Itzik Shmuli

Now that you’ve ruined US-Israel ties

It's time for Bibi to either deal with an economy in which two salaries don't suffice or get out of the way

Dear Bibi,

You’ve had your theatrics in the US Congress, you’ve damaged our bipartisan ties with the Americans, you’ve had your photo opportunity, you’ve shown that you can stand up to President Obama, as if he were the Ayatollahs.

Now it’s time to come home and deal with the economy you have created; with the laid-off workers at Israel Chemicals Limited; with the hospital patients trapped in the corridors; with contract workers; and mainly, with the young couples who, because of your policies, have given up on their two main dreams: starting a family, and owning a home.

Even in the United States – a country that obviously inspires you and whose economic system you are trying to imitate – housing is within reach, including for low-income households. In Israel you need to spend 148 average monthly salaries to buy a home, compared to just 66 in the United States. Incongruously, in Israel you’ll find one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative tech sectors in the world, while nearly a third of the country lives below the poverty line.

The average price of an Israeli home is 1.5 million shekels, double that of the United States, and has risen nearly fifty percent in the last six years. In a country like Israel, where over 90% of all land is owned by the government, it should be easy to reduce the price of housing, by dropping the prices of publicly owned land, or at least by building enough apartments to keep pace with demand.

The Netanyahu administration chose to do neither, as a report from State Comptroller Yosef Shapira found. Israel is 10,000 apartments short of the demand on an annual basis. Bibi’s response? To draw our attention to Iran – for the thousandth time – with a Tweet saying, “When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I do not for a second forget about life itself. The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

The Israeli people are sick of being told that their baseline expectation of living a decent life in their homeland is a silly notion. No family should work two jobs and struggle to pay rent.

Housing is just one of many issues that need no further explanation, because you have seen them with your own eyes: the costly groceries, classrooms packed to the gills with students, the scarcity of teachers, the long waits for basic medical care, seniors living in poverty, children going to bed hungry.

These are not unsolvable problems. They are big but they are not bigger than us. And at the end of the day they all beg the same question: are we willing to work together to do what’s best for all of us, or is Israel now a country where it is each to their own, and if you cannot make it, then too bad?

Where the Netanyahu administration funnelled money out of social services programs in the North and Negev to subsidize settlements, we can just as easily put the money back in the hands of the people. That means we can shrink class sizes for our children, offer a liveable stipend for the elderly, and provide free land so that everyone’s can live in dignity in a home of their own.

For the past six years, Benjamin Netanyahu has had every opportunity to put our country back on the right track. The makings of a compassionate economy lie not in speeches or tweets, but in the conscious choice we all make to care for one another, and in the actions that those choices compel us to take.

We founded Israel to be different from the rest of the world – to build a place where no citizen is abandoned to struggle while others prosper. It is amazing that after two thousand years, we Jews built flourishing Startup Nation in the space of only a few decades. But it is clear that some people have been left behind, and it is our duty as a nation to give them a helping hand. Growing isn’t hard – we’ve been doing it for nearly a century. Our next mission – growing together – is not easy, but it is a noble one. And for us to succeed and to flourish as a nation, it is absolutely critical.

About the Author
Itzik Shmuli is director general of the Jewish Federation of New York in Israel, and former Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. He was a member of the Israeli Knesset from 2012-2021. He was also a leader in the 2011 social justice movement.
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