It’s difficult to please the left. Before the new government was formed, they said it had no chance because Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar would join Benjamin Netanyahu and would never sit in a government with Mansour Abbas. The government was formed, but they remain sour. Now they’re saying, how long can it last? There are so many contradictions.
In six months’ time, when it’s become clear that the government has nevertheless survived, the sourness will have survived, too, now asking: So, what has it accomplished? What’s the big change? Where is the healing? What’s changed from the Netanyahu era? They’re all the same politicians.
Not so. If you’re not blind or embittered, you can already feel the change, less than two weeks after the government took office. Meetings begin on time and are run in an orderly fashion. Cabinet members don’t abuse and insult each other. You can see they have come to do their jobs. The cabinet has passed regulations in five minutes, which never happened under Netanyahu. Between the coalition partners is the will to reach agreements, rather than hatred. Israel’s relations with U.S. President Joe Biden have improved greatly. The bottom line: We have a prime minister who works for the people, not for himself.
We saw that this week, when it became clear that the coronavirus has returned. Under Bibi, nothing would have happened. He would have called a few government ministers, driven them crazy, checked what the Haredim wanted and made no decisions.
Bennett, by comparison, convened an extraordinary cabinet meeting Sunday evening (several hours after the weekly Sunday morning meeting) with the relevant ministers, experts and police officials. After reviewing the latest figures, they decided on a series of measures, such as assigning 250 police officers to enforce quarantine and other regulations, increasing the number of testing stations at Ben-Gurion International Airport and imposing a mask mandate there, and recommending that children aged 12-15 be vaccinated. Also agreed upon was heightened coordination between the health and transportation ministries, something that would never have been possible under Netanyahu.
Even Bennett’s way of talking to the public is different. He doesn’t spread fear or pat himself on the back, but rather speaks calmly about what needs to be done. So how can anyone claim there has been no change?
In the finance ministry there’s also been a revolution. Avigdor Lieberman came to get the job done, and the atmosphere has changed completely. He has introduced new work routines, appointed an experienced director general and has met with Histadrut labor federation leaders and employers over a package deal. His biggest task remains – to pass a national budget by November.
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The key test will be how large a deficit it contains. It’s a critical decision that will affect the size of the national debt, interest payments and Israel’s credit rating. Unfortunately, 2021 is a lost year. It will end with a giant deficit of 7.5 percent of gross domestic product, so the real issue for Lieberman concerns 2022. In internal treasury discussions, he has said it will be impossible to have a small deficit. The government needs to cover the costs of Operation Guardian of the Walls and other obligations.
These are excuses that must be rejected. Experience teaches that when a finance minister cuts spending and reduces the deficit, the private sector blooms, investment expands and the economy grows. Therefore, the 2022 deficit must be cut to no more than 2.9 percent of GDP. And to demonstrate to all that he is a serious finance minister, Lieberman must submit a plan to reduce the deficit further in 2023, to 2.5 percent of GDP.
If he does that, he will earn a reputation as a fearless finance minister, determined to do his job. The moment he sets a target of a small deficit, the rest of the cabinet will realize that there’s no one to talk to about increasing allocations. Instead of lists of spending demands, they will find themselves fighting to ward off spending cuts. That makes all the difference in the world. Tell me how big your deficit is, and I’ll tell you who you are.