Populism is a double edged sword, as likely to stab the politician who brandishes it as it does his targets. Israel’s new Finance Minister Yair Lapid is a case in point. One of the ways Lapid has distinguished himself as a practitioner of “new politics” has been his Facebook presence. Of course, every Israeli politician, with the possible exception of the Haredim, has a robust Facebook presence, but Lapid, formerly a successful journalist and TV host, actually writes his own entries.
It’s been the secret of his success, being one of the people, the ultimate citizen-politician coming to the aid of his country. He spoke ingratiatingly to the “middle class” (in Israel, with its Socialist and classless history, the term is “middle strata”), singing the familiar tune about the most productive chunk of Israeli society, who pay the bulk of the taxes, serve in the military (including reserve duty, well into middle-age) and carry the national burden on their shoulders.
Who were not among those prized citizens? The populist answer that brought in 19 Knesset seats to his brand-new “Yesh Atid” party was simple: The tycoons, who make millions but manage to evade honest taxation with savvy lawyers who know all the loopholes; and the Haredim, who give nothing and just take, take, take.
Mind you, populist messages don’t have to be true, they only have to sound good. In the case of who is to blame for Israel’s inequality in sharing the burden, it should be noted that the local tycoons pay a whole lot more into the state coffers than do their fellow fat cats in the U.S.; and while the Haredim comprise a mere 8 percent of the population, the majority of Israeli Arabs, comprising more than 20 percent, contribute even less. And as to reserve duty, it has been established that residents of the settlements—who are also vilified as an unfair burden on the state budget—comprising 5 percent of the population, shoulder about 30 percent of the reserve duty burden.
Following his celebrated victory in the last (his first) elections, and then following a brutal stretch of coalition negotiations, Lapid landed one of the top three government jobs that aren’t Prime Minister: Foreign Minister (reserved for the embattled Avigdor Liberman), Defense (retained by Likud and given to former IDF chief Moshe Yaalon), and Finance.
Many Israeli pundits surmised that this was a clever trap laid out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to force Lapid (who fought to get the foreign office) into the worst and most ungrateful spot as the man in charge of the budget (currently in arrears to the tune of $15 billion), or, more accurately, of cutting the budget, and worse yet – of raising taxes. Wouldn’t that tarnish some of this cocky winner’s sheen?
Possibly. The new finance minister was in a bit of a shock after his first encounter with Israel’s budget ailments, which he called “monstrous.” Incidentally, in a world in which the U.S. public debt is estimated at $11.917 trillion, or about 75% of the GDP, going gaga over a puny $15 billion seems a stretch – but Israeli law prohibits a government deficit of more than 3 percent of the budget, which is part of the secret of Israel’s remarkable success, posting a 3 point growth even in 2012 (more than 5 points in 2010).
After his initial, well publicized shock, Lapid’s solution to his Finance job woes was to employ his tried and true, unabashed populism, speaking directly to the voters over the heads of his civil servant experts at the finance ministry. In short, rather than cower before their superior knowledge of economics and markets and all that boring stuff (I’m not making this up, I’m practically quoting verbatim), Minister Lapid forced them into his arena.
Here’s Lapid’s Facebook entry from Monday (while the rest of us were in shul, celebrating the splitting of the Sea of Reeds):
“I want to talk about Mrs. Cohen,” I told senior Treasury officials few days ago.
They paused, surprised.
We were in a large meeting that dealt, as usual, with trying to close the deficit. The long table was littered with cups of long since chilled coffee, and the big screen was showing yet another infinite column of numbers.
“Who is Mrs. Cohen?” someone asked from the far end of the table.
“Ricky Cohen from Hadera,” I explained. “She is 37, a high school teacher. Her husband has a minor hi-tech job and they make together a little over 20 thousand shekel (exactly $5,538.94) a month (or $66,467.28 a year). They own an apartment and they travel abroad every two years, but they have no chance of buying an apartment for any of their three children in the future.”
A few smiles broke through around me.
“We sit here,” I said, “day after day, talking about balancing the budget, but our job is not to balance Excel sheets, but to help Mrs. Cohen.”
“We need to help her,” I continued, “because she is helping us. It’s because of people like Ms. Cohen that our state exists. She represents the Israeli middle class – people who get up in the morning, work hard, pay taxes and do not belong to any interest group, but carry on their backs the Israeli economy. What are we doing for her? Do we remember that we’re her employees?”
The smiles were replaced with thoughtful looks.
“I want us to hold a special meeting about Mrs. Cohen,” I said, “where each of us will suggest how we—as the Ministry of Finance—can help her. I want structure for her programs and reforms to help her make ends meet, to improve the quality of her life, to lower her cost of living, to make her feel that her tax money really works for her.”
Now, that’s well written populism. And it was rewarding to imagine Minister Yair Lapid, in his leather jacket and James Dean hairdo, forcing his Finance bigwigs and wizards not merely to sit through the kind of stump speech one could hear anywhere there was a barn and a bale of hay on the great American prairie, anytime between 1920 and 1928 – he actually made them turn it into a policy discussion. Bravo.
But he who lives by Facebook would most likely die by Facebook. And he who makes populist brownie points using Mrs. Ricky Cohen can end up staring into the unamused gaze of an altogether different Mrs. Ricky Cohen.
“Finance Minister Lapid, look into my eyes and tell me how we get from here to a new reality in Israel? It’s unacceptable that children would come to school hungry,” this Mrs. Ricky Cohen, a social activist and a single mother of five children, said to Lapid through the kind services of a Channel 2 morning show.
She added that, unlike the Mrs. Ricky Cohen from Hadera who vacations abroad every two years, she only dreams of vacationing, and while she’s at it, she’s also dreaming of one day maybe owning a car. Because she only makes 4 thousand shekel a month ($1,107.79, or $13,293.48 annually before taxes).
Lapid’s Facebook entry has been bombarded with mostly angry, make it livid, responses, each one putting the self-made wealthy journalist deeper in his place. It also turned out that with her and her husband’s combined income, Mrs. Ricky Cohen from Hadera is nowhere near Israel’s median, income wise – she is closer to the top 80 percent.
Lapid’s enemies on the left quickly showed him what real populism sounds like.
“The post published by Lapid reveals that our new finance minister has no idea who the Israeli middle class is,” accused Meretz Chairperson MK Zehava Gal-On. “Lapid’s remarks are arrogant and out of touch,” she said.
“It must be that an income of 20 thousand shekels is not a lot of money for Lapid and his millionaire friends,” accused Gal-On’s fellow faction member MK Issawi Farij. “Lapid said today clearly for whom he came to work: for the top 20 percentiles of Israeli society – not for his imaginary Mrs. Cohen from Hadera, but for Mrs. Levy from Ramat Hasharon and Mrs. Berkowitz from Ramat Aviv,” Freij slammed the new finance minister.
I must admit it’s fun to watch Lapid doing his first public stumble in his new job. It’s probably a thousand times more fun to watch if you’re a senior Finance Ministry official who’s just been lectured on your civil service duties by a guy without a high school diploma.
But don’t expect this embarrassing Mrs. Cohen incident to come even near sealing Yair Lapid’s stint as the man who authors Israel’s budget plans. True, his name and both Mrs. Cohens’ will remain forever together on Google, but Lapid has already shown the kind of political skill you don’t get from a high school diploma, and he’s going to learn the lesson and come back with a better thought out tune.
Perhaps a tweet this time.