Will Yair Lapid's Check to Mrs. Cohen Bounce?

The new finance minister might not realize that when he makes an implied budgetary promise, there will always be someone to issue a bill.

In the 1980s, long before Facebook and Twitter, then-MK Yossi Sarid discovered that the best time to garner widespread radio coverage and make provocative headlines is over the weekend. Friday and Saturday are generally slow news days, when cabinet ministers and their spokesman rest up.

Yair Lapid, Israel's new finance minister, has a much easier time grabbing headlines but still seems to follow Sarid's ploy: Holiday after holiday, Shabbat after Shabbat, Lapid captures the public agenda. He manages to circumvent the newspapers, addressing the public directly through social media without being called to task.

On Monday, shortly before the holiday meal, it was his Facebook status that raised a major fuss. He wrote about a Finance Ministry meeting last week in which he said the treasury's job was not only to balance the budget but also to help out an imaginary "Mrs. Cohen of Hadera" - Riki Cohen, a 37-year-old mother of three who, together with her husband, earn around NIS 20,000 a month.

He described the family, who own their own home and vacation abroad every two years, as being in the unfortunate position of not being able to buy their children homes in the future.

Most of the comments posted by readers were negative, and justifiably so for a number of reasons.

Is this middle-class?

Lapid came off seeming quite clueless in his choice to give the Cohens an income of NIS 20,000 a month. Such amounts might be typical of his 500,000 voters inhabiting the top of the pay scale, but it is not common among Israel's middle class. Its members earn much less, do not vacation abroad every two years and their main worry is not about whether or not they will be able to purchase an apartment for each of their children.

The real Riki Cohen faces much more serious problems, such as the soaring cost of living, being able to afford an apartment for herself and landing a decent job.

Lapid also chose a stereotypical family with three children and stereotypical jobs: high-tech for hubby and teaching for the missus. There are other kinds of families that must be considered, such as ones with a single parent, for example.

Israel is also home to a quite a few Arabs and has a large periphery that has its own problems. Lapid's approach smacks of his main occupation, until recently, that of a newspaper columnist.

Lapid wrote his remarks at the end of the financial reporting season, when it became clear that the country's big businessmen went bankrupt and are not paying their debts to Riki Cohen and her counterparts.

But the bankers who gave the tycoons huge loans, the investment managers who bought billions in bonds from them and the people they employ to manage their enterprises continue to rake in annual salaries of NIS 5 million to NIS 10 million.

Executive pay at public companies is one of the most blatant expressions of economic inequality. Rather than Adam Smith's "invisible hand" or a free market, it reflects nothing but the 0.1% club riding the capital market where all the big money flows.

In fact, Mrs. Cohen and her like inject NIS 5 billion a year into the capital market while a trillion shekels in retirement savings and an additional NIS 1.5 trillion in other assets sit in the banks, investment houses and insurance companies.

Cohen et alia mistakenly think all this money is accruing to their savings, unaware that they are actually providing a few thousand individuals with insanely high salaries.

Dynamite before the budget cuts

Still, there is nothing blatantly wrong with kicking off a discussion by considering citizens' expectations of the state, even if it does look like a PR gimmick

Monday's status update also included quite a few dramatic comments, if one reads between the lines.

When Pinhas Sapir, Sarid's mentor, had Lapid's new job, every utterance by the finance minister sent shockwaves through the markets and affected the shekel exchange rate. While this is no longer the case, Lapid's remarks could be explosives, or at least lighter fluid, for anyone facing off against him with budget demands, especially on the eve of a new austerity program.

For instance, Lapid's almost incidental selection from the list of things that bother Riki Cohen: " the health system is collapsing around her " This is the same cry heard from doctors, nurses, nongovernmental organizations and nearly everyone who has entered the gates of Israel's public health system in recent years, but never from the lips of anyone in the treasury until now - and not by chance.

Treasury officials tend to focus on Israel's relatively high life expectancies and to dismiss talk of a system collapse as the words of extortionists or vested interests.

Even the Trajtenberg Committee, Lapid's new, private economics teacher, wrote that the health system is in fairly sound shape.

Lapid's remark can be expected to be thrown back at him over and over during what are expected to be exhausting but necessary deliberations over the health maintenance organization and hospital budgets, taxes on grants to medical residents, investment in vital reforms and more.

It could go even further: If the state, for example, is called on to defend itself in court and to argue that the public-health system is sound enough not to require additional funds or staffing, or budget, petitioners could use Lapid's posting to support their case.

There must have been a lot of gnashing of teeth this week at the treasury, and not only over this brief comment.

And then there's Lapid's throw-away phrase about "Riki Cohen's need for community activities." While seemingly innocuous, these words will no doubt boomerang almost immediately in the battle by the Israel Association of Community Centers against what it calls a methodical cutting of the centers' budgets, an attempt to privatize them, watering down the services they offer the public and even the threat faced by many of being shut down.

If Riki Cohen has an urgent need for community activities, how can Finance Minister Lapid explain how the critical activities of community centers are being threatened?

Lapid also worriedly mentions that the school where Riki Cohen teaches doesn't offer an extended school day - another hinted declaration of intentions bearing a huge price tag - as well as the lack of competition in the financial services market and that the police doesn't do its job properly: "If her house is broken into the police officer will merely fill in an insurance form," he wrote. Is he insulting the police? In any case it makes for a great argument when talking about boosting police staffing and salaries.

There are many other subjects Lapid left out but, intentionally or not, he pointed to several important areas the treasury will need to make top-priority. It's only Facebook, but this is Finance Minister Lapid and not columnist Lapid, or even candidate Lapid. He'll quickly discover that any such documented statement is a sort of check he'll need to honor and, not to worry, there'll be someone on the other side to hand him the bill.

Yair Lapid arriving at the prime minister's office.Credit: Michal Fattal

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