Profligate Lapid Needs to Become the King of Mean

The finance minister has been doling out cash like Santa Claus. That needs to stop now, or Israel is headed for a crisis.

Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler
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Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler

Yair Lapid is mad. He’s mad at Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. He’s furious over their demands for a bigger budget. People close to him say, “They won’t get a single shekel more, even if it sparks a political crisis.” Strong words.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the finance minister also bears much responsibility for the incipient crisis.

Lapid is to blame for the “I’ve got the money!” atmosphere he fostered. He acts like he is not subject to any budget constraints. In the beginning, he expressed deep regret over the cuts he was forced to make – as if the finance minister’s job is to be Santa Claus doling out gifts. Then he planted false promises that 2015 would be a terrific year in which we would see taxes lowered. That was followed by the newspapers receiving a relentless flurry of press releases about budgets he was allocating right, left and center.

For Lapid, it’s as if the election never happened and he’s in the midst of an endless campaign. And how do you sway people? By giving out treats and presents.

So Ya’alon was right when he said the treasury had money for everything except for defense. Just look: On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day – with perfect media timing – Lapid announced he was transferring a billion shekels ($287 million) into a fund for Holocaust survivors. Next week is Jerusalem Day, and there is talk that he plans to transfer some half-billion shekels to the capital – also with perfect timing.

If it’s so easy to hand over a billion shekels for Holocaust survivors, why can’t the army get a billion or so as well? Isn’t military training important? (The IDF cancelled all reservist training for 2014 on Tuesday, citing budget cuts.) Not that I support Ya’alon’s demands.

And it’s not just one or two billion, or just a few isolated instances. Lapid is getting to be a real specialist in handing out funds to countless causes, when his real job is to be the mean treasurer who reins in spending.

A few examples: At the beginning of the year, Lapid announced the transfer of 230 million shekels to the nutritional security program. Soon afterward, he transferred 405 million shekels to the Jerusalem municipality. His plan for a partial VAT exemption on the purchase of a first apartment will cost the economy 2-3 billion shekels, but the damage will go far beyond that. It signals to one and all that the coffers are full, when they’re actually empty. The plan even prompted Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel to come up with a lousy plan of his own: the target-price program, which will cost several billions more.

Lapid’s reckless behavior will cause newly elected Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn to ratchet up his demands for wage increases in 2015. And why not? Shouldn’t the workers get to partake a little from the Horn of Plenty, too?

Lapid doesn’t seem to want to understand that after the army and the Histadrut will come the budget demands from the settlers, exporters, farmers and all the other pressure groups. And there’s also the Alaluf committee, which Lapid did nothing to stop. Soon it will publish its findings on poverty – which will cost billions to address – and I can already see Lapid sitting next to Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen at a big press conference, both of them making extravagant promises they have no money to cover.

In olden times, ministers would present budget demands to the finance minister and he would rebuke them, saying, “I don’t have it.” In the end, they would compromise on something small and scaled-down. Now, in Lapid’s topsy-turvy world, he’s the great giver and they’re all beside themselves with joy.

And now that the sword of budget cutbacks is nearing the neck, Lapid proposes a magic solution: Increase the deficit! This is the height of irresponsibility. He doesn’t get that he’s playing with fire. He doesn’t want to recognize that this is a terrible road to go down, one that leads to deviations, deficits, debt, a lowered credit rating – and severe crisis.

We’ve reached the last minute when he can still stop. Now is his last chance to present a responsible budget for 2015. Otherwise, he will end his career in even worse style than former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

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