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Israel's New Political Punching Bags

Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to then Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 27, 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to then Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 27, 2019. Credit: Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS
Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz

Meet the new punching bags of Israeli politics – the bureaucrats. When a politician wants to vent his frustration and beat up on somebody, he aims his fire at the civil servants.

Nir Barkat, who was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “finance minister-designate” during the campaign, was left without that ministry or any other ministry and is walking around with nothing to do. He was supposed to be the Likud party’s second most important politician, but reality and Netanyahu left him far behind Ofir Akunis, Gila Gamliel and several young politicians from the Kahol Lavan party, all of whom became ministers.

LISTEN: High priests, holy smoke and cannabis in the TempleCredit: Haaretz

The right person for Barkat to vent his frustration at would be Netanyahu, who forgot his campaign promise to appoint him finance minister. But he doesn’t want to upset the boss. Who knows, maybe Netanyahu will throw him a crumb next time?

He also doesn’t want trouble with the man who got the finance portfolio, Yisrael Katz. So what’s left? Lash out at the civil servants.

“The plan drafted by treasury bureaucrats is distorted and wastes public funds,” he tweeted. “Instead, we should directly compensate businesses that were harmed, and the earmarked six billion [shekels] should be given to Israeli citizens to encourage consumption. That way, we’d help businesses to grow and to bring their workers back ... This is additional proof that the treasury’s budget department needs to be dismantled and rebuilt.”

Evidently, he isn’t up to date. The idea he was attacking – giving grants to employers for bringing their workers back – was thought up by Netanyahu and his previous finance minister, Moshe Kahlon. Not the civil servants.

Netanyahu rushed to tell the world about the grants in a press conference before he had even informed the civil servants, and they didn’t understand where this whole story came from. Naturally, they obeyed orders and spent a month drafting the plan. But when they were already close to finalizing a model, Katz came along and altered it, then announced a new model “that I put together.”

Had it been up to the bureaucrats, the grant wouldn’t have been paid at all, or at least a different model would have been proposed. But Barkat never lets a fact confuse him. He hasn’t yet realized that his term as “former finance minister-designate” is already over.

Naftali Bennett is also beating up on the bureaucrats, this time from the opposition benches. He still has a lot of pent up drive to manage the coronavirus crisis, but he has no position. He has no interest in fighting with the ministers, but with the civil servants, why not?

“Health Ministry bureaucrats’ anti-testing ideology is destructive for Israelis’ health and income,” he tweeted this week. “It’s like a battlefield commander who doesn’t believe in intelligence and doesn’t want to know where the enemy is hiding.”

The coronavirus created serious economic and health crises simultaneously just at the moment of transition between a caretaker government and the formation of a new government. Netanyahu is the only person who has been in office since 2009; all other ministers, ministry directors general, civil servants, regulators, military chiefs of staff, police commissioners, attorneys general and prosecutors have already been replaced several times.

Thus one would have thought the address for such important problems would be Netanyahu. But the prime minister has created very strong deterrence among Likud members. Anyone who doesn’t fall in line with him is left out in the cold. Anyone who talks back to him suffers venomous smears from his associates. Therefore, they are afraid – very, very afraid.

Criticism of the bureaucrats stems from fear of confronting Netanyahu and his new ministers. Doing that evidently doesn’t pay, because he’s likely to take revenge. Likud’s political graveyards are filled with people who didn’t fall in line with him.

But such criticism has one clear implication: The ministers are irrelevant. They have no influence, don’t know what’s happening below them and are led by the nose by a gang of faceless bureaucrats who do whatever they please.

And if so, there’s really no reason to have 34 ministers. We could get by fine without any of them.

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