Eli Yishai Could Teach Netanyahu a Lesson

In recent months, the office of Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai has become the address for Wisconsin plan opponents. Every day, the office fields dozens of angry phone calls - mostly from Shas voters - which the officials strive to answer patiently and pleasantly. The callers are spluttering with rage about the terms of the Wisconsin welfare-to-work plan. Some are outraged that the plan forces them to work as a precondition for receiving more state aid.

It's no coincidence that Yishai's office has become a magnet. Yishai, as a Shas leader and a man who considers himself to be a champion of the underdog, by nature lends an ear to the unfortunate, including those among his voter base, the religious Sephardic community. And that population, need we say, doesn't appreciate the restrictions the state has slapped on their benefits.

Though he listens closely to their complaints, two weeks ago Yishai decided to expand the Wisconsin plan. Yishai knows his voters abhor the plan; it would have been convenient for him to join its most vocal opponents. Yet he chose to join the other camp, which would preserve the Wisconsin program after a revamp.

One has to admire Eli Yishai's courage. One also has to deplore the fact that he's all alone out there. No less than 80 Knesset members stood against him, signing a bill that would make far-reaching changes to the Wisconsin plan, to the point of completely ruining it. Among them is none other than the very man who brought the Wisconsin plan to Israel, the man identified with it - former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It has been a while since we saw a united multiparty front like this, with Knesset members from the left and right, coalition and opposition, linking hands. The group even recruited Mr. Stop Leeching From the State and Go Out and Work, Bibi Netanyahu.

It has been a while since the parliamentarians were so eager to reshape a government program, though all along the Wisconsin plan had been defined as a two-year pilot; though the panel of experts set up to study its outcome hasn't even filed its recommendations yet; and though two weeks before the 80 MKs lined up to sign a bill that would change the program, an attempt was made to institute changes in the spirit of the recommendations being formed by the panel.

In short, the pilot has undergone quite a bit of change, yet the Knesset members naturally didn't trouble themselves to find out what the changes were. If they had, they wouldn't have pushed for a bill that calls for changes that mostly have been made already.

What do the 80 Knesset members - including Netanyahu - know that Yishai doesn't know? Or perhaps, the question should be reversed: What does Yishai know that, despite his bleeding-heart credentials and his voters' glaring opposition, made him support the revised plan?

Yishai knows that the people living on state support, who were shepherded into the Wisconsin plan, are chronically unemployed. They cannot be returned to the workforce without personal, individual help, which is exactly what the plan offers.

Yishai knows that most of the professional problems with the Wisconsin plan have been fixed. The profit of the companies running the plan will be linked to the number of people they return to the workforce. The very weakest sectors will receive special treatment, such as rehab programs. Training budgets will be increased, and financial incentives will be provided to motivate the chronically unemployed for each month they work.

Yishai knows something else, too. Yishai knows that so far the Wisconsin plan has cost the state NIS 190 million, and that the state has saved itself only NIS 125 million in unemployment benefit payments. In net terms, the state has invested NIS 65 million in order to bring people ejected from the workforce years ago - or who were never there at all - back to work.

Yishai knows that the principle behind the Wisconsin plan, salary instead of stipend, is a principle worth fighting for. It is important to the state, because it will save money and focus aid on the people who really need it, those who can't work (as opposed to those who just don't feel like it). And it is important for the poor, because living on handouts exacts a cost in dignity, whereas a working person has greater potential for further development.

This is a principle that Eli Yishai, champion of the weak, learned from employment and welfare experts. It is a principle Yishai also learned from a former minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But it seems the pupil has surpassed his master.