The scent of power is driving Benjamin Netanyahu crazy. He is willing to do anything to become prime minister again. He does not care about any principle, any ideology or any long-term vision. The lust for power is dulling his senses and he is losing his mind. Netanyahu is now willing to sell the most important change he brought to Israeli society six years ago: the transition from handouts to work.
The Netanyahu of 2003 was a very different one. Back then, he brought along a revolutionary spirit and was willing to go against the stream. Together with Shinui and the National Religious Party, he presented a revolutionary plan: leveling out child benefits. The system of child allowance payments in place at the time had been the same since Haim Ben-Shahar's 1975 reform. Every child was eligible for a state allowance, regardless of whether his or her parents were employed or not. For years, the ultra-Orthodox parties pressed for an increase in child benefits. Since they were the kingmakers in many of the governments that were formed here, the ruling parties were forced to increase the payouts each time.
This absurdity reached new heights at the end of 2000, when Likud was looking for a way to topple Ehud Barak's government and, to that end, joined forces with Shas and United Torah Judaism, and supported their demand to increase such payments. In November 2000, the Knesset passed the Halpert Law, which raised child welfare payments to a dizzying NIS 856 per month from the fifth child onward, compared to NIS 171 for the first child.
At that time, I asked MK Reuven Rivlin how he dared to vote in favor of a bill that was so anti-Zionist and so anti-social. He answered: "It's a bad law, but we can't rule without the ultra-Orthodox." When I pointed out that it was a law that encouraged Israel's non-Zionist forces, he said he knew that NIS 200 million of the NIS 500 million the law would cost "would go to the Arabs, who want to use demographics to take control of Israel - but I want to be in power."
In 2003, the plan for rescuing Israel's economy was launched. One of its key clauses was to significantly cut child welfare payments, making them the same for every child. The result was dramatic. The number of children in ultra-Orthodox and Arab families began to drop and Haredim and Arabs increasingly joined the labor market. It turned out that, contrary to their claims, the birth rate in the ultra-Orthodox sector is influenced by economic variables.
Netanyahu boasted about his accomplishment. The transition from welfare to work, he said, is the only way to break the circle of poverty. He also used to say, in private conversations, that his relatively small policy change reduced the demographic danger facing Israel, because now Arabs and Bedouin would find it less financially worthwhile to bring more children into the world.
But now everything is up in the air again. Netanyahu is willing to once again raise child benefits and even halt the process of making all child benefits equal - a process that began in 2003 but has not been completed. The outcome of such a policy will be much higher stipends for a third, fourth or fifth child than for a first child. And this is just the beginning. Ultra-Orthodox families are now saying that they will continue to demand an increase in child welfare payment for the fifth child and up - at the expense of reduced payments for the first and second child. Indeed, past experience shows that when the principle of equal child welfare payments for every child is done away with, the pressure will continue.
Tzipi Livni agreed to raise child allowances by just NIS 600 million. Netanyahu is willing to increase them by NIS 1.4 billion. And at a time when the economy is in a state far worse than it was six months ago, suddenly Netanyahu has an unlimited budget. He has also promised the ultra-Orthodox that he will increase the monthly stipend to yeshiva students - married and single alike - by hundreds of shekels, which will cost the state almost NIS 500 million.
And once again, secular families will be discriminated against. Avigdor Lieberman was unable to protect them. It is not enough that both partners in a young secular family are forced to work and also do reserve duty - in addition, they will now get less child welfare payments than a family that does not work and does not serve in the reserves.
Once again, it will be more worthwhile to live off handouts than to work. Once again, there will be large, impoverished families. Once again, the Religious Affairs Ministry will be large and strong, will divvy up huge sums of money to anyone who refuses to work and do reserve duty. This is the very worst of anti-Zionism.
And what about the demographic threat, which Netanyahu, Lieberman and Rivlin believe in? That, too, no longer interests them. The lust for power has driven them completely crazy.
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