Who Will Turn Off Israel’s Cash Pipeline to the Settlements?

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Knesset Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky, right, sitting next to Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Credit: Michal Fattal

I often wonder whether Yair Lapid is a real person or the product of a high-tech startup, one that has linked an algorithm for analyzing public opinion polls with text-writing software and computer-generated animation to produce a face so detailed it looks human, even if it is only a pixel deep. At the least, I have to doubt whether there is any connection between the Lapid who writes on Facebook and whose speeches appear on YouTube with the Lapid who is allegedly Israel’s finance minister, responsible for the bureaucracy that writes and administers the state's budget.

Take the speech that Lapid gave at the Herzliya Conference. Yes, this was more than twenty daily news cycles ago, almost beyond human memory. But forgetfulness is what allows Lapidware to fool us, so let's strain to remember: Settlements, he proclaimed, are costing us too much. "Somewhere between Itamar and Yitzhar is buried the money that could be used for smaller classes, better health services … and also for Iron Dome [batteries] and Arrow missiles."

It was hard, Lapid said, to blame "the settlers" for acting on their faith. (The Hebrew word he used for "faith" alluded specifically to the belief that settling the Whole Land fits God's plan for redemption.) The problem, he declared, was lack of a coherent government policy. He proposed that Israel draw a map of its own future borders, which would include the large settlement blocs, and to stop building beyond those borders.

The lesser flaw in that speech was the crowd-pleasing distortion of history. For Lapid's natural constituents, it's convenient to think of the debate over settlement as part of the secular-religious conflict. Since the summer of 1967, though, the dominant force behind the disastrous national project of settlement has been the Israeli government - to be precise, a succession of secular-dominated governments. Much state money has been "buried" in Yitzhar and Itamar - and almost certainly much more in Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel. The location of the latter settlements was also chosen to fragment the contiguity of the West Bank. To claim to seek a two-state outcome while continuing to spill state funds into the so-called blocs, and into expanding Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, is either foolish, hypocritical or deliberately deceptive.

And here lies the greater flaw: Lapid heads the ministry that keeps the cash flowing, and that is most responsible for the fact that the public has no idea how much money is gushing through the pipeline. Since his speech, Lapid has shown no sign that he is aware of this.

Numbers for settlement spending do sometimes surface, but they are always fractions of an unknown whole. Last week, for instance, a Reuters reporter wrote that she'd been given a look at the unpublished spending figures that the Central Bureau of Statistics annually gives the U.S. government. (The reported amounts are deducted from American loan guarantees for Israel.) The numbers include funding for housing and for infrastructure "not needed by the military." They don't include spending in East Jerusalem. For 2012, the last full year reported, the sum was $360 million - equivalent to over $1,000 in extra government spending per settler.

But we, the public, don't know how the CBS reached those numbers. As a small example, we don't know which roads supposedly built for military purposes actually serve settlements, or the military task of guarding settlements. We don't know what it costs the IDF to send soldiers from highly trained units for rotating guard duty at settlements, including unauthorized outposts, or how much the state spends on security coordinators at outposts even as it cuts parallel positions at Israeli communities near Gaza. We don't have a clue as to how much of the total military budget is really settlement outlays. We're equally clueless about how much more the Education Ministry spends per pupil in settlements, and about the price of salary benefits for teachers living in settlements. The outlays are so thoroughly woven into the state budget that we don't have any idea of how much we don't know.

The people best placed and trained to find out are in the Finance Ministry. Lapid could order them to comb through the budget and publish a full accounting of the buried billions. He could ask for a budget proposal for next year redirecting funds to hospital beds, classrooms, affordable housing in Tel Aviv and, yes, Iron Dome batteries. He could set off an economic debate 47 years overdue.

Since he has not done of this, I have to wonder whether a person or an app gave that speech only weeks ago. If Yair Lapid exists, perhaps he is a 21st century version of the Wizard of Oz, a small man with an amplified voice and an oversized pixel-deep image.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter.

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