Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced yesterday the he has decided to cancel the income tax hike that was supposed to go into effect on January 1st. Good news, right?
Well, apparently not if you are an MK in the opposition (or in a party that feels threatened by Lapid’s Yesh Atid). While there might be some legitimate complaints about rolling back this tax, as opposed to the already increased VAT, a number of MKs criticized Lapid’s decision on much less significant grounds.
Shas’ Arye Deri claimed that Lapid was manipulating public sentiment by announcing tax hikes that he planned all along to remove. “What was taken from the citizens of Israel must be returned,” he said, apparently oblivious to the fact that nothing was yet taken, and that if it had been, then Lapid was in fact giving it back, as requested.
Labor MK Itzik Shmuli created a false dichotomy: “Either he did not understand things before, or he purposely planned everything in advance and, if so, he is a cynical politician.” Isn’t it possible that Lapid simply responded properly to an unexpectedly positive change in the country’s deficit?
My point here is not to defend Lapid, or to address the specific tax policies involved here. Rather, I raise this to highlight the childish bickering that passes for debate in our government.
As a relatively new citizen here, coming from America, I often lament that our government is so sadly ungovernable. While I believe there are numerous benefits to our system over America’s (for example, I believe the two-party system in the U.S. decreases representation while increasing finger-pointing and divisiveness), I am still deeply troubled by the plodding pace of legislative change that we encounter here.
Among other things, this stems from a misunderstanding of what it means to sit in the opposition. Opposition politicians seem more interested in tearing down the reputations of coalition members than they are in advancing their goals. When Tzipi Livni was leader of the opposition in the prior Knesset, she was the queen of this knee jerk dissent. I honestly believed that if Netanyahu had come out in favor of one of Livni’s own propositions, she’d respond that he was only agreeing with her to curry favor with the public.
The problem is that such rhetoric is utterly devoid of content. It’s as if all opposition politicians watched the same sketch from Monty Python: “This isn’t an argument. It’s just contradiction!” Contradiction can increase their chances of winning in the next election, but real argument requires them to actually back up and stand by their proposals. No politician wants to do that, do they?
I must add that this lack of debate isn’t restricted to the opposition. Coalition MK Gila Gamliel (Likud), also complained about Lapid’s announcement: “it is unfortunate that it took so long for Lapid to internalize his mistake, and meanwhile the public had to carry on with such frustration.” Because all of us Israeli citizens have been beating ourselves up daily over next year’s income tax increase, right? Clearly, Gamliel’s comment grows out of the weak bonds in Netanyahu’s delicate coalition. But it also epitomizes the lack of substantive debate in Knesset.
With our Parliamentary system so largely based on that of the U.K., perhaps we can take a page from their book (and those of many other functioning parliamentary democracies). We need a true Shadow Cabinet in the opposition. (We have had one in the past, at least in name, but it never operated nearly as effectively as it should or could have.)
In a Shadow Cabinet, each member of the coalition’s cabinet has a “shadow member” in the opposition. That person’s job is to address the specific proposals of their cabinet member. But more than just complaining that the coalition’s proposals are bad, the shadow’s job is to offer alternative plans, i.e. potentially valuable suggestions. A secondary benefit of this system is that it better prepares MKs to lead in governments of the future.
But most importantly, by creating honest, substantive debate in Knesset, a Shadow Cabinet would keep our MKs away from the childish contradiction that they currently overutilize. Instead, we’d all benefit from an increase in constructive argument.