Netanyahu and the Israeli Political Circus

Netanyahu's decision to part with finance minister is the strangest thing that's happened during coalition negotiations thus far, for what is politics if not the question of who to take money from and who to distribute it to?

Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler
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Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler

Some very strange things happened to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the way to forming his next government: There was the political boycott of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, then the flip-flopping on whether to include the ultra-Orthodox parties, and the courting of Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich. But the strangest of all has got to be Netanyahu’s willingness to part with the position of finance minister. For what is politics if not the question of who to take money from and who to distribute it to?

Until now, every prime minister has known that the finance minister must come from the party in power, and must even be a close confidant of the premier, someone who sees eye to eye with him on all the relevant issues. Otherwise, how could they be partners in crime? How could they realize their worldview by doling out funds to those they favor and making cuts to those they despise? How would they clear up a few little details here and there with the tax authorities for a political wheeler-dealer? And these are just a few examples.

Likewise, the role of finance minister is critical to the success or failure of the party in power. This minister’s policies determine the pace of growth, unemployment rates, quality of life, and the public’s opinions on whether the economic situation has improved or worsened during the current Knesset term.

But when the finance minister comes from a competing party fighting for the same pool of voters, the struggle over the term in office won’t just be over accomplishments, but primarily over who gets the credit for all the good that is done.

Consequently, prime ministers usually make sure that finance ministers come from their own party and are personally loyal to them − like Yuval Steinitz was to Netanyahu. But now Netanyahu is giving up this key role and handing it over to one of his competitors, Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett. Something in him has gone haywire.

The truth is that there aren’t particularly big differences between Bennett and Lapid with respect to their socioeconomic worldviews. They are both free-market devotees who are turned off by Yacimovich’s populist socialism. Bennett says he supports “free enterprise with social compassion,” and Lapid says he is in favor of a “proper blend of free markets ... and the need to defend the weak.”

Bennett and Lapid both represent the middle class that took part in the social-justice protests. They represent the third of Israelis who work, pay taxes and serve in the army.

Both Bennett and Lapid are aware of the need to make deep cuts to the state budget, and both speak of the defense budget as an important area for cuts. Neither Bennett nor Lapid are prepared to raise taxes, but intend to look for a solution by canceling tax exemptions.

Both Bennett and Lapid see Israel’s largest unions as pressure groups causing economic strangulation and price hikes. At the same time, both Bennett and Lapid have spoken out against the tycoons, the ties between Big Government and Big Business, and inflated executive salaries.

Even on the issue of the ultra-Orthodox, Bennett and Lapid see almost eye to eye. While Lapid emphasizes the need for Haredim to serve in the military, Bennett speaks more about the need to bring them into the workforce. Both agree that Haredi children must be taught core educational curriculum so they can find gainful employment in the future.

Bennett and Lapid certainly aren’t Siamese twins, but they are at least brothers. They have their differences, but if I had to rank Bennett and Lapid, I would say that Bennett is more of a free-market man than Lapid. Bennett wants more competition, more reforms and less government. He believes more in lowering taxes and in adopting European standards to encourage competition and reduce prices. Bennett is for a more restrained budget and for cutting the public debt at a faster pace.

So who is a better choice for finance minister? We don’t know yet who will prove to be more courageous, who won’t be afraid to stand up to the prime minister and say no. But we do know who has a better-formed economic doctrine, who was a successful entrepreneur, and, most important, who loves economics and really wants the job.

The other candidate isn’t really enthralled by the field, and if he receives the job he will be fulfilling an obligation − not working for pleasure. Put simply, Bennett is better-suited for the job, but in Netanyahu’s political circus, it seems that Lapid will be next finance minister.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, center left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in ceremony of the 19th Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 5, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

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