Israelis Should Pray Their Frugal Finance Minister Keeps His Pledge

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Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a conference, November 2021.
Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a conference, November 2021.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Avigdor Lieberman became public enemy number one this week. The finance minister took fire from all sides for daring to say that the government should wait before compensating businesses whose operations have been stung by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The opposition attacked him furiously, but members of the governing coalition criticized him as well. Businesspeople condemned him, while the media lit into him with glee: He’s evil, devoid of sensitivity and is abandoning collapsing businesses. This merely reflects the fact that the easiest thing in the world is to be a populist journalist who says exactly what the public wants to hear.

But the truth is, populist journalists aren’t the only ones gleefully attacking Lieberman. Partisan “journalists” are assailing him as part of their undercover job – serving as opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s agents of chaos. They want to damage the economy, public health and everything else, solely to help Bibi return to power.

Herod (aka former Finance Minister Yisrael Katz) was also among the critics. He said Lieberman should be doing now what he did in 2020 – that is, pouring 160 billion shekels ($51 billion) into the economy and resume government compensation for people whose employers put them on unpaid leave.

But if he does this Lieberman will end up like Herod – the worst finance minister in history, the one who ended his term with the worst numbers: a huge budget deficit, a contracting economy and sky-high unemployment.

Netanyahu is also making a fuss. He urged the government “to immediately provide compensation and financial aid, like we provided – a generous safety net, [government-funded] unpaid leave, grants, compensation.” But what does “like we provided” mean? The ones who actually provided this money were the taxpayers, who will also repay it at usurious interest.

Bibi handed out tens of billions of shekels with no restraints purely for populist reasons. He wanted to win the next election so he could halt his corruption trial. Since being ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office, he hasn’t said a word in favor of vaccinations. As far as he’s concerned, let the pandemic run wild. Chaos brings him closer to power.

Herod and Bibi were an enormous failure, and we’re lucky that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government made four critical decisions that saved the economy – ending government-funded unpaid leave, which brought Israelis back to work; refusing to impose a lockdown, which saved the economy; giving booster shots, which halted the previous wave of the coronavirus; and passing a budget that included reforms, which extricated the economy from its hole.

The government must not destroy these achievements, so it mustn’t panic. Omicron began slowing economic activity only two weeks ago, and it’s likely that the current wave will peak in two weeks, according to the predictions of Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

It’s also important to remember that today there is no lockdown, so businesses are working – admittedly not at full capacity, but they’re working. So the moment infections start declining, the customers will return and businesses will recover. Also remember that 2021 was a year of hefty profits, so it makes sense to wait with any decision on compensation.

Politicians don’t usually say things like that. After all, they want to be reelected. So it was refreshing to hear Lieberman say, “I’ll make decisions only for substantive reasons. There will be no populist or electoral considerations with me.”

“Have you decided to commit political suicide?” I asked Lieberman. He replied: “I knew beforehand that the finance minister’s job is an ungrateful one. But the only thing that matters to me is the economy. It’s important to me to do only what’s right, and how that plays with the public doesn’t interest me.”

“Come on,” I said. “You’re surely hoping that in the long run, people will realize that you did the right thing, and this will pay you political dividends.”

“I’m not looking for a medal,” Lieberman said. “The easiest thing to do is to hand out money like Yisrael Katz did under public pressure. I’m someone who’s indifferent to pressure. I’ll only do what’s right. My job is to protect the public purse, not to hand out electoral bribes.”

So I asked: “But what if others in the cabinet pressure you to give handouts?” He answered: “I won’t agree to or do what isn’t right.”

Let’s hope he keeps that promise.

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