Prime Minister Yair Lapid convened an emergency meeting on Sunday on the issue of the rising price of bread. He did so because the election is drawing nearer, and because of his assessment that the rise in bread prices could hurt him at the ballot box. His statement that the purpose of the meeting was to “completely stop the rise in the price of ‘standard’ bread” could have been phrased differently: to completely stop the possibility of losing votes to Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Netanyahu’s spirit is always hovering over Lapid’s actions. The economic campaign Netanyahu is running against Lapid leads to “emergency meetings” packed with participants on issues that don’t require it at all. Spending time on price-controlled bread – which the poorest 20 percent of the population spend just 13 shekels a month on, and which represents only 11 percent of the bread consumption by this one-fifth of the public – is to a great extent nothing but spin meant to hide a much larger problem: the cost of living in Israel.
Netanyahu is responsible for this problem, and today he pretends to care about the cost of price-controlled bread. After all, this is the same, familiar populist cynicism from someone who for his last 12 years in power was a resounding economic failure. As opposed to his term as finance minister, in which he promoted reforms, sometimes painful ones, even against his potential “base” – such as cutting welfare allowances – just to contribute to improving the Israeli economy, as prime minister Netanyahu acted recklessly and irresponsibly, in a way that was seemingly intended to “be good to the people,” but in practice harmed the country.
While standard bread is still under price supervision, on all other fronts nothing was done: Netanyahu did not open markets to imports of fruits and vegetables and did not conduct any significant economic reforms. He left the barriers and bureaucracy in place and allowed the large food importers and exclusive importers to make fat profits. He left Israel at a low level of competition with monopolies, oligopolies and highly concentrated industries that choke off competition.
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The result of this continued inaction is being felt in the flesh by Israelis these days: Everything here is expensive, from food to housing. Moreover, behind those prices lies a disgrace: For all his “concern” over the Israeli economy, Netanyahu insisted on not passing a state budget – just so he would not have to keep the prime ministerial rotation agreement with Benny Gantz.
So Lapid must be careful not to fall into the trap Netanyahu has laid for him. Bread may yet be revealed to be just a trial balloon in a series of obstacles that the man who’s been driven out of his mind by lust for power will set for him. A hasty, irresponsible response could very well damage the Israeli economy and present Lapid as someone who can’t withstand the pressure.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.