“Be Kahlons,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his ministers back in 2011. Some tried, most couldn’t. They might want to emulate former Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, reformer of Israel’s cellular industry. But most of them want faster returns. They don’t have the stuff to take risks and handle failure and pain – and unless you’re willing to take the risk of failure and pain, you’re not going to lead a meaningful reform.
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Almost four years have passed since Netanyahu referenced Kahlon, mainly in order to belittle and needle his ministers. But in the last month, it turns out, one man was actually listening.
Astonishingly, it isn’t the original Kahlon himself, who’s been campaigning for the next election on the back of his successful stint as communications minister. Many had thought he might be a fresh new voice in politics, but he’s been losing direction and momentum. So no, it’s not him. The new Kahlon is none other than Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid.
Almost everything Kahlon could have said in his election campaign to turn his Kulanu party into a centrist one that could capture the Finance Ministry and other “social” ministries is being said by Lapid: Fight corruption, the ties between big money and government, the interest groups, the tax militias – all are ideas that Lapid adopted in the last month, and he’s selling them with his trademark talent.
There is, of course, one snag. I checked the archives and also cross-referenced Google searches, and found that the contender Lapid who adopted these texts about fighting interest groups, the corrupt and so on, is apparently the same Lapid who served as finance minister since March 2013.
It turns out that the same Lapid who howled last week about the hundreds of millions of shekels streaming to the settlements last year is the same man who, as finance minister, approved the payouts.
Lapid, who’s suddenly talking about tax militias at the monopolies, turns out to be the same Lapid who, immediately after taking over as finance minister, allied with Ofer Eini, then chairman of the Histadrut labor federation and today consultant to Discount Bank – the same Eini who gave his girlfriend a job at the union, paying a million shekels ($254,000) a year.
We also found that Lapid – who said last week, “In Israel, the game hasn’t been played fairly for years,” and that “this is a war against the cost of living in Israel and property prices” – is the same Lapid who, as finance minister, watched property prices do nothing but climb, fast, over the last two years, enriching the rich even more and impoverishing the rest. Yair Lapid visits an Israeli center for guide dogs, December 2014. Next on election itinerary: kissing cute babies.
It also turns out that Lapid, who also last week talked about a “game that enabled a small layer of tycoons and top executives to get filthy rich, irrespective of their business performance,” is the same Lapid who did nothing to dismantle the business pyramids, the cross-holdings, the groups controlling the banks, or to heal other ills, despite inheriting the recommendations of the Economic Concentration Committee from his predecessor. Note his decision to allow Shari Arison, owner of Bank Hapoalim, to continue owning the construction giant Shikun & Binui, too.
Now for the craziest part
But the craziest part is when Lapid described what’s gone down in the Knesset and cabinet over the last two years as “a game in which billions of shekels passed from side to side, with no transparency or supervision.”
With no transparency or supervision? Are you kidding? Who exactly was supposed to see to that in the last two years? Who was the boss of Israel’s accountant general, the budget department, the Tax Authority, the Tax Revenues Authority – enormously powerful bodies that could have stopped every single shekel from moving an inch. Who?
Who could have sponsored laws to force Knesset members and ministers to make declarations of wealth? Who? Who could have himself published a statement of wealth and served as an example? Who could have headed the revolution, but chose instead to adopt the same methods as his predecessors? Who?
Lapid went on to say, “They turned politics and personal survival from a means into an end. That’s the only thing they care about – to survive on the job, take care of cronies, give jobs to the boys in the central party committee, take care of the unions that send people in buses to vote for them. From their perspective, politics is there to serve them. They’re not there to serve the public. As far as they’re concerned, the state is them.”
Bingo! Bingo! Bingo! Mr. Lapid, we have been waiting years for somebody to say that. We got all excited there. Indeed, well said! We could hardly have put it better, though we’d add something about corruption, disintegrating social solidarity and the erosion of faith.
