The Union Chief May Not Be a Socialist but He Could Be Israel's Next Finance Minister

In an interview, Avi Nissenkorn stresses his commitment to a free market

Union chief Avi Nissenkorn, who recently joined Hosen L’Yisrael.
Eyal Toueg

Avi Nissenkorn, the union chief who joined Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael this week, will have the No. 3 spot on the party’s election list and be its chief spokesman on socioeconomic issues. That aroused concerns that if Hosen L’Yisrael forms the next government, Israeli economic policy will tilt sharply to the left.

As a career official in the Histadrut labor federation and its chairman since 2014, Nissenkorn has already colored Hosen L’Yisrael with a socialist tinge. In a Gantz government, Nissenkorn could easily emerge as Israel’s next finance minister.

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Perhaps that’s why in an interview with TheMarker, excerpts of which appear below, he reiterated his support for free markets even when the question didn’t relate to that.

Asked if his leadership position in the party will raised fears about “socialism,” Nissenkorn responded: “I am a man of balance. It’s important to me that the economy is free and stable. I am a very responsible person who studies things before I act on them.”

Nissenkorn’s decision to join Hosen L’Yisrael breaks a long-standing link between the Histadrut and the Labor Party. It had appeared to be in force as the labor federation and Nissenkorn himself took an active role in Labor’s primary a few days earlier.

It also came as a surprise because Nissenkorn had formed a good working relationship with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is also chairman of the Kulanu Party. But for Nissenkorn, neither is a viable partner – both are doing poorly in the polls and Kahlon is a declared ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Nissenkorn wants to see out of power.

“He is worn out, he mixes his personal interests with the state’s. His way leads nowhere, we have to look for unity and not division,” Nissenkorn said.

You have spoken about reducing income inequality, but according to the Gini index inequality has actually shrunk over the last decade. Doesn’t Netanyahu deserve the credit?

“When Netanyahu was finance minister [in 2003-05] , the Gini index was at a high of 0.39 – and the gaps had become extreme. In the last few years we have succeeded in lowering the index to 0.35, despite the prime minister’s policies. There are still high levels of inequality and poverty because of policies that Netanyahu has led.

“We need to find a way that the economy will grow, be free, encourage entrepreneurship and enjoy high levels of productivity, but on the other hand will have compassion and respect the working person and worry about the middle class.”

But will inequality has shrunk and the unemployment rate is just 4%. Isn’t that somehow connected with Netanyahu?

“The cost of living has reached crazy levels during the decade he was prime minister, Housing prices are at record highs because of him – he is responsible and didn’t do anything to solve it. Israel is 15% more expensive on average than other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and too many people are in poverty.

“Thanks to my undertakings, like raising the minimum wage and allowances for the handicapped, inequality is falling. None of these undertakings was taken at the initiative of the prime minister.”

Kahlon has called Nissenkorn a man of the left when it comes to political issues. How would you characterize yourself?

“I’m a centrist when it comes to politics. National security comes first but at the same time we must have hope and see whether we can reach a political settlement [with the Palestinians]. Right now, we need to see how we can build confidence and develop confidence-building measures that will improve the condition of the Palestinian population.”

Yoaz Hendel, another Hosen L’Yisrael candidate, has described the party’s position as advocating compassionate capitalism. Is that how you would define it?

“I wouldn’t define it as capitalism with compassion. Our vision is a free market that gives room for free enterprise and growing GDP – side by side with a compassionate balance and concern for the weakest sectors of the population. A counterweight to market failure.”

Is it a given that if Gantz forms the next government, you will be given the finance portfolio?

“No. Who knows how the coalition will look. I agreed with him that I would get a senior economic portfolio. We didn’t discuss which and it wouldn’t be wise to speak about which one before we have a map of the coalition.

“On the matter of capabilities, I have them for any and all senior economic portfolios. It’s clear that I would prefer the treasury.”

Let’s say you get a senior economic portfolio. You have a 10 billion shekel ($2.8 billion) budget shortfall for this year and next. How will you address it? Increase the deficit, raise taxes, cut spending?

“It would be wrong to relate to this. Assuming I am finance minister …. on my first day in office I will meet with senior staff and develop perspectives and targets, after that I’ll have an answer for you.”

Do you have any answers for what to do about the high cost of living?

“The high cost of living comes from two places – housing and food. It’s clear that the solution regarding food is to continue the policies of injecting more competition into the market. But we also need to examine all the links in the chain that lead to high prices for the consumer. This is a serious market failure which is hard to understand, much less cope with. There’s no magic solution.”

And housing?

“Also with housing there is no magic solution. We need to build all over the country and find solutions for the weakest. Massive construction will create market forces that will bring down home prices. We also have to ensure that state-owned land is sold at low prices.”