Netanyahu and Fischer Tomer Applebaum
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bank of Israel chief Stanley Fischer. Photo by Tomer Applebaum
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ministers and parliamentarians are indeed taking steps to stem concentration in the Israeli market, but there is still a long way to go.

While Netanyahu has announced a panel to investigate ways to limit concentration, the question is, how much time and power (economic and political) will he have to expend on this issue, given that he is mired in the settlement freeze, and the peace process with the Palestinians? Furthermore, the potential establishment of this committee had sparked a major battle between the prime minister’s office and the treasury, with the head of each demanding to lead the panel. Ultimately, the sides agreed to a state committee jointly headed by the directors general of the treasury and the prime minister’s office.

The establishment of the government committee is meant to define government policy, which will be anchored in law via an expedited legislative process. Of course, there are those who believe that the very act of setting up such a panel will at best delay, and at worst scupper, any chance of dealing with the matter in hand.

The Knesset is keeping a close eye on Netanyahu’s moves in this case. MK Haim Oron, a member of the Knesset Finance Committee and head of the left-wing Meretz party, had warned prior to Netanyahu's announcement that if the prime minister were to back down, “the Finance Committee reserves the right to hold an urgent debate on the issue and begin taking its own steps.”

At Oron’s initiative, the Finance Committee decided three months ago to give the government three months (a time limit due to expire within days) to set up a panel about how to limit concentration in the market. And while the committee chairman, Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, also wants the issue to be given serious thought, he is inclined to grant the government a little more time to take steps by itself.

“If we do see that the matter is not being advanced by the government, then we will convene the committee and demand answers from the government ministries," Gafni warned. "Concentration in the market is a true threat to democracy. If necessary, we will bring private legislation."

It stands to reason that if the government does not move quickly and decisively to curtail economic concentration, MKs might do so by promoting private legislation. An example of such legislation is a proposal by Labor MK Einat Wilf, which has the backing of 37 lawmakers. But such private proposals must be supported by government through four votes in the Knesset and the Finance Committee. If the government opposes a private bill, it will act to foil its passage in the Knesset.

As long as ministers and Knesset members are eager to combat concentration in the economy, the prime minister has an opportunity to get Knesset backing for this issue. But if Netanyahu drags his feet, some MKs might succumb to explicit or covert pressure by financial tycoons and their lobbyists, who don't want the Knesset to curb their far-reaching hold on the economy.

If Netanyahu misses the current chance to deal with economic concentration, it is doubtful that he will be able to tackle the problem later on. By 2011, MKs will be interested in an upcoming election (which may be brought forward), and perhaps will also find themselves in the deep pockets of the wealthy families who dominate the Israeli economy.