Anyone who occasionally enters the room where the Knesset’s Finance Committee meets will notice the chairwoman of Meretz, MK Zahava Gal-On, strongly criticizing the regulators for the way they dealt with IDB, Foreign Ministry officials who allow enormous budget transfers to the settlements, and the banks for refusing to be parted from their credit-card companies.
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In an interview with Haaretz’s weekend supplement ten years ago, the late Shulamit Aloni, who was chairwoman of Meretz at the time, referred to Gal-On as a “secretary.”
“Zahava was insulted because I had sent her to study first,” Aloni said. “I told her: Look, you’re a secretary. Go study. You’ll be able to compete more and know more − and she went to study. She was terribly insulted. She built her career on my having told her that a secretary shouldn’t enter the Knesset. It’s better to study, and then feel that you are standing on your own two feet.”
And Gal-On studied. After years of being identified with the fight against the occupation and the settlements, she underwent a transformation when she returned to the Knesset three years ago, and now she is a strong advocate of social justice and economic issues.
“Over the past decade, when I served as chairwoman of the Knesset faction, I was a member of many committees and dealt with aspects of human rights,” Gal-On says in an interview with Markerweek. “It was only when I came back to the Knesset in early 2011 and was chosen as a member of the Finance Committee that I studied the economic issues as part of my political and civic work. I succeeded in creating a socioeconomic agenda.”
Under Gal-On’s leadership, Meretz doubled its strength to six seats in the last Knesset election, and recent polls give it 10 to 12 seats, as in its heyday under Aloni.
The removal of Shelly Yacimovich from the leadership of Labor created an opportunity for Meretz and Gal-On, since both Gal-On and Yacimovich are seen as fighters for social and economic causes. The social-democratic slot was vacated, since Labor’s new chief, Isaac Herzog, is not an advocate of such causes.
“The social-democratic view creates a different division in tax collection,” says Gal-On. “What is important is the amount. I am not against the business sector, and I think the business sector is vital because it is productive and provides jobs. But those who set economic policy should hold a different view on the fairest and most just way to share revenues and expenses.
“In the last election campaign, Meretz was the only party to make this connection. It linked the fact that if we establish a welfare state across the Green Line and cut back in the public sector inside the Green Line, then there is no welfare state except between Ofra and Beit El. According to the agenda I promote, everything is connected: We cannot talk about social-democratic values without talking about a peace agreement. Morally, it is impossible to rule in the territories for 46 years and expect that the world will continue to accept it.”
Without a peace agreement, we will not be able to lower the cost of living?
“Some struggles are not connected to the peace process. My fight, among other things, is against centralization and tax breaks for giant corporations, and that is not connected to the peace process. If we think that we can put the issue of peace aside and ignore the fact that there is a certain geopolitical situation here, then the State of Israel could find itself more shunned and isolated and in danger of a boycott. Israel is dependent on exports, its lifeblood. If Israel cannot export because of boycotts, the cost of living will increase.
“The cost of living here goes up as a result of a certain economic policy instituted by Netanyahu, during whose time Israel joined the OECD. There is a 25-percent gap in food and beverage prices between Israel and European Union countries. The cost of living is linked to an economic policy that benefits the wealthy. If we do not reach a peace agreement, we will have a harder time exporting and the cost of living will go up even more.”
Are you sympathetic toward the decisions throughout the world to boycott Israel over the settlements?
“The decision by the EU as part of Horizon 2020, an umbrella program for research and development, was dramatic and significant. It stated that the billions to be invested here would be invested inside legitimate and sovereign Israel and not in the settlements. I support that policy. I haven’t bought products from the settlements for years. The governments of Israel, which hid their heads in the sand and did not look reality in the eye, were partying as if they were on the Titanic, ignoring the angry European iceberg that approached them. Israel should not be investing in the settlements. The policy of control of the settlements will cause European friends to stop investing in Israel completely.”
Then you support the boycott, and maybe are even giving legitimacy to boycotts in a wider context. For example, you will not only avoid buying products from the Barkan industrial zone, but also not be a customer of a bank that has branches over the Green Line.
“For many years, nobody succeeded in convincing the Israeli public that the occupation had a price, and I think that the occupation − which is a moral issue − also has a financial price that the state is paying. The country’s leaders need to understand that it has a price. I oppose a boycott of the State of Israel and am worried about the trend toward a boycott. Somebody needs to get a grip.”
‘Cannibalistic’ economic policy
Gal-On stands out in the Finance Committee meetings, particularly on the major issues she deals with: centralization, credit cards, the defense budget, fund transfers to the settlements and so on. She is also active in legislation for women’s rights. “The moment she touches a issue, she doesn’t let it go,” people in the Knesset say of her.
