Think about it: New politics versus old politics

In Israel, unlike most other parliamentary democracies, there is an additional problem when it comes to oversight of the actual implementation of the budget.

MK Stav Shafir (photo credit: KNESSET)
MK Stav Shafir
(photo credit: KNESSET)
Last Wednesday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid got a punch in the face from the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Nissan Slomiansky. According to reports, Lapid had agreed to transfer NIS 20 million to West Bank settlements for mental assistance and strengthening the civilian population following the abduction and murder of the three yeshiva students two months ago. In return Slomiansky would have his committee finish preparing for second reading Lapid’s bill on zero percent VAT for first apartments, before the end of the Knesset’s summer session. The NIS 20 million were transferred, but Slomiansky failed to deliver.
It wasn’t completely his fault, since several members of the opposition – especially MK Ya’acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) and Stav Shafir (Labor) – carried out a filibuster, which meant that out of the 22 pages of the bill, the committee succeeded in going over only one by the time the Knesset went into recess. However, Slomiansky, like many others both in the coalition and the opposition, is said to oppose Lapid’s bill, because it does not contend with the supply side of the problem, and because it is discriminatory. For this reason he apparently didn’t shed any tears about the success of the opposition’s delaying tactics, which have resulted in deliberation on the bill continuing only at the beginning of September, following the Knesset’s August recess.
However, it is doubtful whether the bill will remain intact. MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) explained last week, “By the time the bill will come up again for deliberation (in the committee) in September, the prime minister will inform the minister of finance that he needs the NIS 3 billion (the cost of implementing the bill) for other purposes, and the bill will not be brought (to the plenum) for debate.”
What can we learn from this whole episode? Firstly, Lapid’s “new politics” – which were to have involved political conduct free of all the old horse trading and manipulations – are a total sham, both because he has bad advisers regarding what policies ought to be pursued, and because he is too easily persuaded to use “old politics” means to attain his goals. In this particular case Slomiansky got his tithe for “cooperating,” while Lapid paid rebbe gelt (a Yiddish expression that refers to the high price – monetary or other – that one pays for one’s real-world education) for a bitter lesson.
Secondly, Slomiansky, as a distinct example of how the “old politics” works, is a brilliant player. He managed to both get the maximum for his constituents (including the settlers). I admit (despite ideological reservations) that this is an absolutely legitimate goal as long as it is legally obtained, and to satisfy the “powers that be” – in this case mainly the finance minister, a central actor in the machinations of the “old politics.”
However, these days both Slomiansky and the finance minister are being challenged from rather surprising quarters – the 29 year old, red-headed, indefatigable Shafir. The Labor MK gained public exposure during the 2011 social protest, and has declared war on the old, customary ways, which might be legal in the strict sense, but nevertheless stink to high heaven.
Shafir was one of the opposition MKs who gave Slomiansky a hard time with regards to the zero percent VAT bill, by raising endless question and posing endless reservations.
However, her main crusade is not against Lapid’s bill, but against the so called “budgetary transfers.”
Every year the Knesset approves the annual budget.
Approving the budget is one of the important tasks of all parliaments, and in Israel as elsewhere, the Knesset’s ability to fulfill its task satisfactorily is hampered by the length and complexity of the document requiring their approval, and the limited time available to do the job.
However, in Israel, unlike most other parliamentary democracies, there is an additional problem when it comes to oversight of the actual implementation of the budget. On a regular basis the Finance Ministry submits requests to the Knesset Finance Committee for budgetary revisions involving transfers of large sums of money – occasionally reaching billions - from one budgetary item to another. These items frequently not only have nothing to do with the original financial allocation, but were not even included in the original budget. On a regular basis the committee approves the requests, without much ado, thus foregoing the Knesset’s oversight role.
In a document prepared by the Department for Budgetary Oversight in the Knesset Research and Information Center in July 2013, which inter alia dealt with budgetary transfers from one budgetary item to another, there is no mention of this specific “procedure.” It isn’t even absolutely clear whether the procedure is legal in the strict sense.
I have no idea what made Shafir first take a look at this particular practice, but for close to a year now she has turned the issue into a crusade. From a perusal of the minutes of the finance committee one can see how she has decided to act: asking Slomiansky and the representatives of the Finance Ministry numerous, detailed questions about each item. She rarely receives a straight answer, and it is clear that most of the time neither Slomiansky nor the ministry representatives know the answers.
The interactions between Slomiansky and Shafir on these occasions follow a regular pattern, in which neither is willing to give ground. It is a battle of nerves. Slomiansky, generally a very serene and patient man, is driven up the wall, but usually manages to keep his calm. Last week he actually lost patience and threw Shafir out of a meeting. Shafir just keeps hammering on.
The peak of the confrontation occurred on June 11, when Slomiansky, in the absence of any other MKs at the committee meeting, and within a few minutes of opening the meeting, approved budgetary transfers of NIS 888 million between items in the Education Ministry budget. Of this sum, NIS 110 million were transferred to yeshivot that encourage enlistment to the IDF, NIS 17 million for “Jewish culture,” NIS 15 million for Jewish education in the diaspora, NIS 1.4 million to the haredi educational system, and NIS 78 million to education in West Bank settlements. The meeting had opened at 9:00 a.m., and Shafir arrived at 9:09 a.m., her delay due to a traffic on highway 1 from Tel-Aviv. It was only after Shafir and several other MKs threatened to appeal to the Knesset Ethics Committee, that Slomiansky agreed to withdraw his “approval” of the transfers, and hold a repeat vote.
In December 2013, Shafir petitioned the High Court of Justice, to instruct the Finance Ministry to start supplying responses to her unanswered questions. On June 18 the court gave its ruling, expressing its discomfort with the fact that it was being called upon to deal with what it viewed as a procedural problem, even though it admitted that it was a serious problem, and calling upon the government and MK Shafir to reach an agreement on how to resolve the issue within three months.
It is hard to believe that the procedural problem will be resolved by the middle of September, since there are currently urgent financial problems on the agenda resulting from Operation Protective Edge and the fact that Lapid continues to insist that he will not raise taxes. It is also hard to see the Finance Ministry sitting with Shafir to figure out how to put an end to its own slipshod working methods, especially since it is more than likely to resort to these very same methods in its attempts to square the current financial circle.
Nevertheless, many experts agree that now that Shafir has opened Pandora’s box, there is no escape from changes being introduced.
There is an old Frank Sinatra song that contains the following lines: Once there was a silly old ram Thought he’d punch a hole in a dam No one could make that ram scram He kept buttin’ that dam… The end? Oops, there goes a billion-kilowatt dam...
Go for it Stav!
The writer is a retired Knesset employee