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Finance minister denies businesses suffering from COVID policies, rules out aid

Liberman says he checked the numbers and 2021 has been the best year of the century economically; Lapid admits government has made mistakes, but says money for handouts limited

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday rebuffed a business community seeking government compensation for steep losses due to COVID-19 policies, dismissing complaints as unfounded and warning that there would be no large rescue packages.

At the same time, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also hinted that government pandemic aid would be limited, while admitting that ministers have made mistakes in their handling of the most recent wave of infections.

Israel has seen record-breaking infection numbers met with a rollback of rules meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and many have complained about ephemeral policies regarding testing, quarantines, entry restrictions and schools that seem to change in a constant and confusing manner.

Speaking at his Yisrael Beytenu party’s weekly faction meeting, Liberman said recent complaints by business owners that government policies had hurt their bottom lines were unfounded.

On Sunday, the Association of Retail Chains said that over the past week its members had seen a 50 percent drop in revenue and demanded government aid, according to a Channel 12 News report.

Liberman rejected the assessment, saying he had checked the figures, that shopping mall owners made NIS 2.6 billion ($825 million) in the first three quarters of 2021, and that the fourth quarter will just add to their profits.

He claimed 2021 is “the best year in the 21st century from an economic point of view.”

Liberman said the government has shown that it is “attentive and understanding” when necessary and that those who merit assistance get it, but stressed that he will make his decisions “only on the basis of economic considerations” and not “populist or electoral considerations.”

People shop at the Hadar Mall in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The finance minister’s attitude to the impact of health rules on businesses has caused outrage in the past. Last month, he upset tour guides, whose industry has been brought almost to a standstill by travel restriction, when he told a cabinet meeting that they should find other jobs.

Later in the month, he drew criticism from health officials after he said that the highly contagious Omicron variant which is driving the current wave of infections is “no worse than flu.”

Lapid admitted that mistakes have been made in the government’s response to the current COVID-19 wave and that the government wants to compensate businesses harmed by the pandemic’s fallout, but can only do so much.

“We won’t abandon businesses that were harmed, we will ensure compensation, but the government doesn’t have unlimited money,” he said.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid’s office released a statement with the remarks, which were originally planned to be made at the outset of the Yesh Atid faction meeting. But Lapid has entered quarantine after coming in contact with a COVID-19 patient, causing the faction meeting to be canceled.

“In the face of COVID-19, not all of the government’s decisions will be correct. There won’t be a situation of zero mistakes. There’s no such thing. Not in Israel, not anywhere else. The question is whether we want to be angry, or deal with it together,” he said in the statement.

Lapid defended the frequently changing rules on virus testing procedures which have seen crowds of Israelis sometimes waiting hours at testing stations or bewildered as to which types of test, antigen or PCR, they need to take.

“This is a pandemic that changes all the time,” Lapid said. “So we need to react quickly and frequently change the instructions. When you work quickly, there are mistakes. The test is the ability to work together and fix the mistakes in real-time.”

He said he’s aware of the long lines at testing sites, the chaos at schools and the ailing businesses. “We’re dealing with all this, better and faster than most governments worldwide, but not perfectly and it also won’t [ever] be perfect.”

Lapid said Israel must balance between an open economy and lowering the death toll.

The government is reportedly already weighing reversing the new controversial policy, which began last Friday, to limit PCR tests to risk groups while having the general public take less-accurate antigen tests.

Opposition MK Shlomo Karhi of the Likud party told the Ynet website there is “total abandonment” by the government. Prime Minister Bennett, he said “is gambling with our lives.”

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi attends an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, Bennett appealed for patience saying he was aware of the frustration over the frequently changing testing and quarantine rules, and lack of compensation to businesses.

Israel is in the grip of what is the country’s fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, this time driven by the Omicron variant that has pushed the daily caseload to record numbers over the past week.

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