Lapid’s New Politics Smack of the Old

If the finance minister was really interested in addressing the causes of inequality in Israel he would do more than set up an ad-hoc committee.

Sami Peretz
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Sami Peretz

If I were a woman I'd have wished that last week would have lasted forever.

In one week Karnit Flug was appointed the first female governor of the Bank of Israel, Lilach Asher-Topilsky was named the third female CEO of a major bank and a committee was formed to look at the state budget for the first time from a gender perspective and examine "to what extent the distribution of resources meets the needs and priorities of women and men," according to the Finance Ministry's press release.

True, women didn't rate any great success in the municipal elections except for isolated cases like in Be'er Sheva where seven of the 14 members on re-elected Mayor Ruvik Danilovich's slate are women.

Let's skip for now the obvious jokes about the priorities and budgetary needs of the two genders and congratulate Finance Minister Yair Lapid for deciding to look into the issue, even if he was motivated by image and public relations considerations.

Inequality between women and men in Israel is an undisputed fact. It is reflected in the considerable wage gaps and opportunities for job promotion, but not just those. Inequality often imposes a different lifestyle on women than for men who are completely in the dark about restrictions bothering women. For instance, several female friends like to jog but are afraid to at night in the park or fields. Installing lights in these places is therefore a gender issue.

It was MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) of the finance minister's party who led the push to establish the committee. Lavie has academic experience in this field and a thorough knowledge of gender issues. She and MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) should be congratulated for their involvement in the initiative. The Finance Ministry's deputy budget director, Yael Mevorach, will head the committee and its members will include economists, academicians and officials.

But here's where the congratulations end. Inequalgrown over the past three decades and we are now among the most unequal countries in the developed world. There is no better time than now to dive into the depths of the sources for the ballooning inequality, map them out and provide answers. Gender issues aren't necessarily the main factor in the rise of inequality. It is just one of many issues, such as Jews vs. Arabs, center of the country vs. outlying regions, oldtimers vs. new immigrants, Russians vs. Ethiopians, Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim and tenured workers vs. contract laborers – that can be examined and identified as the roots of inequality.

Why only gender?

So what does Lapid do? Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity and asking the committee to look into inequality from various points of view, he restricts its activity to the gender issue alone. Why? Does he really think the gender issue is the main culprit in the rise of inequality? Does it make him feel good to promote the role of women and establish a committee in their honor? Because it's good for his image? Or because he actually has no real interest in probing the sources of inequality and providing real answers?

Lapid is well aware of the enormous gaps in Israeli society, the high rate of poverty, as well as the strong chance of Israelis falling into poverty. Last week he even permitted his fellow party member, Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen, to set up a committee – yes, another committee – to deal with "the war on poverty," this one headed by Eli Alalouf of the Rashi Foundation, who has some nice accomplishments under his belt in the social realm.

Forming committees has always been a good way to shut some people up and chill the atmosphere by arguing: "What more you do want? There's a committee looking into it." Is Lapid merely silencing his party members who are bugging him – one about gender issues and another about poverty?

It's definitely likely. But it's already clear that forming these committees won't really make any impact whatsoever on inequality and poverty. This is because, in order to examine these issues, a bit more public courage and strategic vision is needed. Ad-hoc committees aren't endowed with enough of those qualities.

No government in Israel until now has had an interest in really dealing with inequality. This is a huge subject and the conclusions could involve power struggles with all the mighty interest groups in the country that nobody has the stomach for this – not even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So they pursue subtopics – women, the war on poverty – and don't talk about the socioeconomic method in its broader perspective.

It's as if poverty has nothing at all to do with the heavy budgetary expenditures on defense (including the military's excessive retirement benefits and pensions), the disproportionate budgeting for settlements compared with development towns in certain years, and the huge gaps in the labor market between the very privileged and underprivileged classes of workers, or the discriminatory educational funding between Tel Aviv or Ofra compared to Yeruham and Rahat.

The knowledge and information exis. Education Minister Shay Piron can tell Lapid about the huge disparity between resources invested in state-religious schools and Arab schools. Dimona's Meir Cohen and Herzliya's Yael German can contribute data about the contrast between populations in metro Tel Aviv and the country's periphery. Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry can tell him about the differences between organized and contract workers at the banks and add something about the pensions for security services personnel compared to those in other sectors. Yesh Atid MKs Shimon Solomon and Pnina Tamano-Shata could certainly find something to tell him about discrimination of Ethiopians.

Entrenched disparities

Lapid had the rare opportunity to form the party of his dreams where he could give expression to most of Israel's sectors and streams. But that's easier to do in a party where you wield absolute control than in Israeli society where rigid class disparities have become entrenched.

Yes, it's frightening. Opening a genuine discussion on the roots of inequality in Israel could stir up the country and cause uneasiness among many sectors. Anyone gaining from the status quo won't let their little piece of paradise be disturbed. We saw this after the summer of 2011 protests clamoring for social justice when nobody was willing to pay the price.

Lapid can continue dealing with subtopics in ad-hoc committees and maybe even put out a fire or two and calm his activist party members. But if he and Netanyahu are truly interested in addressing poverty and inequality they should combine the gender and poverty committees into one and task it with examining inequality and poverty in Israel from all sources and put a heavyweight public personality in charge. Running away from dealing with this need will illustrate that there isn't any new politics here – just more of the same. 

Finance Minister Yair Lapid.Credit: Emil Salman

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