Almost 1,000 fatalities in the past month

Liberman ‘at peace’ with not locking down in Omicron wave, despite rising death toll

Finance minister defends government’s COVID policy of keeping economy open, says ‘we haven’t made cars illegal’ despite car crash fatalities

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of the Israeli newspaper "Makor Rishon" at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of the Israeli newspaper "Makor Rishon" at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday, when pressed about the relatively high death toll caused by the Omicron variant, that he was “at peace” with the government’s decision to not impose a lockdown during the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon weekly, Liberman heralded the government’s policy of “living alongside” the virus, defending the decision to not impose lockdowns and leave the economy largely open.

Israel’s pandemic death toll has risen to 9,971 during the fifth wave, with nearly 1,000 fatalities recorded in a month.

“During our first week [in office] we advanced a very different policy. I canceled all unpaid vacations. It was not easy,” Liberman said.

“Then, I announced that there will be no more lockdowns, we will learn to live alongside the coronavirus. I’m completely at peace with that. Life involves risk management and you have to make some hard decisions,” he added.

Liberman noted that a few hundred Israelis die in car accidents each year, “and yet, we haven’t made cars illegal.”

Since taking office last June, the Treasury chief said his decision-making has been driven by financial considerations and hard data.

A health worker takes test samples of Israelis at a COVID testing center in Jerusalem on January 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“When I joined the government I said one thing: that my decisions will only be made based on financial considerations and data. There won’t be any populistic decisions, only financial ones. That’s how I operate and I think we can see the results,” he said.

“In finance, like in sports, there is data. You’re evaluated through data,” he declared.

Data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics last week showed that Israel’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by a whopping 8.1% in 2021, surpassing previous forecasts and marking the highest financial growth rate recorded in Israel in 21 years.

Moreover, the data showed that most of the financial growth occurred during the last quarter of 2021, which Liberman said reflected the policy of keeping the economy as open as possible, spearheaded by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government and implemented in October.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset vote on the state budget, September 2, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In 2020, for comparison, as the country was gripped by repeated lockdowns and restrictions on gathering and traveling, Israel’s GDP shrank by 2.2%, while the GDP per capita shrank by 3.9%.

“I’m happy that the prime minister and I are on the same page when it comes to the [country’s] economy. We may disagree about issues surrounding religion and state, but economically, we see eye to eye. This time it’s a right-wing government that is also right-wing financially — both Bennett and [Justice Minister] Gideon Sa’ar. In that sense it really is a paradise,” Liberman said.

But not everyone is happy with Liberman’s performance.

While Liberman was answering questions at Monday’s conference, a member of the Standing Together Movement, which advocates for raising the national minimum wage, interrupted him and shouted: “You’re out of touch. How do you expect us to pay rent, how do you expect us to make ends meet with a NIS 0.54 increase?”

The activist was referring to last week’s cabinet meeting, during which Liberman proposed a plan to raise the minimum wage by NIS 0.54 per hour in the near term, a move that critics say is only meant to postpone or prevent a larger increase.

The national minimum wage in Israel currently stands at NIS 29.12 per hour. Liberman’s proposal would increase it to NIS 33 per hour by 2025.

Others, mostly business owners and self-employed workers impacted by COVID, have criticized Liberman as well, specifically his decision to cancel individual grants for self-employed workers impacted by COVID last July.

During a heated Knesset debate last week, Liberman was accused by a representative of a group of self-employed teachers of “creating anxiety” and ignoring the plight of the self-employed workforce in Israel.

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