The Knesset winter session is off to a running start. On a treadmill

While politicians tussle and pontificate, their failure to pass a budget and appoint top officials leaves government agencies unable to tackle the worst fallout of the pandemic

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 26, 2020. (Knesset)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

The first week of the Knesset’s winter session ended Thursday, after providing Israelis with no shortage of exciting political headlines. The parliamentary week was bookended by Monday’s doomed opposition-led no-confidence vote that failed to topple the government and Thursday’s vote to approve the UAE peace deal. In between came a relentless stream of political bickering and posturing, not to mention one startlingly ill-considered attempt to publicly blackmail the attorney general.

There were committee hearings about teenagers misusing the social network TikTok and about accusations by opposition lawmakers over the submarine graft case.

It was a noisy week, so noisy that one might easily miss the fact that almost nothing concrete actually got done. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn on Monday announced that, yet again, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation would not convene this week — an announcement that came after Likud’s cabinet minister in charge of the party’s Knesset work, David Amsalem, declared the same. This means that all legislation, both private member bills and government-sponsored legislation on issues ranging from consumer protection to insurance reform to responding to the upswing in domestic violence during the lockdown, are all indefinitely delayed.

Perhaps the most basic function of the parliament — to produce the state budget — has been effectively abolished. No budget bill is advancing, even 10 months after the expiration of the last budget law. Lacking a budget, the government is limited each month to spending only one-twelfth of the budget of the previous budgeted year, which was 2019. Since the 2019 state budget has little in common with the needs of the pandemic era, the divided coalition must convene every few weeks to pass stopgap additions to the 2019 budget still in force — a few billions more each time to hospitals, to schools, to welfare grants or the military — all in piecemeal increments, without prioritizing the vital from the extraneous or carefully examining the necessity of each budget line, as a regular budget process would do.

The Knesset, on August 13, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

These failures are wholly political. The ministers cannot meet to vote on legislation because Likud and Blue and White, the two anchors of the unity government, cannot agree on its agenda. It’s been months since the cabinet’s legislation committee held regular meetings, and dozens of bills are stuck because of it. Similarly, the budget bill is stuck because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an overpowering incentive to make sure it does not advance. Under the rules set down by the coalition agreement that established the current government, Netanyahu’s only way to call early elections without handing the PM’s chair to Defense Minister Benny Gantz for the interim period until election day is if the Knesset dissolves by failing to pass a budget.

Without a budget rethink, schools can’t teach

The lack of a comprehensive state budget law isn’t a technicality. The government is operating on a series of stop-gap spending bills in the middle of a massive economic emergency. That means that no prioritization is taking place, no serious inter-agency planning is underway, and no MKs, even the most experienced in the labyrinthine ways of the state budget, have a good sense of where the vast funds being approved for coronavirus spending are actually going.

Many Israelis are lamenting the fact that the Education Ministry has proven unable to retool the school system for extended and repeated periods of study from home. Even eight months into the pandemic, teachers aren’t being trained in how to teach over video-conference apps. Study materials aren’t being adapted to the new learning conditions. Parents are still being asked to pick up materials from schools — sometimes violating distancing rules set by other branches of the government — instead of receiving the learning materials in the mail.

It’s flippant to blame all the difficulties of the slow-adapting education system on the lack of a budget, but officials have already told the Knesset that more effective planning and budgeting could ease the process immensely. The school year has effectively moved online over the past eight months, but a great many households were unable to follow. Many children, teachers have complained, don’t have a dedicated computer at home from which they can take part in online classes. It’s not just poor families; most middle-class jobs have moved to the home, making computer time an increasingly scarce resource in many households. And with hundreds of thousands of jobs suspended by the pandemic, fewer Israelis are now able to afford buying another computer.

Elementary school students on September 1, 2020, their first day back at Tel Aviv’s Gabrieli school. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Yet nothing can be done about the problem at a nationwide scale without shifting large sums of money from one part of the education budget to another — for example, from the upkeep of school buildings to the mass-purchase of computers for students. The principle isn’t new; a “Computer for Every Child” program already exists, a joint effort by the Prime Minister’s Office, Microsoft and various donors. Also, some local councils have tried in recent months to offer subsidies for new computers to lower-income or immigrant families. But none of these come close to addressing the gap, a shift that would require rethinking how the education budget is divided among the ministry’s many departments, agencies and school systems. It’s well nigh impossible to make such changes, or even to seriously explore their feasibility, without a new budget law.

