Bibi’s locust years

Netanyahu chooses a narrow political alliance with Haredim over the national interest.

July 24, 2012 13:30
4 minute read.
Bibi’s locust years

Bibi’s locust years. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)


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Eugene Kandel is the economic adviser Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu trusts most. The OECD is the exclusive rich nations’ club he is proudest of belonging to.

Both warn that unless Haredi men join the work force in significant numbers, Israel will not be able to sustain its vibrant first-world economy. They foresee a gradual slide to third-world standards and, ultimately, even difficulty in funding basic defense needs.

Their dire warnings are echoed by Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Steinitz predicts “critical trouble” for the economy “in less than two decades” unless the ultra-Orthodox Haredim go to work.

The numbers are astounding. If present trends continue, Haredim will increase from around 8.5 percent of the population to 17.5 percent by 2030. And if, as is the case today, 60 percent don’t work and 60 percent live below the poverty line, the economy will be stretched beyond the breaking point. No government will be able to go on making welfare payments to burgeoning numbers of unemployed Torah scholars and fund other basic social and defense needs.

Already 32 percent of kindergarten-aged children are Haredim. This means that the 7,500 Haredi teens eligible for this year’s army draft will become 13,000 by 2025. The issue goes well beyond the IDF’s manpower needs or the need for secular Israelis to feel a more equitable sharing of the defense burden.

Haredim serving in the army or performing civilian national service is first and foremost a question of saving the economy.

Of those who do serve, around 90 percent join the workforce. In the army or national service they learn skills they can put to use in civilian jobs and, more importantly, they can take jobs because, having already served, they don’t have to pretend to be full-time Torah scholars to dodge the draft – as tens of thousands of those who haven’t served do.


A law regularizing Haredi army service and the introduction of a core curriculum in Haredi schools would revolutionize Israel’s manpower reserves and unleash the country’s economic potential.

In today’s anomalous state of affairs, instead of tackling the problem, the Zionist state seems to be funding its own downfall.

It fuels the growth of a massive non-Zionist Haredi enterprise, undermining the morale of serving secular Israelis and increasing the financial burden on the state. Breaking this vicious circle is crucial for the country’s long-term well-being, some might say survival.

Netanyahu knows all of this better than most. He is a former finance minister and, in the current government, the minister for economic strategy. The national unity pact he made with Kadima produced a rare secular governing majority and gave him a golden opportunity to make the necessary changes.

Yet he chose not to. With so much at stake, he chose a narrow political alliance with the Haredi parties over the national interest.

Whether the Israeli electorate punishes him for it is an open question. History, however, is unlikely to forgive him.

In the three and a half years he has been in power, Netanyahu has done nothing on the big strategic issues. The major achievements he can point to are free kindergartens and cheaper cell phones. There has been nothing on the peace process, no meeting of minds with the US on Iran, no change of the electoral system, no equality of military service, no social reform of note. As his hero Winston Churchill might have put it, these have been “locust years,” wasted time “the locust hath eaten.”

It is all reminiscent of Netanyahu’s first term. Then, too, there was a sense that things were going nowhere and that he had sold out to Haredi allies. The slogan then Labor leader Ehud Barak used to oust him in 1999 was “everything is stuck.” Natan Sharansky’s Russian immigrant Yisrael b’Aliya party made inroads with the cry: “Not Shas control, Nash (our) control.” And while Barak was putting together his coalition, demonstrators shouted, “Anyone but Shas.”

This time round, Netanyahu’s dependence on the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi Haredim led to bizarre zigzagging in the negotiations with Kadima over Haredi army service. First, he set up a committee under Kadima’s Yohanan Plesner, then, under pressure from Shas, he dissolved it.

A few days later, after a big Tel Aviv demonstration for equal service, he accepted Plesner’s report as a basis for negotiation.

Plesner and former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon seemed to be on the verge of a deal, when, again under pressure from the Haredim, Netanyahu backed away. Plesner proposed allowing Haredim to defer service until age 22, at which time, except for a select few, it would become compulsory. Ya’alon initially seemed to accept this, but then came back with a counter proposal, deferring service till age 26, and making it voluntary, which is tantamount to granting wholesale exemption to the entire Haredi population and perpetuating the no service-no work syndrome.

With the pullout of Kadima, Netanyahu’s coalition is down to 66, and unlikely to pass a budget by the end of the year. This will probably lead to new elections in the first quarter of next year.

By that time, the disoriented political center comprising the imploding Kadima, the embryonic Yair Lapid party, other budding parties or alliances with ex-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and possibly even former prime minister Ehud Olmert will have taken shape.

Labor, buoyed by a new round of social justice demonstrations, will mount a challenge based on demands for social reform.

The election will be fought over everything Netanyahu hasn’t done. The problem for his rivals though is that, according to the latest polls, far and away most Israelis still think he is the best man for the job.

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