Government okays expedited stipends for self-employed amid public anger

Netanyahu pledges to secure swift approval for rest of proposed aid package; welfare minister raps promised assistance as a ‘hangman’s noose,’ not a lifeline

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square against the government's economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic, July 11, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israelis protest in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square against the government's economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic, July 11, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Ministers on Sunday approved stipends of up to NIS 7,500 ($2,170) for self-employed Israelis, salaried employees and business owners who have been hurt economically by the coronavirus and government measures to contain it.

The payments are part of a financial aid package unveiled last week by Prime Minister Benjamin 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, 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 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.

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli, a member of the center-left Labor Party, was dismissive of the promised aid for the self-employed during Sunday’s cabinet meeting, according to reports.

“At the moment it’s no wonder that there’s a lack of trust by the self-employed,” Shmuli was quoted as saying, arguing that the compensation they were promised was insufficient. “It is no wonder that the feeling is that we threw a hangman’s noose in their direction, rather than a lifeline.”

In response, Netanyahu took a swipe at Shmuli, who became a minister for the first time in May with the swearing-in of the new government.

“Listen, young minister, don’t speak to me in slogans. I’m not prepared for talks about hangman’s nooses because that’s what will come out [in the media] eventually,” the premier reportedly retorted. “There are broad responsibilities here; you are a minister in the government; you can’t speak in sweeping terms like that.”

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli speaks during a ceremony at the ministry’s headquarters in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Shlomi Cohen/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.

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 percent — 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.

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