Lapid’s words were especially refreshing after two years of watching, well, Lapid, do almost nothing, despite coming to the Finance Ministry with a tremendous mandate from the public to bring change. Pity he’s only saying these things now and not a year ago. With his rhetoric and skill, the new Lapid could have shaken the old Lapid out of his complacency, hubris and detachment.
There’s more. Lapid also said last week, “This is a war against wasteful governments. A war to narrow social gaps. A war against the politics of fear and hate What kind of nation do we want to live in? What kind of country do we want to leave our children?”
Okay, here the new Lapid is descending into the pomposity that sounds a lot like the old Lapid, but the direction is right. It really is a shame that Lapid the finance minister didn’t hear anything of that, mainly before the elections that propelled him to power, when – like his father Tommy [head of the secular Shinui party in the early 2000s] – he was saying that “we” have no problem because “we” are terrific and it’s “them” – people with earlocks and another culture – who are behind Israel’s economic ills.
Lapid never did apologize for selling that story, or misleading us about the source of our economic problems. He should apologize, given that as finance minister his cuts for the ultra-Orthodox were closer to zero than to billions – and it wasn’t because the coalition wouldn’t let him. It was because they aren’t Israel’s economic problem: that would be how the country is being run by interest groups.
As for the country we’d like to leave our kids, pity that the new Lapid didn’t ask the old Lapid that very question when the old Lapid was deciding to jack up the spending deficit rather than eliminating pork-barrel politics. (“Deficit” is a clean word for the dirty concept of leaving our children deep in debt.)
However, Lapid (I mean the outgoing finance minister one) can take credit for at least two things, though neither has been completed: Trying to contend with the Israel Land Authority; and backing Health Minister Yael German in halting the privatization of the health-care system.
The lesson they can learn
Now let us take a step back and touch on a lesson that Lapid (and Moshe Kahlon) could learn from the last two years. What both should say, as they vie to outdo each other on the “social” ticket, is that they can’t promise to handle the cost of living in Israel overnight. Or inequality. All they can promise is blood, sweat and tears. They can promise a long and painful path toward economic, cultural and social change in Israel. They can explain what most people already know in their hearts: that change involves fighting, and pain, and loss – including the loss of bad habits.
Kahlon needs to admit that his rapid success in cellular reform probably can’t be repeated elsewhere. Lapid needs to explain that giving hundreds of millions of shekels to Holocaust survivors or day care is not an achievement: Economic leadership isn’t about writing checks; anybody can do that. It’s about reorganizing the economy to be more efficient.
Kahlon needs to look us in the eye and say he means to act decisively against elements close to him, including the big tax militias in the public sector who are close to Likud – the party in which he grew – and including the gas tycoons – of whom one, Jackob “Kobi” Maimon, is a friend. His reform of Israel’s cellular industry was a tremendous achievement, given the clout the cellular tycoons had here four years ago. But the next groups Kahlon would have to take on are a lot closer to his old stamping ground and a lot more integrated into the establishment.
Lapid needs to look us in the eye and say what he’s been trying not to say out loud: That he will dismantle the banking and finance monopolies he’d been associated with in the past; that he understands the magnitude of his mistakes as finance minister, when he didn’t take on the powerful interest groups. He has to say: I failed, because I was too busy trying to please everybody and seek quick but fictitious “victories,” in order to sell them to you on Facebook.
Neither Kahlon nor Lapid have done these things – maybe because neither is mature enough for this sort of leadership, or because their advisers continue to say it’s the public that isn’t mature enough for such messages.
But it has to be said for both men that at least they’re talking about specific subjects and goals to improve the living standards of the people, while their friends Netanyahu, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni continue to sell us the same old stuff sold here 20 years ago – the stuff that brought Israel to where it is: a riven society in which hundreds of thousands of people have lost their faith in the state and themselves; a society where there is still a place for politicians like Avigdor Lieberman, who promise nothing (and need therefore deliver nothing), of whom nobody demands explanations over corrupt, cynical behavior; a society that is growing ever more distant from the vision and hope of the people who built it.