Ex-general rejects offer to head national virus response

Anger mounts as self-employed discover virus stipends far less than PM promised

Despite approval of payments up to NIS 7,500, many to get less than NIS 2,000; welfare chief slams top treasury official for being ‘out of touch’ with suffering of the people

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, calling for financial support from the government, on July 12, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, calling for financial support from the government, on July 12, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Anger mounted Monday as thousands of self-employed Israelis discovered that stipends approved for those hurt economically by the coronavirus could amount to far less than what was promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ata press conference last week.

Ministers on Sunday approved one-off stipends of up to NIS 7,500 ($2,170) for self-employed Israelis and business owners. But many received notification that the amount they would actually receive was less than NIS 2,000 ($580).

The amounts to be handed out in the stipends are based on income over the relevant period in previous years.

Army Radio reported that, under the initiative, 116,000 self-employed Israelis would get a stipend of up to NIS 3,000; 136,000 more would get between NIS 3,000 and NIS 7,000; and a final 128,000 would get the maximum NIS 7,500

Harel Papo, who performs as a mentalist, received a notification that he would have NIS 1,329 ($385) deposited in his account on Wednesday.

“I have signed contracts, I was supposed to earn NIS 500,000 ($144,000) this year,” he told Channel 12 TV on Sunday evening. “Instead I have had to cancel all my shows and there is no money. I’m looking at the Tax Authority website and they are just laughing at us.”

Another self-employed man, Tzahi Shtark, told the channel he received notification he would be getting NIS 1,492 ($431), saying decision-makers were “completely disconnected” from reality.

A man hangs a ‘for rent’ sign on a store in Jerusalem on July 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The sentiment was shared by Meir Spiegler, Director of the National Insurance Institute, which oversees Israel’s unemployment and welfare benefits, who slammed a top finance ministry official as being “out of touch” with the situation and impervious to the economic suffering of everyday people.

Shaul Meridor, the head of the finance ministry’s budget department, had criticized the stipends as a “negative incentive” to work.

Speaking to Army Radio, Spiegler lambasted the comment.

National Insurance Institute’s Director General Meir Spiegler at a conference at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“How could he say such a thing? Has he ever been unemployed in his life?
Does he know what it is like to be in a situation where he cannot meet the financial commitments he has made? Does he know what it means to have his salary cut in half?” Spiegler stormed, accusing the treasury of torpedoing numerous crucial elements of economic rescue efforts over the months of the pandemic.

“First he should go out and learn, and then he can come back and make decisions that concern the other side of the barricade — the people of Israel and the public,” Spiegler said. “Trust me, the public wants to work.”

The new payments are part of a financial aid package unveiled last Thursday by Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz, amid complaints from many Israelis that they haven’t received assistance promised by the government.

A joint statement from Netanyahu and Katz pledged the money would enter the bank accounts of those eligible to receive it in the coming days. It also said Katz would distribute a memorandum of a bill authorizing the rest of the aid package, which includes bimonthly payments to businesses and an expansion of the eligibility for unemployment benefits.

“Tomorrow we’ll bring the remainder of the plan to the government,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, pledging the aid package would be fast-tracked by the Knesset.

“We can overcome the coronavirus crisis, or at least bring Israel to an economic and health routine that allows us to live reasonably well over the coming year. That’s the goal and this is the first step,” he added.

Netanyahu’s cabinet comments came a day after some 10,000 Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv against the government’s economic policies during the pandemic. The premier’s Blue and White coalition partners expressed support for the demonstrators and called for an economic plan that extends beyond the coming months.

Protesters demand government action at a demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square against Israeli economic policy in the wake of the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, on July 11, 2020. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

As Israel contends with the alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Netanyahu has faced a tide of criticism over the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic, with polls indicating growing disapproval of his stewardship of the economy.

According to a Channel 13 poll published Sunday evening, 61 percent of Israelis disapprove of Netanyahu’s overall handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and 75% are unhappy with how his government has handled the economic fallout of the pandemic. Only 16% said that they were satisfied with the government’s economic response.

Amid growing discontent, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced last week that he would name “a special manager for the campaign against the coronavirus.”

But on Sunday former general Roni Numa, who was the leading candidate for the post, told Edelstein he was not interested in the job, Channel 12 reported.

The Ynet news site reported that former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot was prepared to take the post if asked.

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, is interviewed by Amos Yadlin at the Institute for National Security Studies annual conference in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2019. (INSS)

“I’m a soldier. If they call me I will be there immediately to deal with this national event,” Ynet quoted him as telling confidants.

There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy that say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the crisis, accompanied by outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.

Unemployment in Israel is at some 21% — or 850,000 people — and is rising, as restrictions imposed amid record daily coronavirus infections further batter the economy. Unemployment at the height of the pandemic reached over 25%, with over a million Israelis out of work.

Virus cases are currently rising at over 1,000 per day. The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 362 on Sunday night.

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