Urgent Tasks for Israel's New Government: Second Coronavirus Wave Is Only the Beginning

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Swearing in the 23rd government
Swearing in the 23rd government while maintaining social distancing, on May 17, 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

After almost a year and half of caretaker government, 33 new ministers came on board on Tuesday. Not all arrived with plans in hand. Most only learned which ministry they’ll be leading a few days ago.

But all have their work cut out for them just reviving their institutions: the ministries have been effectively paralyzed since the dissolution of the 20th Knesset (which led to three fruitless elections, culminating in today's unity government). They couldn't make new appointments. They couldn't get funding for new projects.

It's a new day today, but the rigid coalition agreements are likely to constrain the freshly minted ministers and prevent them from forging ahead with appointments, legislation or an agenda that would peeve their peers in the rest of the government.

Yet some ministers who fielded jeers because of lame-duck portfolios cobbled together just to gratify them do mean to make important decisions in the coming days, if only in the hope that they’ll finally make headlines for doing something.

At the Health Ministry: The coronavirus is still here

Brand-new Health Minister Yuli Edelstein will find his desk awash with tasks, but the coronavirus remains the most urgent. As he takes charge, the first wave of the virus seems to be ebbing, but the ramifications of the pandemic are still with us. His first mission is to take advantage of the hiatus in the virus’ spread in Israel to form a committee of experts to study the lessons learned from the crisis and make urgent recommendations, say within two weeks, how to prepare for what comes next: how to disseminate information better; tapping experts who had been sidelined; treating the sick — the virus didn’t evaporate overnight; make procurement plans; and factoring in the flu with the fight against the coronavirus this coming winter. (Ido Efrati)

At the Foreign Ministry: Reempowering the minister

Back when diplomacy still had international allure, the Foreign Ministry was considered a cherry. Now the best advice for the incoming foreign minister is to restore his status, which under Netanyahu bottomed out. The prime minister redistributed the ministry’s roles and cut funding. Morale sank low.

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi will first and foremost have to spell out to the international community and the ministry staff that he isn’t there to stay in Netanyahu’s shadow. In recent years Netanyahu has taken over the role of foreign minister, both formally and informally, especially when it came to ties with the United States. Ashkenazi’s meeting last week with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who didn’t bother meeting with Ashkenazi’s predecessor Yisrael Katz, was a good start in that sense.

Meanwhile powers are still being stripped from the Foreign Ministry. As recently as Sunday, Netanyahu announced that he had upgraded Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin by giving him responsibility to respond to action against Israel in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is a core function of the Foreign Ministry.

So Ashkenazi’s job will include taking back authority and funding from no less than 35 unrelated entities (as the state comptroller reported), first and foremost the National Security Council, which advises Netanyahu. A good start would be for Ashkenazi to ask his colleagues in the Kahol Lavan party, Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen and Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich, to work together to restore those superfluous ministries to their natural status: branches of the Foreign Ministry. (Noa Landau)

At the Defense Ministry: First of all, plan

The incoming Defense Minister Benny Gantz probably has several goals for his term in office (before his rotation to prime minister comes around). The most important one should be revisiting Israel’s concept of national security, which has been left stagnant for years, making it hard for the army to plan with an eye to the future.

Benny Gantz prepares for a press conference in Ramat Gan, March 1, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In Prime Minister Netanyahu’s previous terms, he had a fairly direct line to Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff, reducing the influence of the defense minister. But now, Gantz is also deputy prime minister, and he should take advantage of this. Decisions he makes now can serve him when he becomes premier.

Also, while the defense budget will remain huge, it too will pay the price of the coronavirus. Money earmarked for big-ticket projects may have to be diverted to civilian support. (Yaniv Kubovich)

At the Finance Ministry: Getting a million people back to work

The new finance minister, Yisrael Katz, faces two chief missions: to create a national budget for 2020 – Israel still doesn’t have one – and to get a million people back to work. The budget, always a hard nut to crack, will be a nightmare this year because 2020 may well end with Israel running a deficit of more than 10 percent of GDP.

On the bright side, the best time to drive actual reform is when there’s no choice. In 1985 the Peres-Shamir unity government implemented an economic stabilization plan that worked, and led to growth that persisted for decades. It also laid the foundation for a more modern economy. But its success has to be seen in the context of the disastrous conditions preceding it: hyper-inflation, a huge deficit and massive government involvement in business. Companies belonging to the Histadrut labor union and banks were collapsing.

Things are different now. The economy’s underpinnings are strong. That said, Israel needs reforms that will lower the cost of living, improve the quality of public service and boost productivity. And that was before the advent of the coronavirus, which has devastated tens of thousands of businesses at the cost of hundreds of thousands of mostly lower-income jobs. Katz will have to change focus from driving the economy to reining in the debt-GDP ratio and the budget deficit.

His first decision was to cut his own salary by 10 percent, indicative of where he thinks belt-tightening is needed: in the public sector. The private sector already paid the price of the coronavirus. Now his attention should be directed at jobs for all those people who had to be let go. (Sami Peretz)

At the Justice Ministry: Prepare for annexation

Among the important tasks the new justice minister Avi Nissenkorn faces are forming a search committee for a new state prosecutor; reviving the Judicial Appointments Committee; arbitrating the dispute over civil law regulations; and advancing in the project to put the courts system online, a drive that began during the time of the coronavirus.

Outgoing Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who became the Public Security Minister, participates in a handover ceremony, on May 17 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

But if Netanyahu keeps his promise to annex parts of the West Bank, the Justice Ministry will face one of its greatest challenges in years. It faces a lot of work.

Besides applying Israeli law to these areas, the registration of land will have to be regulated; and a solution must be found for the legal status of the Palestinians in the annexed areas. That could be complicated because the High Court of Justice has already criticized the status of “non-citizen residents” applied to East Jerusalem Arabs. Annexation will also almost certainly lead to a probe against Israel in the International Criminal Court, which will likely become the Justice Ministry’s greatest challenge. (Netael Bandel)

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