A government without policy enroute to dissolution

The entanglement of prime ministers and politicians in corruption, together with deep political polarization, has in recent years created the phenomenon of chronic political crises, which prevent the establishment of a stable government in Israel. As a result, centers of decision-making and implementation have long shifted to government bureaucracy, particularly to the two pillars that determine the path of a state, the Ministries of Defense and Finance. Unlike in other developed countries, in Israel the defense minister is a retired general who moves from his seat in the general staff in Tel Aviv to the nearby Ministry of Defense, which thus becomes an arm that first and foremost represents the army and its employees. As the identity of the finance minister changes frequently, the office’s bureaucrats see themselves as the gatekeepers who ensure stability and continuity. In doing so, the Finance Ministry gains immense power and is in fact decisive in all major economic decisions.

The bottom line is that no matter which government is elected, right or center, Israeli policy has not changed in the last 30 years. It is true that rhetoric varies according to the incumbent’s character. It can be more racist, nationalist and religious in the case of the Likud, or softer, less inciteful and more tolerant in the case of the center-left, but that is the extent of change. Security and economic policies do not essentially alter. Incitement and racism, as well as words of kindness and tolerance, do not in any way affect policy. Military and civilian bureaucracy is supposedly “neutral,” and the two political camps fiercely fight each other while agreeing that security and the economy are a taboo that should not involve politics. For its part, the same security or civilian bureaucracy holds that politicians cannot be trusted since their considerations are dictated by narrow political interests.

Take for example the current so-called government of change. This is a rare political hybrid in the history of Israel. It unites a multitude of parties lacking political or ideological agreement, and its sole function is to prevent the return of Bibi Netanyahu and his gang to power. It has been a year since its inception, and apart from a shift in rhetoric it has not brought about any real change. Defense Minister Benny Gantz is responsible for the Iranian and Palestinian files. There is nothing new in this arena: Israel continues to oppose any nuclear agreement with Iran and continues to carry out assassinations on Iranian soil and frequent bombings inside Syria. This is Bibi’s legacy, this is what the army wants, and the government of change has no choice but to follow suit. Although the latter does not publicly oppose the US administration’s policy of supporting a nuclear agreement with Iran, in essence nothing has changed. The military needs an enemy, a security challenge and constant confrontation to justify the huge budget it receives to fund the exorbitant pensions of its staff. The Iranian regime, for its part, continues to develop its nuclear capacities, while using the campaign against Israel as an excuse to continue oppressing its people. Indeed, the conflict serves both sides.

On the Palestinian issue, too, the government of change continues in Netanyahu’s path. The treatment of Palestinians stems from a narrow security perception, based on the accepted assumption of the Right, the Left and the Islamic movement that there is no political solution on the horizon, so that managing the occupation is all that remains. The sole difference between this government and Netanyahu’s is that Defense Minister Gantz occasionally meets with Abu Mazen to strengthen the Palestinian Authority via economic relief.

The handling of the Palestinian issue as purely a matter of security creates chaos in the West Bank and Israel. Clashes with the Israeli army lead to the daily killing of young Palestinians, to acts of revenge by Palestinians inside Israel, and to the disproportionate response of the army (in Jenin, for example, which resulted in the killing of journalist Sheerin Abu Akle). Force was and remains the army’s only response, although it is clear this provides no solution to what is known in Israel as “lone-wolf terrorism.” The government’s decision to allow the “flag parade”, commemorating the “unification” of Jerusalem in 1967, to pass through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter has only added fuel to the fire. This policy of force repeatedly boomerangs against the government of change itself. The discourse in Israel is becoming more violent and racist, populism is taking over, and members of the government are being accused of treason.

This security fixation is accompanied by a very deep economic one, best represented by Ram Belinkov, who was appointed director general under Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Belinkov had already served as head of the budget department in the Ministry of Finance during the Olmert government; he resigned because he refused to increase the budget deficit, contrary to the government’s position. Yet wonder of wonders, after 14 years the same official reappears in order to implement a policy based on the understanding that the government does not know how to manage the economy, politicians are ineffective, and the treasurer’s role is to “safeguard the coffers”.

Privatization of the public sector, the creation of favorable conditions for foreign investment, and the removal of barriers to local capital have been the pillars of Israeli economic policy since 1985. This policy has proven itself to be a social disaster, creating deep social disparities, empowering capital and corporations, and leaving millions in poverty. In the United States, a similar policy brought Trump to power, jeopardizing US democracy.

Developed countries today are increasingly turning to an egalitarian and green economy, imposing taxes on corporations, increasing the state’s investments in infrastructure, and encouraging organized labor, but all of these measures do not affect Israel. Israel sees itself as an “economic miracle” that the world recession has bypassed. “We will not be Greece” has become a convention of both Right and Left, and the start-up nation places itself at the pinnacle of world economies. However, the same start-up nation is very limited demographically and geographically: it amounts to about 300,000 programmers, most of whom are Ashkenazis living in Tel Aviv and environs. The rest of the country lives the life of a low-tech nation, with millions of workers in the private and public sectors who must make do with starvation wages.

Those who have money can purchase an apartment, even two, give their children private education, health, and all the services that the state has stopped providing in accordance with the theory of Belinkov and the finance bureaucrats. The cries of teachers, the demonstrations of doctors and interns, the concerns of young couples who cannot afford an apartment, the frayed nerves of those stuck in traffic jams on the way to work, the suffering of the mentally disabled who do not receive proper treatment, the plight of senior citizens who cannot survive on their pensions – none have any impact on residents of the Tel Aviv towers, including finance officials and retired generals who receive exorbitant pensions.

Israel is sinking into a crisis of security, society, politics and values because Israeli politics has degenerated. There exist no parties with a social and political horizon, and all that remains is lust for power to satisfy narrow sectoral interests. The government has delivered the country into the hands of officials from the defense and finance ministries, and its only function is to take care of sectoral funds that benefit the electoral bases of its ministers. The start-up nation cannot meet Israel’s growing social needs. It causes social gaps and splits to widen between Ashkenazis and Mizrahis, religious and secular, Arab and Jewish, a split that reinforces racist populism.

Elections have lost so much of their significance that most politicians and the public do not see them as a solution to the political crisis plaguing Israel, and the reason is simple: differences between the parties have faded. Accepting the occupation as an unfortunate necessity, coming to terms with the deep gaps that the economic reality creates, and a lack of courage to change direction and chart a new path, all lead to a combined security and social disaster. The government of change will not survive because it has failed to change the policies of Netanyahu.

About Yacov Ben Efrat