Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opening a new, economic front in his war against the legal system, urging protesters to rally in front of the Justice Ministry to protest what he claims is Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s foot-dragging in approving the prime minister’s aid program.
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Visiting a Jerusalem café on Sunday to publicize the reopening of restaurants, the prime minister asserted that Mendelblit was delaying a plan he presented during the visit to bring the unemployed back to the labor market.
Netanyahu’s caretaker government cannot undertake major initiatives without the approval of the attorney general, who has to verify that government money isn’t being used to advance political interests during the election campaign. In fact, Netanyahu has not yet put forward a concrete program for Mendelblit to examine.
Nevertheless, when asked whether the attorney general was the one delaying approval of the plan, Netanyahu answered, “We’ve been pushing them [the Justice Ministry]. Now the finance minister is acting. ... You come with all your friends, you come to the Justice Ministry, come to Salah al-Din Street,” referring to the ministry’s street address.
Ministry officials, who asked not to be identified, termed the remarks incitement and compared them to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for supporters to go to the U.S. Capitol, where they later stormed the building. “It’s shocking, but we’ve gotten used to everything,” said one official.
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Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz have been accusing Mendelblit of holding up their economic program, which they say is designed to help the economy as it exits the coronavirus pandemic. The claim resonates among Netanyahu’s followers and is in line with his wider campaign against the law enforcement system as he contends with three criminal indictments.
Six weeks ago Netanyahu and Katz unveiled their proposal, but didn’t present most of the program’s components to the attorney general for his approval. Only after Mendelblit’s office sent two letters and a month passed did he get the proposals. But the program wasn’t formulated as a draft law or formal cabinet decision, as the attorney general requires to issue an opinion. Rather, the text was a declaration of principles much like the original presentation six weeks earlier.
At the same time, the attorney general has been examining requests not connected with the coronavirus crisis, for example, one to expand the “medicines basket” of drugs subsidized by the government and others that didn’t appear in the original presentation.
Among those that already have been approved is a 500-million shekel ($150 million) grant to the disabled, which appears as item No. 4 on the Netanyahu-Katz program. The grant isn’t connected with the COVID crisis but to a 2017 agreement the government made with advocates of the disabled's rights. But because the government never submitted a state budget, the funding was never allocated. Another item that Mendelblit approved are new regulations that would let institutional investors invest more in infrastructure projects, originally proposed by the Israel Securities Authority 18 months ago. Katz has approved the plan and it is due to go to the Knesset for a vote.
Other proposals have been examined and are likely to be approved. The most important of these is a grant aimed at encouraging the unemployed to return to the job market. The latest version of the plan is very different from the one Netanyahu and Katz presented six weeks ago, based on a generous proposal designed by the National Insurance Institute. That met opposition from the treasury and now a more modest one has been submitted. It extends an existing program limited to workers who have been offered jobs at lower pay than they were getting before the pandemic.
Netanyahu claims that this program is being held up by Mendelblit, but officials said the latest version was only submitted for their approval last Thursday. An updated version, which clarified some of the questions Justice Ministry officials had, only arrived two days later. Officials said the program will likely be approved before the March 23 election.
Among the Netanyahu-Katz proposals that haven’t yet been examined and stand a poor chance of getting the go-ahead are grants of 12,000 to 100,000 shekels to businesses hurt by the coronavirus crisis. The program would cost 4 billion shekels. Netanyahu and Katz unveiled the plan just a week after the Knesset had already approved a grant program for businesses and the Justice Ministry wants to determine whether the new program is justified.
The best known and most contentious is the plan to pay a one-time grant of 750 shekels to every Israeli citizen in the bottom six income deciles. The problem is that the grant is widely seen as an election stunt and has little support from economists. Nevertheless, the Justice Ministry is giving it close examination.
Other segments of the program have yet to be presented. Among them is one to slash regulations in schools, and another would use unspent funds from the government’s coronavirus budget to fund different undertakings, among them operating during summer vacation this year to make up for school days lost during lockdowns.