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Those not afflicted by World Cup soccer mania may not realize what the most emotive issue in our public discourse is. It's entirely unconnected with the escalated existential perils Israel faces, nor with burning socioeconomic challenges, which this country has yet to successfully tackle.
But numerous Israelis - mostly men - are up in arms over the NIS 492 subscription fee they are required to pay their cable or satellite provider to watch all the 18th FIFA World Cup games to be played in Germany from June 9-July 9. Israel's national team failed to qualify for the soccer tournament, held every four years to determine the world champion team.
Yet despite the fact that Israel is uninvolved, football fever again grips this country, fueling the furor over the fee. Passions are inflamed enough to make this a lucrative political cause celebre.
Ministers and MKs, eager to climb the popular bandwagon and score PR points, spare no effort to condemn the charge and outdo each other with ardent support for free or nearly free viewing opportunities. Self-serving indignation is evident throughout the political spectrum - from Likud free-enterprise enthusiasts to Meretz socialists.
Last week, the Knesset Economics Committee held a volatile session, with tempers flaring, voices raised and threats hurled - and all over how to subsidize World Cup telecasts at the expense of all taxpayers, including those who couldn't care less about this soccer fest.
Some of our elected legislators treat the availability of World Cup broadcasts as a touchstone for social justice, though tuning in isn't an inalienable human right. No MK dared doubt the justification for the uproar.
Fired with zeal, committee members set up a subcommittee charged with concocting creative solutions to grant masses of Israelis what is evidently high on their scale of priorities. The committee's consensus was that the Treasury would have to subsidize this entertainment to a considerable extent. No MK perceived anything objectionable about the expenditure, estimated at NIS 20 million. Meretz's Avshalom Vilan went as far as to warn the government would fall if it doesn't pay up.
The very fact that the committee session was so well attended speaks for itself. Often Knesset committee deliberations on the weightiest topics attract a mere handful of parliamentarians.
While the Economics Committee urgently dealt with soccer telecasts, the Knesset House Committee took up the hunger strike in front of the building of colon cancer sufferers, who had been protesting for nearly a fortnight against the decision to remove life-saving or life-prolonging medications from the national "health-basket." That meeting received little press attention and did not raise much squawk in the Knesset itself. Hunger-strike leader Assaf Allon collapsed as he put his case before the committee.
True, taxpayer-subsidized World Cup telecasts are a bargain compared to filling the health basket. But even NIS 20 million can buy desperately needed relief. The problem is that there are more soccer fans than cancer-sufferers and that is the populist bottom line.
It may be simplistic to juxtapose these issues, but the fact is that inordinate airtime and too many newspaper inches are devoted to what must be considered a dispensable luxury, rather than a vital necessity.
To shell out public funds for entertainment may be fine and proper, assuming all outstanding health, education, police, immigrant absorption, culture and other incontrovertibly worthier causes (Yad Vashem is strapped for cash) have been seen to.
Members of Knesset often wonder why the public seems to hold our parliament in such low esteem. This situation should not be surprising, however, when so many MKs, it seems, cannot exercise a modicum of judgment or resistance to shallow and misguided populist pressures.
If MKs want to be taken seriously, they had better focus on the real problems facing this nation according to a reasonable, rather than only headline-driven set of priorities.
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