Netanyahu Putting Own Political Survival Over Israelis' Cost of Living

PM unwilling to go head-to-head with anyone, lest he endanger position as Likud leader.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Netanyahu in cabinet meeting.
Netanyahu in cabinet meeting.Credit: AFP
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

The old timers in the cabinet tried over the weekend to remember the last time, if ever, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had appealed a decision of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. As far any they know, such a step is unprecedented.

We should remind ourselves that in the current Netanyahu government, which was elected at the beginning of last year, appeals to the full cabinet of the decisions of the ministerial committee have become commonplace. Absent an appeal to the full cabinet, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decides the coalition’s position on upcoming legislation, thereby generally deciding its fate. And appeals to the full cabinet have become an elegant means at cabinet ministers’ disposal to scuttle legislation that they oppose.

Everyone knows that Netanyahu will do anything to avoid confrontation. As a result, every time a minister files an appeal of a decision of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, rather than facing a direct confrontation on the issue by bringing it to the cabinet, the prime minister lets the appeal languish and the legislation die.

This weakness on the prime minister’s part and his chronic aversion to confrontation has in fact brought about a surge in appeals to the full cabinet. No one, however, would have imagined that Netanyahu himself would take advantage of his own weakness to bury sensitive legislation that would give each of the two current licensees of Channel 2 their own station and along the way save financially-troubled Channel 10.

The step taken by the prime minister is so out of character that it generated rumors over what had gotten into

Netanyahu. Could it be that he had hoped that other cabinet ministers would pull his chestnuts out of the fire? And only when no minister was found who would agree to rescue him, was he forced to come out in the open and put a halt to the bill?

Unusual step

If so, it was an unusual step because what Netanyahu did last week was mainly to scuttle his own government’s legislation, and he did it by pulling strings behind the scene.

The major drama at the Knesset over the Economic Arrangements Bill, which accompanies the budget bill, is mostly associated with discrete work on Netanyahu’s part. Even after it was whittled down entirely, leaving in only four structural governmental reforms, it still did not overcome the hurdle of the Knesset. The hands of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avidgor Lieberman or Likud MKs Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Haim Katz may have been at play here, but the voice was Netanyahu’s.

It’s Netanyahu who detests the recommendations on healthcare reform of the panel headed by Health Minister Yael German. He therefore dispatched representatives of the Russian-speaking immigrant electorate, notably Lieberman, to scuttle the recommended limitations on private medical services which, if passed, would strengthen the public healthcare system. It was also Netanyahu who worked to have the Jewish National Fund continue to function as a petty cash account for Knesset members, enabling them to make political appointments or transfer government funding without public oversight. It was very handy for him, particularly as this petty cash fund is currently being used to transfer funds to the Jewish settlement enterprise in the West Bank without oversight. It’s an enterprise that is close to the hearts of Elkin, Levin and the other extremists in Likud. And might we recall that next January, Netanyahu is facing reelection in a party primary as Likud leader?

It is also Netanyahu who apparently is not overly enamored with efforts by the Finance Ministry to halt the growth of public expenditures through a regulation that would freeze the number of government staff. It’s not clear that Netanyahu has a fully formed view on the subject, but Haim Katz certainly does. The Histadrut labor federation and the major workers’ committees oppose the proposal, perhaps because of concerns that it will freeze the number of members of the Histadrut in the public sector. And on the eve of the Likud primary, it behooves Netanyahu to be nice to Katz. Thousands of employees of Israel Aerospace Industries who are registered to vote in the Likud primary take Katz’s word when it comes to how to vote.

The duplicitous game that Netanyahu is playing by allowing Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset members to be portrayed as extremists while they are mainly doing his bidding broke all records for cynicism over the past week. We should recall that Netanyahu began the week with public censure of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, saying that Lapid was not doing enough in the battle to bring down food costs because he hadn’t sufficiently reduced customs duties on food.

The statement was outrageous from the moment it was uttered because the person who more than anyone prevented customs duties on food from being lowered was Netanyahu himself. The Locker plan, which is named after the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Harel Locker, was an agreement signed with dairy farmers that nullified most of the recommendations of an official panel on reduction of duties on imported dairy products.

More outrageous

Netanyahu’s statement looks that much more outrageous now after he scuttled the two main provisions of the Economic Arrangements Bill that could have helped lower the cost of living. One relates to the de facto nationalization of the Jewish National Fund, an independent organization set up over 100 years ago to acquire and develop land here. The bill would direct 650 million shekels ($170 million) of JNF funds to eliminating impediments in the development of infrastructure and real estate.

As someone who was elected against the backdrop of his commitment to help reduce the cost of housing, Netanyahu certainly understands the significance of forgoing 650 million shekels in funding in the battle to curb housing prices in Israel. After taking the trouble to deride Lapid over his plan to exempt qualifying buyers of new homes from value-added tax, Netanyahu is deriding his own policy when he heads off a step that could have directly lifted barriers to new residential construction.

The second proposal was from Health Minister German’s committee, which included imposition of a tax on foreign tourists who come to Israel for medical care, and would indirectly also affect private medical services. All of the sums generated would go to the public healthcare system to reduce waiting times.

With all due respect to the publicity over the cost of Milkys, the popular pudding snack, Israelis’ expenditures on housing and private medical care are much greater and more important. The German committee, it will be remembered, deliberated for a year on a formula to strengthen the public medical system, which in the process would reduce high expenditures on private medical care. Cutting waiting times for medical care was a top priority of the committee, and the Finance Ministry allocated an additional 500 million shekels for the purpose (and an additional 500 million next year). It also allocated another 130 million that was to come from a levy on foreign medical tourism and private medical care.

Now at least a portion of that 130 million is in doubt. And that’s on top of the more severe damage caused by the failure to rein in private medical care in Israel. In practice, Netanyahu himself is forestalling a reduction in medical costs and a strengthening of the public healthcare system.

Why is he doing this? One version has it that it’s his neo-liberal outlook at work, and that he really doesn’t believe in limiting private medical care. According to another theory, it is a sop to Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party’s support comes to a large extent from immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Russian speakers are a major portion of the consumers and functionaries in the foreign medical tourism field. Imposing limitations on private medical care could have done harm to the hospital that the Assuta medical organization is building in Ashdod at a time when the city is an important power center for Yisrael Beiteinu.

It’s also possible that it is a sop Netanyahu is paying to all kinds of underground forces at work in Israeli politics, connected to pressure from and ties associated with the primary players that would be hurt by the German committee reforms – Assuta, senior physicians and the medical insurance companies, along with a few leading Knesset members from Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.

In any event, on the eve of the primaries, and perhaps even on the eve of an early Knesset election, the clear message coming from the Prime Minister’s Office is as follows: Don’t fight with anyone. No confrontations, no endangering of the utmost goal of ensuring Netanyahu’s reelection as head of Likud and then again as prime minister. All of the other principles along the way are to be sacrificed on the altar of reelection.

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