There are countless more examples of how the lack of a comprehensive state budget for 2020 – the lack, in fact, of a planning process of any sort that retools the state apparatus to the new reality — is handicapping the country’s response to the pandemic.

With record levels of unemployment, officials have proposed job training programs for the unemployed that will improve their skills and future productivity while the nation waits for the economy to reopen. A well-conceived program could see the Israeli economy sprinting out of the gate when the pandemic crisis is past. But a well-conceived program for training tens and even hundreds of thousands of people costs a lot of money and requires careful planning and budgeting — none of which can be done while the Knesset refuses to advance a budget bill.

Even the health budget is hampered by the fact that all its new funding, passed by the Knesset in stopgap bills in recent months, has come without any serious planning process for the coming year. Hospitals and health funds have complained about the problem. They don’t need more praise from politicians. They need a better sense of what the health budget will look like in two months’ time. Lacking that sense, they have held back on planning themselves and declined to grow their staff to better cope with whatever the next fiscal year, which will still take place in the shadow of the pandemic, may bring.

A coronavirus ward at Ziv Hospital in the northern city of Safed, October 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu announced on Thursday that “the lockdown, up to this moment, has been a tremendous success…, a success they’re starting to talk about and look at in other countries, especially Europe.” But beating the pandemic will take more than lowering the daily infection rate. It demands serious planning in the fields of health, education and the economy, none of which is possible with a deadlocked Knesset unable even to pass a state budget.

Lonely at the top

Even if the political class decides to advance such a budget, it may find it difficult to do so after the top brass of the Finance Ministry quit in frustration in recent months.

Accountant General Roni Hizkiyahu, who has implored the political leadership to advance a budget law, announced in June that he would be leaving his post this month. Officials who work with him explained that he had despaired of the political deadlock. In August, the treasury’s budgets chief, Shaul Meridor, quit his post with a scathing letter lambasting Finance Minister Israel Katz and others for the failure to advance a budget. Katz was unimpressed, accusing Meridor, son of former Likud minister and current Netanyahu critic Dan Meridor, of politicizing his post. But last week, even Keren Terner Eyal, the highly-regarded director-general of the Finance Ministry, and for years Katz’s right hand as chief executive of the transportation ministry, announced her resignation scarcely five months after her appointment to the position. In her case, too, officials close to her explained that she had come to believe the ministry’s work was being systematically undermined by the political deadlock at the top.

With Terner Eyal, Katz’s claim of politicization wouldn’t hold, so he didn’t even try to offer it.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Terner’s resignation has nothing to do with the budget or Finance Ministry policy,” Katz insisted in a statement put out shortly after it was announced. “Any attempt to paint a picture of disintegration [in the ministry ranks] is political, partisan, and far from the truth.”

Alas, a great many ministers have been called upon to make similar claims in recent weeks. It isn’t just the top echelon of the Finance Ministry that’s abandoned its post amid the political stalemate. The list of senior positions now vacant or being filled by stopgap interim appointments, some of them for nearly two years, has grown very long.

Some of the most important agencies in the public service are without a permanent director, including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Justice Ministry, the Israel Police, the Israel Prisons Service, and the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority. Other vital positions now being held in an interim capacity include: the state attorney, the country’s top prosecutor; the Knesset legal adviser; the head of the Privacy Protection Authority (even as the government undertook massive tracking of Israeli citizens as part of its contact tracing program); and the agency in charge of the government’s freedom of information compliance.

Critics have accused the political echelon of intentionally leaving these posts manned only with interim appointments because such appointees are easier to remove and therefore more compliant to pressure from politicians. Netanyahu’s critics see his legal troubles as a key reason for the standoff over the police chief and Justice Ministry officials.

Whatever motives might be behind the logjam, the upshot remains the same. In the midst of an unprecedented national crisis, a strangely solipsistic brand of national politics — a politics of neverending antics from the Knesset podium coupled with ongoing neglect by lawmakers and ministers of their basic functions as public servants — has rendered key government bodies unable to respond effectively to the calamity that has befallen the country.

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