Just attempting to keep up with the news cycle in Israel these days can feel like a trying endeavor.
The coronavirus case numbers are back up and many are justifiably worried about the emergence of a second wave.
Oh, and at a time of national austerity the Government has approved a series of sweeping budget cuts — which will include decreased funding to the already gutted foreign ministry. (But not, thankfully, Israel’s missions abroad — who have already been defunded to the point of considering sedition).
The Most Austere of Times, The Most Lavish of Times
Why, one might wonder, is Israel tightening the purse strings?
Let’s take a look.
It does seem like odd timing, doesn’t it?
So let’s try some guesswork. I’ll go first.
A social relief program to provide further assistance to the countless small business owners that have been forced to shut doors as a result of the pandemic?
Perhaps the government is providing resources to help its unemployed citizens you might guess — they now number more than one million after all.
Maybe to help them better weather the crisis and upskill for when the world opens up again and they can return to work?
Sadly, you’d be wrong again.
Alright. Let me cut to the chase.
The widespread budget cuts which have been announced have been necessitated by Netanyahu’s decision to create six new ministries — including the transparently ridiculous-sounding “Office of the Alternate Prime Minister”. And did I mention that the unity deal reached between Gantz and Netanyahu allows for Netanyahu to remain ensconced in the Prime Minister’s residence even when he is no longer the titular office holder? (If Gantz hadn’t folded it seems as if his alternate plan was to ask the State to pay for a new residence solely for his occupancy while in the ‘Alternate Prime Minister’ posting).
Those ministries are part of the largest and most expensive government in Israel’s history — consisting of 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers.
But let’s keep the questioning rolling.
Why — at such a difficult financial juncture — might the State be blowing millions of shekels of taxpayer money by creating new ministries (previously subsumed into additional portfolios) which, if it weren’t for the fact that they were real, might sound like portfolios thought up by schoolchildren at a Model UN meeting?
Unsurprisingly —given that each minister and deputy minister is entitled to an office, car, and driver—the total price tag for this gross electoral bloat is expected to come to nearly one billion shekels. That was a lot of shortfall to make up.
Did Israel’s water resources grow so precariously low since the unity agreement was finally struck that the issue of managing it could no longer afford to be shared by a minister who carried another portfolio?
It seems unlikely. Although Israel’s natural resources are always a national priority the last time I checked the Sea of Galilee was close on hitting a 16 year high.
Funny, how that works, eh?
I could go on but suffice to say the reason is really quite simple:
Given the dynamics which the unity government created, Netanyahu needed to create extra ministries in order to keep his Likud loyalists sweet and in his debt.
If I could borrow a line from Dickens to describe the current political situation:
It’s among the most austere of times to be in Israel (if you’re a small business owner, that is). And the most lavish of times (if you find yourself the new dedicated Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, that is).
And what’s the explanation for this insanity?
Internal Likud party political expediency and favor-jockeying.
And as they say in Hebrew: zeh-oo (that’s it).
Moonlighting at the UN
Sadly, that oversized and highly expensive government assembled in the middle of a pandemic — when a quarter of the workforce was out of a job and small businesses were folding left, right, and center —was neither the start nor the end of the theater of the absurd that has come to characterize Israeli politics.
In a highly unusual move not undertaken since the State’s early and truly budget-stricken days another Bibi loyalist — this time Gilad Erdan — was appointed as the ambassador to be accredited to both the United Nations and Washington DC. It was a move that sparked curiosity across the diplomatic community.
Lest that doesn’t already sound a bit ‘off’ to you, Channel 13’s Barak Ravid did some interesting digging to illustrate quite how strange a decision it truly was.
Only four other countries, besides Israel, have one diplomatic mission double-jobbing to the key US-based postings. And it doesn’t read like a list of geopolitical heavy-hitters. Those are: the Maldives, Andorra, San Marino and Djibouti.
Why, then, has Israel — a developed nation with over 100 times the GDP of Djibouti—suddenly decided to break with unwritten protocol and appoint one ambassador to key diplomatic postings in the US?
Again, the answer has to do with cronyism:
Shifting Erdan overseas meant freeing up his old cabinet position for another Likud loyalist (Ohana was shuffled in).
And having the UN envoy moonlight to DC — or vice-versa — could free up more budget for cabinet members on home soil.
And as they say in Hebrew: zeh-oo (that’s it).
Netanyahu Plays Israel Like a Game of Poker
Observed dispassionately — as one might read Sun Tzu’s famous treatise The Art of War — it could be easy to admire Netanyahu’s shrewdness, his ability to foment argument among allies to divide and conquer, and the sheer brazenness of his political maneuverings.
Unless you’re on the receiving end of his machinations that is. Unless you’re — I don’t know — one of his citizens (although in light of his recent comments”subjects” might be Netanyahu’s preferred description).
Some examples of reality. And perception.
Netanyahu is the same political leader who dragged Israel into an unprecedented political stalemate and a slew of costly election campaigns that dragged on until his main “opponent,” Benny Gantz, decided to renege on his commitment to his voters and agree to a unity government. (Might one dare venture a guess that Netanyahu has no intention of honoring it?).
He is the same leader who, during that time, led and orchestrated election campaigns saturated, as always, with the Likud’s proprietary brand of mud-slinging, gevalt messaging, and race-baiting fear-mongering including once charging — heaven forefend the thought! — that Gantz may have seen a psychologist. (Don’t worry – he strenuously denied the allegation!)
And the same leader who —11 years prior, when speaking about Ehud Olmert— intoned that “a prime minister neck deep in investigations does not have a moral and public mandate to make fateful decisions for the State of Israel.”
