The Hanegbi affair: populism and detachment

Hanegbi said that the government was trying to balance various different needs and that it was impossible to throw endless money.

Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Minister Tzachi Hanegbi
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Nobody is ever going to accuse Minister without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi of having an over-abundance of empathy.
On the contrary, time after time Hanegbi has made comments that show a lack of sensitivity, even if they contain salient points that deserve a fair hearing. Often, in Hanegbi’s case, what he has to say gets lost in the way he says it.
For instance, in June of 2018, when inflammable kites and balloons were all the rage in Gaza and were setting fields and forests alight in areas near the Gaza border, Hanegbi took to the radio and said that people were overreacting.
“I’m not excited by the kite terrorism. It shows how pathetic our enemies are,” Hanegbi told Army Radio. “They found a weapon that doesn’t endanger human lives, and we’ll find a solution for it. We don’t need to get excited.”
Easy for him not get excited, when his fields and livelihood were not being burned, and his family was not inhaling smoke. His point – that as bothersome as the balloons and kites were, they were not a strategic threat to Israel – was valid, as was his advice not to overreact. But for people living through it, for those for whom these “primitive” weapons were making life hell, Hanegbi’s comments hit a discordant chord.
A few months later, as the flammable kites were replaced by rockets, Hanegbi stuck his foot in his mouth again, dismissing a barrage of rockets on the Gaza Strip periphery communities as “minor,” saying there is a difference between firing rockets at Tel Aviv and at communities in the South.
Hanegbi was pummeled for these comments, as if he was saying that a life in Tel Aviv was more important than one in Nahal Oz. That, however, was clearly not his intent. His point was that there is a strategic difference – and a difference that merits a different response – between a rocket aimed at Nahal Oz, and one aimed at Israel’s economic hub and main population center. Yet again, ham-handed phrasing did him in.
But all that was nothing compared to what faced him Friday night, on Keshet 12’s popular talk show Ofira and Berkovich.
After a few minutes of banter about his position in the government, the conversation turned to the coronavirus.
“Tachlis,” co-host Eyal Berkovich said to Hanegbi. “Bibi is not functioning, people don’t have [anything] to eat.” Ofira Assayag passionately echoed him.
Hanegbi at first tried to explain in mild tones: “This is the dilemma of every leader in the world, not only Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. Every leader in the world has to find the balance.”
But mild tones do not work on this particular show, and Assayag interrupted: “In other countries they distributed money…”
Hanegbi: “In Israel as well.”
Assayag: “No, the fact is people do not have [anything] to eat.”
And that is when Hanegbi made the comment that even Netanyahu felt the need to distance himself from, and for which Hanegbi later apologized: “The nonsense that people don’t have anything to eat is bulls**t.”
While acknowledging that a million people are out of work and that businesses have been hit hard and are in dire straits, he declared that “saying there is nothing to eat is populism.”
Hanegbi said that the government was trying to balance various different needs and that it was impossible to throw endless money at the problem, because the government’s budget was not endless.
Assayag shouted that Hanegbi was “detached,” and Berkovich determined that the government had the money, it just needed to take a billion dollars from the defense budget. And this can be done, he stated, “because there are no wars, there is corona, no wars.”
And what emerged from that brief segment is an example of what is now fraying at the solidarity this country badly needs to successfully combat coronavirus: wild hyperbole, unrealistic expectations and a lack of sensitivity.
THINGS ARE bad enough as it is, people are struggling hard enough right now, without taking things too exaggerated extremes. Are hundreds of thousands of people feeling a degree of financial insecurity that they have never felt before? Are people unfortunately forced to empty out their savings to survive? Has the economic life of the independent businessperson been upended? Certainly.
But are people really starving for bread, without anything to eat? Luckily, the country has a social welfare net, and innumerable charitable organizations, to ensure that people will have food.
This line of people being without food is reminiscent of a comment Tzipi Livni made during the 2015 election campaign when she was number two on the now defunct Zionist Union list: “The citizens of Israel will replace Netanyahu, not because of what is written in the newspapers, but because they don’t have enough money to buy a newspaper.”
But the citizens of Israel did not replace Netanyahu then, to a certain degree because the reality Livni was painting did not match the reality they were living.  In 2015, people were able to buy newspapers, and in 2020, people are not starving for bread.
Hanegbi is right, this is populism, a political approach defined in the Oxford Dictionary as striving “to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”
In the current fight against the coronavirus, what is needed are realistic expectations, not populism. The public has the right to expect a functioning government that will issue clear, wise guidelines; provide significant financial aid to help people struggling with lost livelihoods to ensure that they do not go under; and make sure that the best medical care is available.
The public, however, should not expect that the government will be able to make up everyone’s lost income. That is simply unrealistic: the government does not have that type of money.
It is easy for Berkovich to say that the government can trim a billion dollars from the defense budget. But what if there is a war next summer with Hezbollah, and – because of budgetary constraints – the IDF’s storehouses are not sufficiently supplied? Then, if Hanegbi would appear on the Ofira and Berkovich show, he would be attacked for leaving the IDF unprepared.
And just as Hanegbi’s use of the term “populism” hit the mark, so too were Berkovich and Assayag right to say Hanegbi was detached. The veteran minister’s words showed an insensitivity to the real economic hardships and genuine concern and worry hundreds of thousands of people are feeling. This is the same type of detachment that both Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz displayed in May, creating a mammoth government of 34 ministers that will cost millions, even as nearly a million people were out of work; and the same type of detachment Netanyahu exhibited two weeks ago when he asked the government for nearly a NIS 1 million tax rebate.