For weeks now, Finance Minister Yair Lapid has come under fire for the
anticipated tax hikes and austerity measures that are expected to be part of the
2013 and 2014 state budgets. Pundits and political adversaries have been eager
to point out that increased taxes and reduced services are going to hurt the
Israeli middle class, the very people whose interests Lapid vowed to protect and
advance in the Knesset.
Rising value-added tax and income tax, they
noted, when coupled by lower child allowances and reduced public services, are
going to make it even more difficult for Lapid’s middle class Everywoman, Riki
Cohen, to make ends meet.
Lapid’s political opponents have urged him to
look beyond taxes and austerity measures in his efforts to balance the budget,
each one steering him toward their own pet peeves and away from issues that are
important either to themselves or their potential political allies.
Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer and other ideological left-wing advocates have urged the
finance minister to cut spending in the settlements. Labor Party chairwoman
Shelly Yachimovich and her fellow party members have encouraged him to cut the
benefits and tax breaks given to some of the “tycoons” and “big business.”
Right-wing ideologues (Nadav Haetzni in Ma’ariv yesterday, for example) have
called upon Lapid to take on organized labor and to break the powerful
All three arguments are valid. As Calcalist demonstrated in a
number of articles in 2012, the settlers received disproportionately higher
budgets than other Israelis under the previous government, separate and apart
from ancillary security costs. That money could have been spent either more
equally or, alternatively, it could have not been spent at all, resulting in a
The major corporations, in many cases, were shown
excessive leniency by the previous government, as in the case of Teva, which
paid only 0.3 percent tax in 2012.
Had the state been less lenient, its
tax revenues and royalties would have been higher, resulting in a lower
The inefficiency and, in some cases, the downright corruption in
the larger unions (the Israel Electric Corporation and the Ports and Railways
Authority are excellent examples), cost the general public huge sums of money
every year. If employees’ salaries were lower and more proportionate, and if
their work was done more efficiently, the state would have more money in its
coffers and the deficit would be smaller.
As noted, all three arguments
If those distortions are remedied, the deficit would indeed
be smaller. A smaller deficit would mean that fewer tax hikes and austerity
measures would now have to be imposed.
For the time being, however, Lapid
appears disinclined to accept Oppenheimer, Yachimovich and Haetzni’s
suggestions. He has his sights set on a different costly problem that has also
contributed to the inflation of the deficit – the reigning status quo with the
As he made abundantly clear this week, Lapid intends to end the
situation in which the state encourages ultra-Orthodox men to remain out of the
workforce and reliant on welfare. Lapid also wants to end the situation in which
state-funded haredi schools fail to provide their pupils with the basic skills
needed to join the workforce in the future, and is insisting that those schools
teach the core curriculum mandated by the Education Ministry. The hundreds of
millions of shekels that will be saved by the measures Lapid wishes to take
will, similar to the measures proposed by Oppenheimer, Yachimovich and Haetzni,
contribute to lowering the deficit and will help offset some of the tax burden
that otherwise would have to be borne by the general public.
Lapid has come under furious attack by haredi politicians, who are afraid of the
traumatic changes that lie in store for their constituents. They have responded
by casting Lapid as a villainous enemy, whom they accuse of being motivated by
hatred for haredim.
However, it isn’t Lapid that the haredim should be
taking to task, but Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, their erstwhile
Lapid’s focus on the status quo with the haredim is hardly new, and
his decision to prioritize that issue as finance minister should come as no
surprise to no one.
Netanyahu certainly knew what Lapid’s priorities were
going to be when he appointed him finance minister.
IN SOME ways it is
easy to understand why the haredi politicians have preferred to ignore Netanyahu
and to direct their anger principally at Lapid. He is, as noted, the perfect
villain, and they might still have to work with Netanyahu again in the
It is less easy to understand why the general public has been so
lenient with prime minister, if that is how we are to construe the public shrug
of indifference. After all, Netanyahu is the man who allowed the deficit to
balloon on his watch – a deficit that grew precisely as a result of the
destructive status quo with the haredim, the disproportionate budgeting of the
settlers, the excessive leniency with big business and his avoidance of clashing
with organized labor.
Yet little has been said or written criticizing
Netanyahu for his failings as the leader whose policies produced this situation.
Nor has there been any discernible public outrage over the bald-faced lie
Netanyahu told in his pre-election interviews, in which he said that he did not
anticipate there would be any need to raise taxes.
The best and perhaps
only explanation for the public’s indifference to Netanyahu’s behavior is that
increasing numbers of Israelis have come to hold very low expectations of
Netanyahu, who is viewed a power-hungry cynic. As long as he was partners with
the haredim, Netanyahu perpetuated the costly and detrimental status quo. Now
that his coalition has changed – the haredim are out and Yesh Atid is in – he is
equally prepared to do away with that status quo.
When the public is
unfazed by its leader’s lies and abrupt changes in policy priorities solely for
the sake of political convenience, it is a sign that something has gone terribly
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.