Pining for Bibi

The closer the elections approach, the keener the yearning for Bibi becomes.

Bibi as finance minister, that is. Bibi the keeper of the public pocket who dared to go where nobody had gone before, and where the next finance minister probably won't dare to go either.

It is tempting to reach all the wrong conclusions from the Bibi's political unpopularity as Likud leader. One might think he was grossly unrewarded for his efforts as finance minister, so why bother to work hard? In Israel, where most ministers devote as little time as possible to the affairs of their portfolio and as much time as possible to sweetheart jobs for the boys, it's an easy conclusion for politicians to reach.

But the truth is diametrically opposite. The truth is that his stint as finance minister saved Bibi as politician.

The truth is that his actions as finance minister brought him back from the political graveyard. Without those two years as finance minister, Netanyahu wouldn't even get the 16 seats that the polls are giving Likud in the elections tomorrow, on Tuesday.

The truth is that after his performance as finance minister, Netanyahu saved his own skin, precisely because he had not been a cowering public servant doing what was expected of him. On the contrary, Netanyahu did what he (or any finance minister) had not been expected to do. He did what he believed he should do, which is why he was so successful.

When Bibi meant what he said

Israel's politicians have get to digest the whole issue, namely the importance of candor. Even Netanyahu himself hasn't gotten the point, which is why he flounders as a fickle, unreliable politician. 

As finance minister, candor burned in his bones: Bibi as finance minister said what he meant, and meant what he said. Not only that, he was prepared to stand behind his own words and pay a heavy political and personal price.

Bibi as finance minister fought to institute principles that he thought would save Israel's economy. It worked, too, not necessarily in the sense of economic success (though that did arrive) but in the sense of improving his image.

Even people who opposed his policy as finance minister had to admire his courage, grit and faith. Even his sharpest critics admit that as finance minister, Bibi rose to statesmanship.

Bibi's problem began when he stopped being a statesman and became a politician again. The kind of guy who doesn't mean what he says and doesn't say what he means. Our problem is that his anticipated flop as politician will weigh on his achievements as leader, and on the conclusion that there is a reward for politicians who demonstrate courage.

Snow White and the 25 dwarves

Yet we still need somebody with courage. Despite the impression that Netanyahu's tenure as finance minister was so crammed with action that little remains to be done, that is not so. There are more important structural reforms that Netanyahu had not touched. No, that doesn't mean reform at the Israel Electric Corporation or Israel Land Administration, however necessary; this means reforms that nobody's so much as mentioned, namely, of the local authorities and of government in general.

Just yesterday Haaretz reported on its front page that the attorney general stopped the Education Ministry from allocating NIS 40 million to the ultra-Orthodox sector, to bus its kids to school. The attorney general ruled that the transport subsidy to the ultra-Orthodox sector is not reaching its proper destination anyway. He also disapproved of the positive discrimination of the ultra-Orthodox children compared with others. The Education Ministry said it would look into the matter.

The truth is that the Education Ministry doesn't have to look into anything. The Education Ministry knows perfectly well that much more than NIS 40 million a year disappear into the ultra-Orthodox education sector on who knows what purposes. The High Court of Justice already gave the Education Ministry three years in which to determine criteria for budget allocations to the ultra-Orthodox sector. The three years are almost up but the ministry seems to be twiddling its thumbs, possibly in terror of touching the red-hot potato of budgets for religious education.

That is just one lone example for the conduct of government in Israel. Or rather, of its failure to act. The cabinet has been called "Snow White and the 25 dwarves", and they aren't talking about cuteness, they're talking about the twisted relations between the Finance Ministry (Snow White) and the other ministries (the dwarves), which Finance keeps snowing to usurp their powers.

That twisted relationship has been caused by the Finance Ministry's belligerence, but also by the faintness of the ministries, which have given no good reason to trust them and their sensibilities.

Government in Israel has not changed since the days of the British mandate. It is antiquated. It is corrupt. It is dreadfully inefficient. It needs to be fundamentally reformed. But that would take a frontal attack on all the ministers; on all the mayors; on all the party centers who control the local authorities and who all together are responsible for the plague of political appointments. Will Israel one day have a finance minister with the courage for a confrontation like that?