A Country in Freeze Mode

The Knesset.
(Hadas Parush/Flash90/File)

An old joke tells of the American and the Israeli discussing the advantages of their respective countries. The American says, “We have flour-less flour, oil-less oil, and meatless meat!” The Israeli responds, “Big deal. We have a headless Head of Government!” If we were to update the joke to the current situation in Israel, after two quick elections and possibly on the way to a third, we would say “we have a government-less Head of Government …”

Let my point not be misconstrued: The Knesset is open and functioning, the Cabinet ministers come to work, and the guards stand tightly round the prime minister to protect him. There have even been official memorial ceremonies for the late Minister Rehavam Ze’evi and Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, as well as enthusiastic speeches by the MKs. But many government bodies or services — those which the average citizen often needs in his daily life, and others that do their critical work behind the scenes — are beginning to show signs of stalling.

As with most governments, Israel’s is not particularly efficient, but what’s been going on for the past few months borders on the catastrophic. Important reforms are gathering dust, ideas for streamlining have been suspended, necessary equipment is not being purchased, and important staff positions remain unfilled. It’s been almost a full year that Israel has had a transition or lame-duck government, and its ability to get things done is very limited. The ongoing political paralysis, lacking a stable government and Knesset, is beginning to drip down to “regular” life, beginning with security and health services, and continuing to transportation, education and welfare.

The national budget for 2019, approved some time back in 2018, has proven to be faulty — but it cannot be fixed. Funding is occasionally shifted from one place to another in the event of urgent security needs or the like, but then there is no one who can make up the loss.

Take for instance this last round of hostilities in Gaza: A bit more than a year ago, no one ever heard of this arch-terrorist Abu Al-Ata (whose liquidation this week kicked off the two days of Islamic Jihad rocket fire at Israel) and how dangerous he was; the Cabinet had not yet debated what to do with him and how to deal with the Islamic Jihad threat. Then he was abruptly killed, and the government was simply not prepared for the major military operation that followed and how much it would cost.

In general, matters of defense and security in Israel are not an exact science and cannot be foreseen precisely. Once a year, the IDF Chief of Staff visits the Knesset Finance Committee and requests additions to the defense budget. The money always comes at the expense of something else, usually services provided to those who can’t really argue and fight for their rights — especially when the military says it can’t explain exactly why a particular sum is needed because it’s “classified.” Of course, we can then expect fingers to be pointed at the chareidim for blackmailing their way to receiving special funds — but OK, we’re used to that already…

The ramifications of the political uncertainty also weigh heavily on the health system. This coming winter, it could be that there won’t even be room for patients in the hospital corridors. The Health Ministry requires another 40 million shekels to prepare for winter, but under the current situation there is practically no chance that this will happen: no government, no new budget. In addition, the budget for the “medicine basket” — the list of government-subsidized medicines — was to have been increased dramatically by hundreds of millions of shekels, but will have to make do for now with what it has. Tens of thousands of ill people pleading for approval for their medicines will have to wait — and hopefully they will still be okay by the time the increased budget is approved. May Hashem have mercy.

Remember the loud public protests by the physically disabled? They blocked highways and basically turned the country upside down until an agreement was reached between them and the Finance Ministry, the Welfare Ministry, the Histadrut, and the Prime Minister’s Office for an increase in their monthly stipends. But in order to actually execute the raise, a committee of the two Ministries involved must be convened. However, because everything is stuck, the money won’t be coming any time soon. It won’t help the disabled to take to the streets again, because there’s no one to protest against; it’s just a technical matter of transferring the money.

And what happens if in fact no new government is formed and we actually have to hold a third election in less than a year? Let’s hope it won’t happen. Meanwhile the governmental winter has begun, and the entire country is in a deep freeze.