May 30, 2020

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Israel’s Political Zoo

The greatest danger to Israel from the coronavirus is not a collapse of the healthcare system and a massive increase in the body count, as happened in Italy.

It’s not impossible, but most groups – with the notable exception of Haredi communities in several locations who might soon find their neighborhoods or whole towns under quarantine – are following social distancing rules, which have proven to be effective. Resources are being pumped into the healthcare system, testing and tracking of patients are being ramped up, and various promising drugs are being tested. It will probably be bad but not apocalyptic, despite statements by some religious figures that the virus is a sign of the imminent arrival of the Mashiach.

I could be wrong. A shortage of doctors and nurses and other health workers is our weak spot. But I think that unless something entirely unforeseen happens, like a war with Iran, chances are that the virus will burn itself out within a few months (though nobody knows how many months).

On the other hand, the economic crisis that may result from the almost total shutdown of the economy for an extended period could trigger a vicious downward spiral, a chain of bankruptcies and layoffs, a classic depression that will take years to come out of.

The government is hoping to avoid this with a massive program of aid to individuals and businesses to get them over the hump. It will provide 80 billion shekels ($22.3 billion), the biggest such package in Israel’s history. As a result, the deficit will increase from 3.5% to 10% of GDP. I believe that whether the program will succeed or not depends on how long the national lockdown continues. When the schools reopen, the economy will come out of its suspended animation. If it’s still alive.

So how is our political class responding to the situation?

Like zoo animals? No, that’s unfair to animals, who after all usually only want basic necessities of life and to be left alone. They are more like really, really, spoiled, greedy, sociopathic, children.

After three elections, it was announced that Netanyahu and Gantz had agreed to form a unity government. But no, it turns out that there are serious difficulties and no solution on the horizon (read this excellent summary of the deadlock by Haviv Rettig Gur). Gantz, as Speaker of the Knesset, can make whatever demands he wishes, since – by procedural maneuvers – he can prevent Netanyahu from doing anything, including forming a government without him, even though Bibi could easily get the 61 votes needed to do so. But with the split-up of Blue and White, Gantz himself has no chance to form a government without Bibi, even with Lieberman and the Arabs. At this writing (Wednesday, 1 PM) neither side has budged. So here we are.

Even if they had succeeded, the cabinet would have been a criminal enterprise. The plans were for a government with as many as 36 ministers! A country the size of Israel does not need 36 ministers, each of whom are paid more than 50,000 shekels ($14,000) a month. It is already outrageous that the 120 regular Knesset members get 45,000 ($12,000) each month, a result of voting themselves raises every couple of years, but when you consider that ministers have well-paid staffs, offices, and so on, the cost is astronomical. Assuming (conservatively) that each minister costs the taxpayers 100,000 shekels a month, if the government were reduced in size to “only” 18 ministers, it would save 21.8 million shekels in a year, more than one fourth the cost of the coronavirus aid program. As MK Gideon Sa’ar pointed out, the time that the Treasury is about to take an 80 billion shekel hit that will be financed by borrowing is no time to create the largest, most expensive government in Israel’s history. Sa’ar himself has declined to take the most recent pay raise.

It’s possible to argue about who is the most responsible for this travesty of “public service.” Gantz whines that he deserves as many ministries as Netanyahu, even though after the split of Blue and White, he brings only 15 mandates to government, while Bibi has at least 58 MKs to reward by doling out portfolios. Maybe the root of the problem is a system by which a MK is given a ministry as a political favor, and not because he or she is the best person to manage a part of government that actually provides services to the public.

The contest between Netanyahu and Gantz is part of a broader struggle between the “nationalists” (represented by Netanyahu), the group that wants Israel to be a Jewish state in a more significant way than just a state with a Jewish majority; and the “social democrats,” the legal and cultural/media/academic establishments that want to model Israel after Western Europe’s secular democracies. This tension has existed since the pre-state period, and I think it is more explanatory today than the traditional right/left distinction. Even after agreement on a unity government, we can expect more ideology-fueled “constitutional crises” as the opposition attempts to pass laws to oust Netanyahu because of his indictments, and the Supreme Court takes up petitions regarding the Nation-State law.

Several times in our history, this basic divergence – more than just a political disagreement – has endangered the state. This is such a historical moment. Here are my suggestions for what our government should do to survive it – if there ever is a government, and if it has a few free weeks between plagues, wars, and elections:

  1. Amend the Basic Laws for the Knesset and the Government to eliminate the system of proportional representation by party, which has led to the present impasse, and replace it with a system in which the citizens vote directly for their representatives, whether by districts or otherwise. Other countries make this work; we can too. It would greatly de-emphasize ideology in our politics, as well as reduce the likelihood of deadlocks like the present one.
  2. Pass a Basic Law for Separation of Powers. It will apportion power to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government, and in particular define the role of the Supreme Court, specifying the areas in which it may and may not intervene, on what basis, and who has standing to petition it. It should provide for checks and balances so no one branch can act tyrannically. It should also split up the functions of the Legal Adviser to the Government, who should not also be in charge of the state prosecutor’s office.
  3. Finally, the method of choosing judges, including Supreme Court justices, should be democratized. The system that allows the Bar Association and the current Supreme Court to dictate appointments must be eliminated.

Israeli politicians need to grow up and begin to accept responsibility for the people who are depending on them. These changes would give them a framework in which to do so.

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