After every interview I have given over the past few months, there has been a response from the Likud party, MK Ophir Akunis (Likud) or God knows whom else. The responses never relate to what I have said, but involve a stream of personal and invective insults. Recently, even [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu joined in. In their obsessiveness, these politicians have only one competitor: Nehemia Shtrasler. Over the past year, Shtrasler has mentioned my name dozens of times in his column in Haaretz and TheMarker. He has dedicated entire articles to showing his readers I am an enemy of the people and even inserted my name in articles that seemingly have nothing to do with me.
If an alien had come to earth and relied only on Shtrasler for his information, he would have been under the impression that I have served as prime minister for many years and that Shtrasler is a brave opponent of my economic policies. Or the alien might conclude that I hurt Shtrasler personally and that he is using his newspaper column (and Channel 2 News, where he serves as a commentator) to get payback.
Neither of these two views would be accurate. In contrast to Netanyahu, who is my political opponent and justifiably worried about any increase in my influence, Shtrasler carries the job title of “journalist.” So I would be reasonable for me to demonstrate some modesty and assume he is frightened of something bigger than me, for which I am only a symbol.
I will follow suit and use Shtrasler as a symbol. He is a particularly good symbol because of his simple and burning faith. Please remember that whenever I use Shtrasler’s name here, it is not meant personally but symbolically.
In October 2008, in the aftermath of the largest bankruptcy filing in corporate history by the global investment bank Lehman Brothers, when the world was busy licking its wounds and learning lessons, Shtrasler, like Netanyahu, was quick to identify the culprits of the financial crisis. Under the headline, "The biggest robbery in history," he chose to attack me alone, accusing me of “taking malicious joy” in the crisis, which he described as "a pretty despicable human character trait." In the article, he defended the wealthy as heroes who we could only hope continued to exert their benevolent influence on the government.
"If we get hit with recession, we will pray that [IDB Holding controlling shareholder Nochi] Dankner, [Fishman Group owner Eliezer] Fishman, [Africa Israel Investments controlling shareholder] Lev Leviev or [El-Ad Group and Delek Group controlling shareholder Yitzhak] Tshuva return and build a new neighborhood, invest in a multi-story mall or perhaps establish a gasoline refinery," he wrote.
Only the parade music and basalt statues of Tshuva and Dankner were missing from these lines written four years ago.
It is amazing that even today, with wealthy capitalists’ corporations in crisis, wild over-leveraging, insider deals that spit in the public’s face, dividends that bleed companies dry, swinish salaries for CEOs despite worker layoffs, ridiculously small royalties for extracting national resource and aggressive bondholder haircuts – all phenomena that I struggle against – Shtrasler regards his sweethearts with unwavering affection.
In an article about two weeks ago, he defended, of all people, Nochi Dankner, his personal Alfred Dreyfus. According to Shtrasler, on the Day of Atonement, the nation of Israel should ask the tycoons for forgiveness. His assiduous defense of a handful of masters of the universe is matched only by his attacks on anyone who is not like them. He camouflages these offensives with the painfully populist phrase: “Don’t let them deceive you!”
Don’t let Shtrasler deceive you: He is defending the capital of the few, at your expense. Whether you are a doctor, business owner, textile factory worker, high-tech employee or security guard, Shtrasler is actively working against you. When he calls for slashing public services to "to get rid of the fat" and ignores that Israel’s public civilian expenditure per capita is next to last among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nations, he is really calling for the government to privatize the jobs of social workers, teachers, computer programmers and nurses. He is also saying that the health services and education you are entitled to free of charge will dwindle and you will be forced to pay for them from your own pockets.
When Shtrasler preaches the free market at all costs and the removal of price controls, he is abandoning you to insane price increases. As the most recent State Comptroller's report pointed out, the spike in the price of cottage cheese was not due to efforts to protect farmers and Tnuva employees. Rather it was the result of deregulation, which allowed Shtrasler's wealthy friends, and their lackeys, like Apax Partners Israel CEO Zehavit Cohen, to squeeze you. Statistics show that when input costs increase, so does the final product price. But when input costs decrease, the final product price still increases. High prices are because of swinish behavior, not because employees are making a fair wage.
When he sings songs of praise for the tycoons, Shtrasler is advocating that hundreds of thousands of small and medium-size business owners who are gasping for air be choked off from all credit while his idols continue to use unlimited bank and non-bank credit to gamble with the public’s money. When he calls you envious, he wants you to fall silent and say thanks (and sorry) when the tycoons trim your savings with bond haircuts, as Tshuva, Joseph Maiman and Ilan Ben-Dov are doing now, and others are will do soon.
The most serious crime that Shtrasler accuses me of committing is defending workers' livelihoods. He even deceptively accused me of this in the last few seconds of an interview on Channel 2's weekly news wrap-up Studio 6. He intentionally attacks “fat unions,” ignoring the people they represent: a worker earning minimum wage on Tnuva's production line, a dairy farmer who rises in the middle of the night to begin his day, a laborer who toils beside a cement furnace in temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius or a put-upon cashier from East Jerusalem whose leaders have abandoned her at the doorstep of a sprawling Rami Levi supermarket – where chicken is a shekel per kilo. For her, even earning minimum wage is a fantasy. And whom does Shtrasler defend? Rami Levi, who along with his wife drew salaries and company dividends worth millions of shekels but refuses to sign an agreement with the Histadrut labor federation that would raise the salary of the cashier by a shekel and a half. The cashier has no union at all, but how important are workers, really?
Where does this viewpoint leave us? With no state, no government, no regulator, no ethics, no law and order, no public health, no organized labor, no democracy, no minimum wage and ten families dominating the country. In my vision, there is a state and it has a moral, leadership and regulatory role to play. In the state I would like to live in and lead, industry is robust and remunerative and the manipulative leveraging of capital is strictly constrained.
In this kind of country there is a flourishing free market and a government that takes responsibility for health, education, security and a just legal system. It is a country where a person's right to make a living is defended. It is a country that nurtures small and medium-size business rather than letting them decay, and where the public enjoys the fruits of its natural resources and is not satisfied with pitiful royalties of 3 percent. The choice is between a fair economy and just society or the Darwinian jungle that Shtrasler is fighting to preserve.
The writer is a Knesset member and leader of Israel's Labor Party.
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