Reality Check: Lapid’s budget problems

Lapid's decision to take the Finance Ministry, with all the risks it entails for his future political career, is a brave one.

Yair Lapid 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yair Lapid 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yair Lapid’s decision to accept the poisoned chalice of the Finance Ministry, as opposed to insisting on the Foreign Ministry which is much more suited to his talents, could soon spell the end of the Yesh Atid leader’s bromance with Naftali Bennett. This is no doubt one of the reasons Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered it to him.
In his valedictory column over a year ago, outlining his reasons for quitting journalism and moving into politics, Lapid launched his election campaign slogan, “Where’s the money?” As finance minister, Lapid will have to transition from simply posing this question into actually delivering an answer. If he is true to his word, this will inevitably mean upsetting his new best friends in Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party.
As Lapid himself noted in his farewell column, not all of the middle-class’s woes – high taxes, high property prices, high cost of living, poor school system, large social gaps and a Third World bureaucracy – are the sole fault of the haredim and their government-subsidized way of life. “Our money,” he wrote, “is also found in inflated, wasteful government apparatuses that do not bother to grant us normal service and in quite a few remote settlements that look like Switzerland and have access roads that are better than in Switzerland.”
And the people responsible for this state of affairs, Lapid continued, are special- interest parties who ensure that the extortion continues, something in which Bayit Yehudi, in its support of the settlement movement in the West Bank over the years, has excelled.
IRONICALLY, if in preparing the country’s next state budget Lapid does decide to put a stop to the flow of money Israel has misguidedly invested in the territories over the past four decades he could find himself supported by the most unlikely of allies: the haredi parties. Smarting from Bayit Yehudi’s preference for joining forces with the secular Yesh Atid to keep them out of government, haredi politicians have now declared open season on the settlement movement.
Moshe Gafni, the United Torah Judaism Knesset member, has been leading the charge, claiming that it is the settlers who are the real drag on the Israeli economy.
Given Gafni’s experience as the head of the Knesset’s finance committee and his years of budgetary wheeling and dealing, in which the settlements received haredi backing for unnecessary bypass roads in return for national-religious party support for haredi yeshiva students, this haredi politician probably knows more than most exactly how billions of shekels of taxpayer money have been diverted over the years.
As he told the haredi Yated Ne’eman newspaper last week: “When there is a debate over significant budget cuts like defense, economy, welfare and society, we will no longer be predisposed to transfer billions to a group that preaches to us about equality in the distribution of the civic burden when it is the real burden on society. When they talk about equality of the burden... we will show everyone who should really be facing cuts.”
Shas, too, is ready to climb on the antisettlement bandwagon. “When Yair Lapid asks where the money is,” a senior Shas leader told journalists, “we’ll tell him it’s in the settlements. From our point of view this is an unnecessary expense.”
And another Shas minister reportedly said: “We are going to walk all over the settlements, we’re not afraid. We’ll vote to evacuate outposts, we’ll vote to freeze construction, we’ll support diplomatic initiatives, we’ll vote to cut funding to the settlements.”
IN FACT, as finance minister, forced to make a number of hard decisions, the charming, much-liked Lapid will find himself in the unusual position of suddenly losing popularity, and not just among Bayit Yehudi supporters. The massive budget cuts Israel needs to make will hurt, and Lapid will not be able to spare his middle-class voters from this pain in the short term if he is to discharge his duty properly.
Netanyahu knows this, having had to perform a similar role in 2003 as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government.
Back then, Netanyahu steered Israel through an economic crisis, but the measures he had to implement cost him as a politician in terms of popular support.
Lapid is well aware of this, so his decision to take the Finance Ministry, with all the risks it entails for his future political career, is a brave one. But the real downside to Lapid moving to finance is the fact that it keeps Avigdor Liberman, the worst foreign minister in Israel’s history, in his post – assuming of course that Liberman manages to escape conviction in his present criminal trial.
While there is no doubting the seriousness of the economic challenges facing Israel, the diplomatic horizon is no less daunting and here Lapid, with his mediasavvy charms, could really have made a difference. Instead, the face representing Israel to the world will remain that of the thuggish, bullying Liberman.
There’s no escaping the conclusion that when it’s a choice between harming a potential rival for the premiership or further damaging Israel’s international image, it seems the prime minister, by refusing to let Lapid take the foreign ministry, has put self-interest over that of the country.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.