Since the budget was approved by the Knesset in the early morning, last Wednesday, I have felt a strong sense of despondency. It isn’t that I did not expect the most inappropriate budget ever presented in Israel to be approved by the Knesset, it was simply the fact that the moment the dye was cast and the 2023-2024 budget turned into law, our largely dysfunctional government could continue to stumble along at least until the end of 2024 unperturbed.
The reason for my and many others' despondency can best be demonstrated by a series of scenes we were all exposed to in the media just before, in the course of and just after the debates on the budget took place and all the real and false crises within the coalition that were resolved at a superfluous price.
When Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni presented the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill to the Knesset, last Monday, he decided to justify the vast sums granted to the haredi parties unconditionally for their institutions of learning by relating the story of one of his daughters who is in hi-tech, having studied in a girls’ school that teaches core studies, but which receives only half the budget received by equivalent schools in the national school system.
This is really a red herring since the problem is the boys’ schools, where core studies are very rarely taught, or “taught” with a wink. To add insult to injury, he added that unlike students in the secular system who learn about Noa Kirel (Israel’s representatives to the recent Eurovision contest) at school, his daughter did not. He then added, referring to Kirel’s scanty outfits during the Eurovision contest, “I am willing to donate some clothing for her.”
I am no fan of Kirel, but Gafni’s reference to her was merely meant as an insult to the critics of the financial transfers to the Haredim, and totally unrelated to the budget, and Gafni is certainly aware of the fact that Kirel is not part of the curriculum of any sort of non-haredi school, nor the cause of haredi poverty.
Transfers don't address reasons for poverty
THE PROBLEM with the transfer of money to haredi institutions of learning for boys and other forms of financial transfers (for example, food cards for the poor, which is Arye Deri’s pet project) is that at best they turn the recipients from extremely poor to very poor, without addressing the issue of the reasons for this elective poverty.
Since the haredim naturally resent external efforts to force them to provide their male members with a basic program of non-religious core studies or to encourage them to become part of the mainstream workforce, perhaps what Gafni should address is the question of how to resolve this fundamental anomaly in the haredi society and its chosen way of life. The current budget is merely designed to perpetuate the problem.
All the professional critics of the 2023-2024 budget point out that it does not deal with the problem of the cost of living, though Benjamin Netanyahu keeps stating in the past few days that now that the budget has been approved, the issue will be confronted. When I studied economics – many years ago – I was taught that one of the issues that budgets try to address is inflation, i.e. the cost of living getting out of control.
Though the budget did not address the issue, apparently Economy and Industry Minister Nir Barkat is trying to tackle at least one aspect of the problem: the issue of the monopolies in the food sector, with its over-centralized markets. Besides trying to fire, last Monday, so far unsuccessfully, the director-general of the Israel Competition Authority, Michal Cohen, for alleged incompetency, Barkat has complained that he is being threatened over his efforts.
Who exactly is threatening him is as yet unclear, as is the question of whether Barkat is cooperating with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on this issue, even though as soon as this Government was formed the two announced that they would cooperate.
Last week, besides passing the budget, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also made two policy statements worth noting. The first concerned plans to increase the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria by half a million and the second, together with other members of the government, was to cancel a major five-year investment project for the Arabs in eastern Jerusalem, initiated in 2018, which received a boost from the previous government headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.
The United States government and other foreign governments immediately sent protests about the first issue and Netanyahu announced that there was no government plan for such a population increase. There was less of a fuss about eastern Jerusalem. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly an urgent need to clarify what the Government’s policy is on these and various other issues.
All that is wrong with the government and what it represents
Another scene that left a feeling of disgust, and represents another aspect of what is wrong with this government and the budget it presented, was of Energy and Infrastructure Minister Israel Katz, who represented the government in the plenum in the course of the budget debate, last Tuesday.
THE SPEAKER on the podium was Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas and he was delivering a 30-minute speech about the lie of the NIS 53 billion that was allegedly given to him by the previous government for distribution according to his choice. First of all, it was NIS 30 billion over five years and the money was all earmarked for specific purposes, designed to reverse long-term discrimination, not as a bribe. The moment Abbas mounted the podium, Katz stuck earphones into his ears so that he could not hear Abbas’s speech.
The Arab citizens of Israel constitute over 20% of the total population and the least Katz – as representative of the government on this occasion – had the duty to do was to listen to what Abbas had to say. Given some of Katz’s recent embarrassing verbal outbursts, had he bothered to listen to Abbas, he might have learned a thing or two he didn’t know.
Incidentally, when the government was formed, Yehuda Schlesinger from Israel Hayom reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu had decided to continue the payments of what was left of the NIS 30 billion earmarked for the Arab community by the previous government. Lo and behold, one of the items approved in the budget on Wednesday night was NIS 26.5 billion left over from the 2021 five-year plan, that will end in 2026. Wasn’t Katz aware of this item in the budget?
And after having said all of this, let us remember that the crisis around the legal reform is not over yet. As Netanyahu said to Channel 14 reporter Moti Kastel, as he left the plenum with a Cheshire-cat smile on his face right after the budget was approved, in response to a question about whether the legal reform would return, “Of course. We are trying to reach agreements [with the opposition] and we hope we shall succeed.”
Though Kastel did not ask what will happen if the conversations fail, most commentators assumed that Netanyahu meant that if the conversations were to fail the reform would nevertheless continue. Though some progress has been made in the conversations, there is no progress on the main issue on which there is no agreement: the method of selection of new Supreme Court justices.
The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge last summer.