Text size

In recent months the office of Eli Yishai, Minister of Industry and Trade, has become the address for opponents to the Wisconsin plan. Each day the office fields dozens of angry phone calls, most from Shas voters, which the officials strive to answer patiently and pleasantly.

The callers are spluttering with rage about the terms of the Wisconsin plan. Some are outraged that the plan forces them to work as a precondition for receiving more aid from the state.

It's no coincidence that Yishai's office has become a magnet for the wails. Yishai, as a leader in Shas and as a man who views himself as champion of the underdog, by nature lends an ear to the unfortunate, including those who belong to his voter base, the religious Sephardic community. And that population, need we say, doesn't appreciate the restrictions that the state has slapped onto their entitlements.

Though he listens closely to their plaints, two weeks ago Yishai decided to expand the Wisconsin plan.

Yishai knows that his voters abhor the plan; it would have been convenient for him to join the group of its most vocal opponents.

Yet he chose to join the other camp, which would preserve the Wisconsin program, after a revamp.

One has to admire Eli Yishai's courage. One also has to deplore the fact that he's all alone out there.

No less than 80 Knesset members stood against him, and signed a bill that would make far-reaching changes to the Wisconsin plan, to the point of completely ruining it.

Among the 80 signatories is none other than the very man who brought the Wisconsin plan to Israel, the man who is identified with it - the former finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Wisconsin Plan Man

It has been a while since we've seen a united multiparty front like this, with Knesset members from left and right, coalition and opposition, linking hands. The group even recruited Mr Stop Leeching From the State and Go Out and Work himself, Bibi Netanyahu.

It has been a while since the parliamentarians have been so eager to reshape a government program, though all along the Wisconsin plan had been defined as a two-year pilot, whose results would require study; though the panel of experts set up to study its outcome hasn't even filed its recommendations yet; though two weeks before the 80 MKs lined up to sign a bill that would change the program, in fact an attempt had been made to institute change sin the spirit of the recommendations being formed by the panel.

In short, the pilot has undergone quite a bit of change, yet the Knesset members naturally didn't trouble themselves to find out what the changes were. If they had, they wouldn?t have troubled to push a bill that calls for changes that had, mostly, already been made.

What do the 80 Knesset members, including Netanyahu, know, that Yishai doesn't know? Or, perhaps, the question should be the other way around. What does Yishai know, that despite his bleeding-heart credentials and the glaring opposition of his voters to the Wisconsin plan - made him support it, after the changes?

What Yishai knows

Yishai knows that the population of people living with state support, the people who had been shepherded into the Wisconsin plan, are chronically unemployed. They can't be returned to the workforce without personal, individual help, which is exactly what the Wisconsin plan offers.

Yishai that most of the professional problems with the Wisconsin plan have been fixed. The profit of the companies running the plan will be linked to the by of unemployed that they manage to return to the workforce, over time. The very weakest echelons will receive special handling, for instance rehab programs. Budgets for training program participants will be increased, and financial incentives will be provided to motivate the chronically unemployed for each month they work.

Yishai knows something else, too. Yishai knows that so far the Wisconsin plan has cost the state  NIS 190 million, and that the state has saved itself only NIS 125 million in benefit payments it didn't have to make. In net terms, the state has invested NIS 65 million, in order to bring people ejected from the workforce years and years ago (or who had never been there at all), back to work.

Yishai knows that the principle behind the Wisconsin plan, salary instead of stipend, is a principle worth fighting for. It is important to the state, because it will save money, and focus aid on the people who really need it, who can't work (as opposed to the people who just don't feel like it). And it is important for the poor, because living on handouts exacts a cost in dignity, whereas a working person has greater potential for further development.

This is a principle that Eli Yishai, champion of the weak, learned from experts on employment and welfare. It is a principle that Yishai also learned from a former minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But it seems that the pupil has surpassed his master.