Opinion

Israel's Treasury: A Tale of Two Moshes

In Israel there was once a finance minister named Moshe Nissim; the current holder of that office, Moshe Kahlon, is his exact opposite, unfortunately

Moshe Nissim meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hand over his recommendations for the conversion system in Israel, June 3, 2018.
קובי גדעון / לע"מ

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is feeling the heat. He wants elections now, the sooner the better, before his shame becomes evident to all.

For him, early elections would be a lifesaver. The further we get into 2019, the more growth will slow, the more the deficit will rise and the worse the chaos will become. Therefore, it’s to his advantage to end the government’s term now. Since his party his 10 Knesset seats and he’s an experienced political fox, he’ll succeed in this mission. Thus elections will take place within the next six months or so.

>> Why the timing of the Israeli election matters so much to Netanyahu and his rivals | Analysis 

One finance minister whose policy was the diametric opposite of Kahlon’s was Moshe Nissim. No additional funding was given to any pressure group in the 1980s. But the big question is how Nissim managed this without creating antagonism, anger and hatred among the people he turned down.

One day, then-Education Minister Yitzhak Navon asked to meet with Nissim about the budget. On the appointed day Navon showed up together with 20 department heads and other ministry staffers. The conference room was completely full. Nissim opened with a few words about the Torah and then moved on to grammar, a subject on which Navon was a leading expert. The conversation flowed smoothly, and thus an hour and a half passed in learned discussion.

After that, the Education Ministry staffers laid out their demands, and Nissim explained at length that staying within the budget was a necessary condition for growth and employment. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and Navon left happy, together with his entire entourage.

Moshe Kahlon at a press conference in Jerusalem, November 26, 2018.

But then, about three minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Navon entered, stuck his hand in his pocket, pulled it out to show it was empty and said, “What did I get? Nothing!”

Some time later, Navon’s wife ran into Nissim and told him warmly, “We won’t forget your respectful treatment of Yitzhak.”

Later in Nissim’s term, nurses launched a prolonged, difficult strike. During the strike, Nissim traveled to Washington. Prime Minister Shimon Peres was feeling pressured and told him he had to return immediately “to end the strike.” It was clear that “end” meant giving in to some of the nurses’ demands.

A few days later, Nissim returned to Israel. The moment he landed at the airport, he announced, “We have to stay within the budget; strikes won’t help.” But the days passed and the patients’ suffering increased. Finally Yisrael Kessar, who headed the Histadrut labor federation, got involved and requested an urgent meeting.

At that meeting, Nissim began with a long discussion of the weekly Torah portion, and Kessar responded with anecdotes and jokes, until there was no time left to talk about the strike. Then Nissim said, “I have an idea. Yisrael, who’s your best man?” “Haim Haberfeld,” Kessar responded. Nissim replied, “I’m choosing my best man, David Boaz, and the two of them will meet and reach a solution.”

And that was the end of the discussion. Boaz never called Haberfeld, and Haberfeld didn’t even try to call him. He knew Nissim wouldn’t give him anything.

Yet Peres continued exerting pressure, and finally Nissim told him, “I can’t give in to the nurses’ demands and still remain finance minister.” Ilana Cohen heard this, understood who she was dealing with and sent the nurses back to work.

Today, when Kahlon hears so much as a hint that Histadrut head Avi Nissenkorn might call a strike, he immediately capitulates without a fight and hands over billions of shekels. So is it any wonder that there are no strikes, but the deficit is exploding?