al- Qaeda on our southern border and the Palestinians hijacking the narrative of the conflict typified by the a-Doura controversy, the ironic juxtaposition with the budget uproar felt to me like we were trying to put out a fire in the living room while a tornado and a blizzard were swirling around the house. Ah, life in Israel.
The reason that the budget debate was and remains so explosive is the Lapid factor. His phenomenal election success based on his slogan, “Where’s the Money,” his promise to alleviate the burden on the middle class by placing more of it on the ultra-orthodox and others, as well as to take on entities such as the Port Authority, the Electric Company, the tycoons and the IDF, catapulted Lapid into one of the three senior cabinet posts. Without a military background, defense was not relevant. It was either foreign minister or finance minister. As even his most bitter opponents will admit, the fact that he chose finance, unquestionably the most thankless, unappreciated and controversial cabinet post, is worthy of praise. As one of Lapid’s close confidants said to Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post, “He knows he could have gone to China, had cocktails and gotten some nice headlines. He knew he would be more popular if he picked the Foreign Ministry. He took a job in which pleasing everyone is impossible. He took it because he wants to change things, and every day he is more convinced that he had to take the job.” Respected veteran radio talk show host Razi Barkai commented, “The guy didn’t opt for an easy role where success is measured subjectively like foreign minister, instead going straight into the lion’s den. That should award him with greater understanding by the public.”
So why has Lapid turned overnight from the savior and great hope for change into the evil villain? The answer begins with the fact that Lapid inherited from the previous government a mind-boggling (by Israeli standards) deficit of around $12 billion. If the new budget had not dealt immediately with this deficit, the results could have been disastrous. The second issue is that the expectation he created was impossible to fulfill, even without the deficit. Sami Peretz, chief editor of the financial paper The Marker, commented: “In such a difficult fiscal year, no one could have presented this budget and expected applause and recognition, least of all Lapid, due to expectations. We shouldn’t forget that there has never been a popular finance minister.”
The third and most influential factor is the media. Notwithstanding several financial commentators, the mainstream media, hold up Lapid as a politician of the worst sort – one who lied to his constituency to get elected and then betrayed them. Senior economic correspondent for Yediot, Sever Plotzker, wrote: “I am a veteran of financial journalism. But never have I witnessed such a murky tidal wave of unrestrained criticism, a comprehensive lashing out at a minister on a personal level and not on substance, or seen such fanatical calls for a civilian rebellion as the ones unleashed against Lapid. He did not get the deserved 100 days of grace, he did not even get 100 hours!” I couldn’t help but remember what Barak Obama told Lapid on the tarmac when the former arrived for his recent visit to Israel: “My wife Michelle says to be careful what you wish for. You might get it.”
Lapid appeared outwardly unfazed, claiming that his predecessors hadn’t the strength or willingness to do what was necessary, and that the populist wave would fade when people realize that without tough measures, they will be far worse off. He said in an interview with Plotzker that “after such a short time in office, I have already done more than most of my predecessors in all of their terms.” What caused the media, and as a result, vast segments of the public to do such an abrupt U-turn? To deal with this inherited deficit and present the 2013 budget by the deadline, Lapid simply could not fulfill his campaign promises. Lapid’s electoral base, the middle class, did not escape increased taxes and budget cuts. The lower classes will continue to hover on or below the poverty line in this budget. In one month, Lapid could not be expected to radically alter a system that has existed since prestate days. This makes it easy for the media, always looking for a superficial sensation, to get the public riled up. As Will Rogers once said, “All I know is what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.”
What was overlooked is that the increased taxes and budget cuts were across the board. Yes, the usual suspects like education, welfare, health and taxpayers like me will continue to feel the weight for now. But for once no one is exempt, including the ultra-orthodox, corporations, the IDF, etc. This is a major breakthrough. Yes, much more needs to be done. Value-added tax was raised from 17% to 18%, which is regressive in nature, hitting particularly hard those most in need. This sum could have been found through other sources like increased corporate tax or the long-awaited confrontation with the labor unions.
But to make the sweeping accusations of a betrayal and sellout after such a brief period is a joke. The price of a democratic, free press, I guess. Sami Peretz of The Marker added, “There is a certain fracture in the hope that Lapid created, but his real test will come in a year or two, if he succeeds in implementing the major reforms he is proposing in the Ports, Electricity, Public Sector and Defense. The problem cannot be solved only by budget cuts and taxes.”
Lapid is convinced he has done everything possible for now, and the very necessary next steps are on the way. He has not been shy about blaming the previous government for the deficit, even though many of them are his coalition partners, including the prime minister. When asked to respond to criticism, he said, “I am saving the economy from a fate similar to Spain. Once they had a standard of living like ours. Now they have 27% unemployment and 50% youth unemployment. This will not happen to Israelis on my watch. Where there is employment, there is hope. I will do this even at the price of my political future.”
When asked if he regrets taking the finance ministry, the job that has made him the most criticized Israeli in recent years, he remarked, “I don’t know how I could have ever passed up this job. Today it is clearer than ever to me that to change something important in Israel, you have to be either prime minister or finance minister. … . The only thing that I am sorry about is that populism has become such an influential force.” Uzi Benziman, a veteran journalist who monitors the media on his website “The Seventh Eye,” said in a radio interview: “The mainstream media covers everything as if it is sports. Who is playing who, who beat who, did Lapid beat Ainee [the Labor Union head] or did Ainee rout Lapid? … In Lapid’s case, they have been far too quick in passing judgment and have done him an injustice.”
So far, Lapid and Yesh Atid have done a lot in two short months. They reduced the size of government ministries and they passed the budget.The conclusions of the Peri Committee for Sharing the National Burden were adopted by the government and now begin the road to legislation. This is the first major step to integrate significant number of the ultra-orthodox into military or national service and into the workforce. Lapid’s analysis that his overall performance will eventually erase his current unpopularity seems well placed. True to their claims, Lapid and Yesh Atid are not
in politics for the sake of being in politics. They are trying to make changes, and doing this will inevitably involve some mistakes.
Perhaps the most symbolic political moment since the elections was when Lapid and his wife flew to Paris a few days ago to meet with the French Foreign Minister and to take a well-deserved weekend break. They flew in economy, paid for their flights and paid for their hotel. In Israeli politics that is real change that you can believe in!
I will write about the a-Doura controversy in my next column. Right now I am too busy putting out the fire in my living room.
Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org