He is the same leader who asked to be excused from showing up at his highly anticipated trial at the Jerusalem District Court last week — arguing that his presence would “cost the public a fortune” in security costs which he said would be necessitated if he condescended to attend (like your average Dovid Cohen).
And the same leader who — when he was forced to show up to court — did not do so along but turned up for a photo op dramatically backed by surgical mask-clad party cronies — in a photograph that looks like a cross between a scene from a mafia movie and a portrayal of a Zombie apocalypse.
Evidently, once his own attendance had been mandated, the Prime Minister’s Office (allegedly) wasted no time in requesting the attendance of additional ministers and yes-men. I guess the additional security cost posed by their unnecessary attendance must have been suddenly deemed of little consequence.
Netanyahu is the same Prime Minister who is always only too happy to accuse his arch-enemies — for convenience let’s limit those to the Palestinian Authority, the media, and the left wing— of incitement but who will stop at nothing to meet fire with fire.
In fact, in Netanyahu’s Israel, even his own Justice Ministry, police force, and Attorney-General are not immune from his hate-mongering and rabble-rousing.
But that’s only in a personal — or rather Prime Ministerial — capacity.
As the longstanding Chairman of the Likud Party, Netanyahu heads up the party whose member — former Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein — recently openly defied an order of the High Court to refuse to allow a vote to be held on his replacement.
And the same Prime Minister who apparently has the unfettered power to appoint loyalists — like Edelman — with bribes of portfolio for their unquestioning support.
Barely a fortnight after openly subverting Israeli democracy Edelstein was inaugurated as Israel’s new Health Minister.
There was also, of course, the appointment of another Likud loyalist, Israel Katz — who, as Transport Minister, presided over the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high speed railyway, which opened more than 10 years behind schedule and nearly $900M over budget.
As an award for such excellent stewardship of the public purse Katz was recently appointed Israel’s new Finance Minister. Announcing the move, Netanyahu deemed Katz the “right man” to lead Israel out of the current crisis.
On macro issues, too, a strange sort of divergence between the situation depicted by Balfour Street and reality on the ground can often be observed.
Netanyahu is the same minister that loves to boast of the unrivaled diplomatic strides which Israel has taken in recent years, apparently improving Israel’s image in the world — even as the European Union, including supposed steadfast allies like Austria, line up to oppose its highly controversial bid to annex the Jordan Valley.
The same prime minister who likes to wheel out Israel’s oft-repeated boast that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East” — all while, almost in the same breath, confirming that the Palestinians included in his annexation plans will not be granted neither Israeli citizenship nor the right to vote in its elections.
Netanyahu is also at once the prime minister who likes to boast of the strength of Israel’s high-tech economy and the quality of life it offers its citizens — all while presiding over a country which ranks second to bottom in the OECD table for child poverty (1.8 million of Israel’s citizens live below the poverty line) — and one in which more than 41% of its citizens live in a constant state of financial overdraft.
‘Frayer Frayer On The Wall’
I’ve written before about Israel’s pervasive fear of being a frayer (English: sucker).
About how avoiding accruing that label has become a pervasive national concern of sorts in Israel.
About how the Israeli national ethos demands that one must sometimes be tough and unyielding — because Israel’s often bitter history has taught it that sometimes being overly nice can be a tactical weakness. And, in any event, one wouldn’t want to be perceived as a freyer.
There is no doubt that Israel has made tremendous strides since its inception. And that a significant amount of credit for that is due to Netanyahu. I do not wish to deny either in my criticism.
And yet, reading the news these days — especially while doing so from Israel — it’s hard to shake off the feeling that one has swallowed the wrong pill in a real life version of The Matrix.
A pill which leads to a reality in which — a bit like North Korea — government propaganda and reality have become muddied together in the minds of the citizens to the extent that one can no longer be easily deciphered from the other.
A reality in which, for a sizable percentage of the population, challenging key concepts that ensure the leader’s continued rulership (“they’re all out to get us and Netanyahu is keeping us safe”) — is akin to heresy.
Yet it is a reality that, at times, seems painfully distorted.
As Israel’s longest-serving prime minister Netanyahu professes an abiding love for his country and has unquestionably dedicated his life to it. About this there is no doubt.
And yet all his actions — at least those in the last year — speak of a man who has determined that his own expediencies must automatically supersede those of the citizens who he represents.
Those actions speak of a prime minister who feels that he is uniquely, among his generation, qualified to guide Israel through its current difficult straits and who will stop at nothing to remain in power — even if that requires allowing footsoldiers like Regev and Barkat to try frustrate the very core tenant of the unity agreement which his party concluded with Blue and White only a few months ago (the power rotation after 18 months).
Many, including me, would view it naive to think that Barkat and Regev’s glib jibing did not carry the imprimatur of the Prime MInister. (For those that missed it: Revev allegedly called Gantz “half baked” while Barkat went further over the weekend stating there was no guarantee that Likud would honor the terms of the unity agreement stating that Likud “would see” how things fare when the time comes for change).
There can only be one explanation for why Netanyahu retains an iron-clad grasp on power despite all the foregoing.
Only one explanation which explains why he remains steadfastly in the seat of power even when — from the outside — the policies of his ruling party, like plundering the treasury to fund unnecessary new ministries doled out as political favors, run squarely contrary to the best interests of his country’s citizens.
Israelis spare no effort in avoiding being called a fryer.
But in the words of Yair Lapid in the Knesset yesterday:
“The government handed half a billion shekels to itself today. Not for the self-employed, not for the unemployed, not for small businesses, but for itself.”
Perhaps it’s time that Israelis took a look in the mirror and asked themselves a question.
It might be formulated as follows:
“Could the real fryers here be ourselves?”