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Israel’s Lawmakers Don’t Care About the Budget – Which Is Great News for Netanyahu

Stav Shaffir
Stav Shaffir
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset for the vote on delaying the budget deadline, August 24, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset for the vote on delaying the budget deadline, August 24, 2020. Credit: Oren Ben Hakon
Stav Shaffir
Stav Shaffir

A few weeks after I voted in the Knesset on my first national budget as a lawmaker, I attended a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee. Suddenly my desk was covered with spreadsheets filled with changes to the budget – the same budget we had just approved.

How Trump demolished dishonest Netanyahu's non-denial denialCredit: Haaretz Weekly

The agenda for the meeting had not been issued in advance. When I asked why, committee Chairman Nissan Slomiansky replied: “It’s a technical matter, we vote and leave.”

I quickly riffled through the stack of pages. That “technical matter” included cuts totaling 10 billion shekels (around $3 billion), among them in education and public transportation. When I asked why, they laughed at me. “That’s the system. Did you come to make trouble?”

A journalist who was there advised me not to bother with the budget. “It’s boring, no one will report on it; it’s of no interest to the public.”

The same day, I posted the whole thing on Facebook. The public did in fact show interest in what the government was doing with their money. Hundreds of volunteers joined me, and together we stopped corruption amounting to billions of shekels and helped shine a light on the political monies.

Our disclosures motivated the state comptroller to determine in a report that more than 15 billion shekels are cut regularly from social services for the benefit of political goals. Money that had been earmarked for the Gaza Strip after Operation Protective Edge in 2014 went instead to charities of the Habayit Hayehudi party. Money that was supposed to go to housing was diverted to pay for private security for Jewish settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

Few were the politicians and journalists trying to bring this to the public’s attention. The budget? It bores them. Likud MK Miki Zohar swears? It goes viral! That’s how politicians learn that it doesn’t pay to look too closely. You don’t get media coverage from sitting in Knesset committee meetings, and the “treasury boys” in the Finance Ministry will threaten anyone who works with them the second they realize they’re determined to stop the dirty dealing. Afterward, the government will mount a well-publicized campaign arguing that these nosy people don’t understand anything and are merely “screaming for the cameras.” Who knows that better than I?

But the Knesset is the only place where it’s possible to guarantee that the state budget works on our behalf and can be used to rebuild the economy. That’s its purpose. This week, the legislators gave up on it when they passed the law to delay the budget deadline.

Some called it “the law to postpone the election.” That’s a dangerous misdirection. In the absence of a budget, our money is managed by clerks who don’t report to the public. They don’t appear before the Knesset Finance Committee. They change the budget behind closed doors. And we know that where there’s no supervision and no transparency, there is corruption.

There’s another trick: Precisely when public services need significantly more funding, the state is operating on the 2019 austerity budget, which the Knesset approved in 2018 and was originally drawn up in 2017! As a result, it’s possible to say “Sorry, there’s no money” to a charity for poor children or Holocaust survivors. That’s a lie. It’s just that it was decided to put the money somewhere else. Now the mayors of communities with a low tax base will have to beg the cabinet, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will demand consideration in return.

For him, it’s a dream come true. The Knesset stopped taking an interest in the budget. A man who is on trial for three corruption offenses can do anything he wants with our money. There’s no oversight, no record, there’ll be no investigation. They postponed the deadline for passing the budget by three months? A different lawmaker will appear later on and there’ll be another delay, perhaps even longer. And if the Knesset doesn’t care about the budget, Netanyahu and his mouthpieces in the media are sure to question why we even need one.

The budget is not a technical matter. Rather, it’s the most important law to come before the Knesset. It determines how many children are in each classroom, the number of beds in the hospitals and the future of people with special needs. The Knesset gave up on it.

When it voted this week to postpone the budget, it ruled that we, the people, lost our right to it and the government can do anything it wants with it. It’s not “the law to postpone the election.” It’s the law to postpone democracy.

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