Last year, Gal-On waged battles with other MKs to tighten the centralization bill, which was proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. At the end of the previous Knesset term, she was instrumental in passing the haircuts law, which was relevant in the IDB case when an outside expert was appointed to examine the debt arrangement. She fights against the tax breaks granted to large companies and those companies’ aggressive tax planning, and waged a campaign against passing the “trapped profits” law. (So-called trapped profits are earnings that companies accumulated under the Law for Encouraging Capital Investments, which entitled them to tax exemptions on profits designated for reinvestment in Israel). At the same time, she opposed increasing the budget for the settlements, reducing cutbacks for yeshivas and increasing the defense budget.
She does not hesitate to cooperate with coalition MKs to promote the goals that are important to her. She often pushes parliamentary initiatives in the Finance Committee with the committee’s coalition whip, MK Gila Gamliel (Likud). Last year, she and MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) drafted a proposal for an “alternative state budget” that presented alternatives to the budget and increased social resources by raising the tax rate on “trapped profits.” During the Knesset’s previous term, she and MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) worked to get the haircuts law passed, and she is working with MK Haim Katz (Likud), the chairman of the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee on the law for direct employment in public organizations.
As the first year of the 19th Knesset comes to a close, Gal-On is trying to fortify her position as a fighting opposition, bypassing Labor, the main opposition party, some of whose MKs have set their sights on the benefits of joining the coalition. But Gal-On is not running into Netanyahu’s arms: At most, she will give him parliamentary support if he presents a significant peace agreement. She levels harsh criticism at Lapid, who is competing with her for voters on the left wing.
Gal-On is furious over the economic policy of Netanyahu and Lapid, calling it “cannibalistic.” “One should not manage budgetary policy by the direction of the wind in the morning. Instead, the policy should be managed with patience and restraint, and mainly with a worldview that strives to reduce social inequalities, and invest in education and fortifying stable growth over the long term,” she says. “Instead, Netanyahu and Lapid are creating a dangerous zigzag economy whose only goal is to push more money into the pockets of those who already have it. The time has come to restore sanity to our economy.
“Netanyahu and Lapid’s policy harms social solidarity and fragments social services. Those who earn a great deal should pay − and that is not passing the test. I see the tax benefits that the large corporations receive. How does it work? When there is a deficit, they take from the poor, but when the deficit turns out to be smaller than they thought, they give tax breaks to people who earn more than NIS 40,000 per month. Those who earn NIS 5,000 per month − for example, social workers and teachers − do not get tax breaks. In the top decile, VAT expenses are only eight percent of income, while in the lowest decile, VAT eats 27 percent of income. In other words, the government will keep on taking more from the poor to fund tax breaks for the rich.
“If Lapid were to walk into a room with a potted plant, an hour later the plant would come out with tax breaks. Who gets tax breaks? Those who are in the skyscraper of the uppermost thousandth, individuals and companies alike. The policy of imposing high taxes is applied to those who are unable to pay. Now, when there is money, they are not lowering the VAT rate. But what about the people who do not reach the tax threshold?”
Do you think that there is an economic leader today?
“Who? Can a prime minister who is looking for a tax shelter on the island of Jersey manage an economic policy and serve as an ethical model? Who does he care about? There is no courageous and firm economic leadership that is willing to confront the large unions.”
Gal-On says explicitly that she does not believe Lapid. She says that in a random conversation in the Knesset, he promised her that funds would not be transferred to the settlements − but they were, in large measure. “I do not believe him at all. A few months ago, he told me that he would not transfer money to the settlements, and in the end he turned out to be on their side: He transferred money to the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which builds in the territories. He said he would stop the transfer of funds to the settlements, while the map of national preferred zones that he submitted contains illegal outposts that were approved such as Rahelim, Sansana and Negohot. Places such as Kiryat Malakhi, Ashkelon and Ashdod were removed from the list. You can be credible as finance minister if you have an economic policy and worldview, but Lapid has no solid policy. He just goes with the flow. He is actually Netanyahu’s contractor: One acts and the other covers for him. Netanyahu is not ashamed of the fact that he is not in favor of equality and that he favors cutting back in the public sector and social services. Lapid favors cutbacks, but unlike Netanyahu he is concerned, clucks his tongue and is very disturbed by how things will be. I do not believe Lapid on a personal level because he makes promises that he cannot keep − for example about the settlements, the defense budget and the yeshivas.”
Do you think the government should nationalize Hadassah University Hospital?
“As things stand now, there is no doubt that the government must give money to Hadassah and not let it collapse. In exchange, it must take ownership and take responsibility for what happens there. The state must be involved in both its management and its ownership. The case of Hadassah is proof of the destructive nature of the private medical services program and that the private sector is not necessarily more efficient or free of corruption than the public sector. The only difference between Hadassah and the government hospitals is that at Hadassah the state cannot keep an eye on irregularities.
“Over the past few years, private medical services have expanded aggressively at the expense of the public services, and for only one reason: the ongoing neglect of the public health system by the government, which cut back on public services and allowed the private services − for which money is the sole motivator − to take control over the collapsing health system. Once the crisis at Hadassah has been resolved, the government must reconsider privatizing the health system, and the [Health Minister Yael] German committee must recommend doing away with private medical services instead of expanding them.”