Israel's Finance Minister Can Still Prevent a Coronavirus Collapse

Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to then-Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 12, 2019.
Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz

Sooner or later Benjamin Netanyahu will realize that the damage caused by restricting the protests outside the prime minister’s residence, under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, is greater than the benefits.

There are now fewer demonstrators and less noise on Balfour Street, but hundreds of other protest sites have sprung up across the country, drawing in people who never were part of the hard core of protesters. They take to the streets because it’s easy to demonstrate near your home.

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They don’t buy the government’s claim that it’s curbing protests only because of the coronavirus. And the last thing this government deserves, in light of the shameful way it’s handling the crisis, is relief from demonstrations against it.

It’s possible that the closing of all the entertainment venues encourages more protests because there’s nothing better to do. This is one of the most scandalous aspects of the current lockdown. So many businesses will soon collapse purely because of the government’s linking of the lockdown with the scope of the demonstrations.

Netanyahu thinks it's important to disperse the protests, and the formula found for achieving this is a harsher lockdown than in March and April, which translates into restrictions on demonstrations.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan helped create this formula. He insisted that if there was a lockdown on par with the first one, there would be no reason to limit protests. That’s how the two most bitter enemies in this government became accomplices in promoting a crazy idea: closing businesses in exchange for curbing demonstrations on Balfour Street.

Finance Minister Yisrael Katz presented numbers at a cabinet meeting showing that, compared to the last lockdown, this one would cost between 1 billion and 1.8 billion shekels ($530 million) more every week. He demanded, for immediately after the holiday, the opening of workplaces that don’t face the public directly. He said this would save 6 billion shekels over two weeks.

Several months into the crisis, we may be used to such high numbers. But behind the data are thousands of businesses struggling under the yoke of debts, much lower turnover and the uncertainty deriving from repeated openings and closings. Many businesses simply won’t be able to survive this way.

The period after the Jewish holidays is usually one of accelerated decisions in the business world. Many companies start concluding their business plans for the following year. This time, the process will take place under exceptional uncertainty. The government hasn’t passed a budget, it has no strategy for recovering from the crisis, and its decisions are tainted by irrelevant considerations.

Under these conditions, running a business has become a dangerous venture. The absurd thing is that the government has created a model for small demonstrations, and for small-scale prayers and funerals (or big ones, such as last week’s funeral for a spiritual leader in Ashdod). But it hasn’t created a model for small businesses or for young children’s schooling.

Demonstrations and prayers have a democratic and spiritual value, but small businesses have an economic value, as does schooling; for example, for children up to the second grade. Making small businesses the bottom priority is a colossal and destructive failure. The government’s tools for reviving the business sector, such as grants, loans and subsidies for expenses, won’t help small businesses that simply won’t be able to survive a lockdown for another few weeks.

Such a closure has no health benefits, because the sources of infection are businesses that face the public. This lockdown has no psychological value either, since these businesses have low visibility. Netanyahu gets it, but he’s focusing on his personal battles, so he’s going along with the demands of health officials who are demanding a stringent lockdown.

This is a critical moment for Israel’s economy and the finance minister. Irrelevant considerations are gravely damaging the economy, harming thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of employees. Katz’s loyalty to Netanyahu can’t come at the expense of his loyalty to Israel’s economy, businesses and employees.

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