Israel’s most diverse government ever got to work Monday, a day after it was sworn in, with the various new ministers presenting plans that together reflect an unusual mix of right-wing and left-wing, conservative and secularist reforms.
They include a promise by Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to completely avoid tax hikes alongside a plan by Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli to greatly increase investment in public transportation — just one example of policies within the new coalition that could prove difficult to reconcile.
After two straight years without a national budget as a result of the unprecedented political crisis, the passage of one is the most pressing challenge for the fledgling government, especially after the economy took a hit due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But agreeing on a budget with a razor-thin parliamentary majority will likely require much negotiation between the right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Islamist parties that make up the so-called change government — headed by Naftali Bennett in a power-sharing deal with Yair Lapid — that replaced longtime premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
Liberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, who is a security hawk and economic right-winger, presented several guidelines Monday for his time in office, declaring in a press conference that as far as he was concerned taxes wouldn’t be raised anytime soon.
He said he aimed to immediately stop government handouts to those aged up to 45 who lost their jobs during the pandemic, although passing the move requires discussion and legislative changes. His predecessor as finance minister, Likud’s Israel Katz, had planned to nix the payments only for those aged 28 and under.
The secularist Liberman, who employed strong anti-Haredi rhetoric in recent election campaigns, said he wouldn’t harm the ultra-Orthodox community but would incentivize its schools to adopt the state’s curriculum and would work to incorporate more Haredi men into the workforce.
Michaeli, the leader of the social democratic Labor party, presented her vision for vast investment in public transportation to improve services, reduce social gaps and cut pollution, a plan that would presumably require a big budget and tax hikes.
In a press conference, Michaeli said she aimed to form metropolitan transportation authorities to solve the problem of traffic jams, particularly in central Israel. She said transportation to the country’s periphery should be improved to create equal opportunities for marginalized communities, particularly Arabs.
She said she wanted to advance a move to electric vehicles within public transportation, as well as more bicycle lanes and better work conditions for employees.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, meanwhile, said his first goal is to separate the position of attorney general from that of legal adviser to the government — two roles currently held by one person.
Conservative critics have long argued that the current situation creates an inherent conflict of interest whereby the official tasked with representing the government’s legal position is also in charge of potentially prosecuting members of that same government.
Previous attempts to split the role were widely seen as vengeful moves motivated by political or personal interests, since they typically came from governments whose prime ministers were facing criminal indictment — Ehud Olmert in 2007-2008 and Benjamin Netanyahu several years ago.
The Kan public broadcaster quoted sources within and outside the justice system as saying Sa’ar’s chances of passing the reform were better than ever, since the anti-Netanyahu right-winger and judicial conservative is seen as having no non-ideological agenda.
Speaking Monday, Sa’ar said the justice system has problems he wants to fix, but he wasn’t aiming to destroy the system. His move to split the role would mean one official advises the government on legal matters, while another gets the power to prosecute officials — likely an upgraded version of the current role of state attorney.
Sa’ar also said he aimed to give more care to civil rights in criminal and civil lawsuits, reducing the number of indictments and removing bureaucratic hurdles. He also wants to pass a quasi-constitutional Basic Law regulating when the High Court of Justice can intervene in the Knesset’s legislative work.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton said she wants to move to a five-day school week in high schools, with elementary schools students studying for five days and having enrichment classes on Fridays. She emphasized, however, that the change would take time and its implementation depended on the longevity of the government.
Shasha-Biton, a member of Sa’ar’s New Hope party who has a PhD in education, also said she planned to transfer responsibility for daycares from the Welfare Ministry to the Education Ministry, give more autonomy to school principals, advance teachers’ rights and reduce the number of matriculation exams.