As Israel sees growing public discontent over the government’s economic policies amid the ongoing pandemic, and with the Finance Ministry in the eye of the storm, the ministry’s Director-General Keren Terner Eyal pushed back Saturday against criticism by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies over the conduct of bureaucrats in her office.
Netanyahu on Friday lashed out at Finance Ministry officials who reportedly oppose his plan to disperse financial aid to all Israeli adults, a strategy that has met with considerable backlash — from economic experts, opposition leaders and members of the public who say aid should be going to the country’s struggling populations, and not to those people who have not been greatly damaged by the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s inconceivable that bureaucrats are briefing [the media] against decisions made by the government, and are working to thwart them. We won’t accept this,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. The premier didn’t name any officials, but shared a post by Likud MK Shlomo Karai that included a large photo of the head of the budget department Shaul Meridor.
Netanyahu’s son Yair, known for his incendiary rhetoric, claimed in an Instagram post Saturday that Treasury bureaucrats were intentionally “sabotaging” aid to increasingly disgruntled self-employed Israelis “in order to agitate the public.”
Terner Eyal, in a series of tweets, said it was “very difficult for me to remain indifferent to the unprecedented criticism of my ministry’s staff, and in particular the head of the budget department Shaul Meridor.”
She lamented “the very violent discourse that has been developing against us on social media.”
Terner Eyal said the role of Meridor and the others was simply to implement the policy decisions of the government, and stressed they were not involved in making policy themselves.
Finance Minister Israel Katz reprimanded Terner Eyal for her comments, saying she should have received his prior authorization before responding publicly.
Katz in a statement said it was not Terner Eyal’s job to wage public fights nor to defend the ministry’s bureaucrats, but to “carry out the decisions of the political level. He added that it was up to him as minister to “resolutely defend the positive contribution of professional officials.”
Also Saturday, the Haaretz newspaper reported that Katz had ordered the freezing of a government assistance program for charities that help the poor, homeless, Holocaust survivors, victims of sexual assault and other populations in need, following pressure from right-wing activists who objected to the funds also being directed to organizations that aid refugees and asylum seekers.
The NIS 53 million aid package was intended for non-profit groups that have been significantly affected by the pandemic.
After a campaign of public pressure by activists, including Shefi Paz and Yair Netnayahu, Katz ordered the aid package frozen, telling his office’s legal adviser that some of the groups earmarked to receive the funds “carry out activities contrary to the values and policies of the government.”
Katz requested that the criteria for receiving the aid be altered, the report said.
Government sources told Haaretz that it was not yet clear whether Katz has the authority to cancel the financial aid package, as it has already been approved by all of the relevant ministries. Government officials were slated to convene a meeting Sunday to discuss the issue, according to the report.
The NIS 6 billion ($1.75 billion) stimulus plan announced by Netanyahu on Wednesday will see all Israelis over the age of 18 get a check from the government. Couples with one child receive a one-time payment of NIS 2,000 ($583), which rises to NIS 2,500 ($729) for those with two children, and NIS 3,000 ($875) for those with three or more. Single Israelis aged over 18 will receive NIS 750 ($218).
The plan will be debated by the cabinet on Sunday. amid reports that the coalition’s Blue and White party is strongly opposed to the blanket handouts that do not differentiate between the different needs of the population.
Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz unveiled the plan despite objections from Finance Ministry officials. According to a television report, Meridor warned during a tense meeting on the proposal that “we need to be careful not to become Venezuela.” The South American country has the highest inflation rate in the world and suffers from major shortages of basic goods after years of major outlays on social spending.
Karai wrote on Facebook: “We’re already familiar with the phenomenon in which bureaucrats try to control the country against elected officials. Shaul Meridor, head of the budget department at the Treasury, has turned this into an art. He’s torpedoing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decisions to transfer money and assistance to Israeli citizens.”
He also claimed Meridor was briefing reporters against the government and was engaged in a “delegitimization campaign.”
Katz, also a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, warned of disciplinary measures if “evidence for these types of acts” is presented to him, according to a statement quoted by Hebrew media.
Backing Meridor, Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen (Blue and White) said it was the duty of civil servants to express their opinion, even when it conflicts with the position of elected officials.
“The effort to paint this in political colors is dangerous. This hurts people who dedicated their lives to public service and deters quality people from coming,” Farkash-Hacohen, a member of the Blue and White party, wrote on Twitter.
Netanyahu in recent days has increasingly accused unnamed bureaucrats of seeking to block his financial aid proposals, amid growing discontent over his handling of the pandemic and his economic policies to address the fallout that has accompanied the government-mandated measures against the virus.
The criticism of Meridor came as Likud MK Michal Shir, an ally of Netanyahu’s internal party rival Gideon Sa’ar, accused the prime minister of trying to deflect blame over his response to the virus and dismissing any criticism as political.
According to a Channel 12 news poll published Thursday, 56 percent of Israelis believe Netanyahu’s handouts-for-all package — which has been panned by top finance officials, government ministers and many citizens — is primarily motivated by political considerations, versus 36% who believe it was conceived out of a desire to juice the economy. Another 8% didn’t know.