The controversial national gas deal that has created an uproar in certain sectors of the Israeli public should have been accompanied by greater transparency, President Reuven Rivlin and Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug said Sunday in a symposium on social responsibility in a market economy.
The symposium at the President’s Residence was held in advance of the official launch on Tuesday at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center of a series of booklets outlining Menachem Begin’s ideology based on that of his mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder and leader of the Revisionist Zionist Movement and its youth movement Betar, which was headed by Begin in Poland.
“We’ve had six years in which to learn the facts, and I can’t understand why the matter hasn’t been settled,” Rivlin said, adding that the public needs to understand what it may gain or lose from the agreement.
When the public is fully informed, people know what questions to ask and it becomes easier to make a decision in the final analysis, he said.
Flug concurred that there should have been transparency throughout the whole process, but she proposed that the Leviathan gas field be developed as quickly as possible, warning that any further foot-dragging and failure to honor existing agreements could result in years of litigation.
Jabotinsky advocated a free market with minimal government interference, while simultaneously supporting government responsibility for the elementary needs of individual citizens.
Begin and Rivlin referred to these in Hebrew as Hameshet Hamemim, the five ems: mazon – food; ma’on – home or shelter; malbush – clothing; moreh – the right to education; and marpeh – health services. Rivlin said he did not want to refer to them as basic rights or civil rights due to the political connotations associated with the terminology.
Neither Rivlin nor Flug saw any contradiction in having social responsibility in a market economy.
The problem, said Rivlin, is that the motivation to promote Israel as an innovative, competitive nation has been so strong, that there has been a tendency to overlook the individual in society.
“We devote so much money to defense that we forget the social needs. It’s imperative that we find a balance,” the president said.
Rivlin and Flug agreed a change is needed in social policy.
People have been encouraged to enter the employment market, Flug said, but they haven’t been given the proper tools. In the case of the haredi population, they haven’t been taught core subjects such as English and math, she commented, adding “these core subjects are critical to future employment.”
Rivlin, who frequently cites the demographics of haredim and Arabs in the population, said that while they still currently qualify as minorities, their numbers are increasing rapidly and they soon will constitute more than half the population.
By 2020, he estimated, only 38 percent of school children will not be the offspring of today’s minorities.
Therefore, he said, there is an urgent need to ensure that Arabs are sufficiently proficient in Hebrew so they are accepted into Israeli universities to become properly equipped to take their place in society.
Service in the IDF was once a great social equalizer, Rivlin said, but noted that, today, 50% of the population does not serve in the army.
However, he said he was pleased there has been an increase in the number of haredim in the military because this opens doors to academic studies and offers the haredim opportunities unavailable to them if they do not serve.
Flug, meanwhile, addressed the issue of taxes, saying it is essential to revise the level of taxes on goods, noting that compared to other Western countries, Israel has too many tax exemptions.
The taxation issue must be reassessed so more funds are available to be allocated for the basic needs of society, she said.
Another issue raised by moderator Sever Plocker, the economics editor of Yediot Aharonot, was housing, which he said has become an insurmountable problem as costs have risen some 75% during the last three governments.
Rivlin responded that construction costs are more or less the same regardless of where the housing project may be and that the component that influences the end price is the cost of land. The government must stop talking about reforms, and instead formulate and implement a policy with regard to state-owned land, he said, declaring that, “We have too many committees” alluding to the construction delays that result as applications for building permits pass between committees.
The entire process, from initiating a construction project to actually completing it, takes around 13 years, said Flug, who insisted that the process must be sped up to make housing more affordable.