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Former Israeli Minister Predicts Violent 'Israeli Spring'

"Don't belittle the chances of an Israeli Spring," warns former Labor party minister Ra'anan Cohen, addressing Israel's lack of economic vision and deepening social gaps.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MAY 11:  (ISRAEL OUT) Demonstrators march through the streets to protest against Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid's budget cuts on May 11, 2013 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest against austerity measures presented this week as part of the state's new budget.  (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

More than a decade has passed since former minister Ra'anan Cohen resigned from political life and entered the business world. Cohen, who served as minister of labor and social affairs on behalf of the Labor party, is convinced that the social movement that erupted in Israel two years ago will become a violent protest in the future. When society's gaps only deepen and the circle of poverty widens, people feel that they have nothing to lose.

Cohen, 72, was born in Iraq and spent his childhood in an Israeli transit camp. He now serves as chairman of the board of the Israeli Wholesale Market. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Cohen sketches a disturbing picture of a society that has lost its sense of solidarity, sports a rudderless political leadership and is run by bureaucrats. The text of the interview follows.

Al-Monitor:  In your current position, you frequently warn against "the rule of the treasury's bureaucrats." You really feel that it's so bad?

Cohen:  Definitely. We have a regime of clerks and bureaucrats. As soon as a clerk decides what is permitted and what is forbidden instead of his minister, that is a severe problem that will only worsen with time.

The chief of staff [Brigadier General Benny Gantz] threatens to cancel training exercises? I would fire him immediately. What kind of behavior is that, to threaten to cancel such vital operations so that he can get more money for the defense budget? I wouldn't let him continue a day longer in his position, just to show people what leadership really is. But that's not the end of it. There are treasury officials who make "agreements" with certain companies, and eventually become directors of those same companies. This is a well-known, problematic phenomenon.

Al-Monitor:  Are you referring to Nir Gilad, current CEO of Israel Corporation, Ltd, who formerly served as the treasury's accountant-general?

Cohen:  Not just him. I mean anyone who interacted on behalf of the State of Israel with a certain economic entity, and then immediately afterward is hired by that same entity.

Al-Monitor:  As someone who is closely acquainted with politics and now operates in a business environment, what score would you assign the Israeli economy?

Cohen:  The Israeli economy operates without goals and without planning. It's catch-as-catch-can economics where political calculations dictate everything. This is an economy that cannot survive and cannot advance in any process, under no circumstances. Such an economy also creates inequality within society. I would suggest to the new finance minister to set up, first thing, a planning team that will create a five-year economic plan for the State of Israel.

Even during Israel's austerity period [when foodstuffs and consumer goods were rationed in Israel's early years], it was difficult, but there was a sense of national responsibility then. Everyone lived with the austerity, but everyone felt that there was a joint objective and goal: the establishment of the state and its strengthening. But today, the public has no responsibility and there are no leaders with whom to identify.

Al-Monitor:  Finance Minister Yair Lapid?

Cohen:  He knows where he is leading to? He knows what he is doing? He adopted the policy of the treasury clerks, who are only concerned by their own selves. There are no system-wide socioeconomic goals. The role of the state is to know how to balance, to create equilibrium, to halt the widening of the gaps. People will not sit quietly for long. Yair Lapid has the same economic worldview as his father [late justice minister Tommy Lapid]. He is exactly like [Prime Minister Benjamin] Bibi [Netanyahu]. The poorer that people become — and this is what is happening now — the more the [public] restlessness will grow.

Al-Monitor:  Do you mean violence?

Cohen:  Don't belittle the chances of an "Israeli Spring." Until now, what we have seen so far was an Eastern Europe-Ashkenazi production, polite and pleasant with background music. That will end soon. Today, people are filled with tremendous anger.

Al-Monitor:  On what basis do you say this? After all, you live in a satiated business community …

Cohen:  In every position I take, I am careful to observe and talk to the cleaning people. I am part and parcel of this nation. I ask and I see. Everyone comes to cry to me. I look people in the eyes and know their circumstances. Israeli society is raging; it is on the verge of explosion.

I am not only talking about violence. Look at what we see now in Turkey and what we saw in Egypt. I am talking about a protest movement like that. People are sick and tired. No one touches the Israel Electric Corporation with a 10-foot pole because it is powerful, and for the same reason, no one touches the aeronautical industry. The only thing Israeli society understands is force.

Al-Monitor:  In the wake of IDB [Israel Discount Bank] controlling shareholder Nochi Dankner's collapse, do you feel that a hatred of tycoons is developing here?

Cohen:  I think that the anger is not directed to the right address. People attack the tycoons instead of the State of Israel's economic leadership: the government, the banks and financial institutions. The heads of the banking system begged Nochi Dankner to take loans from them, because they received bonuses for expanding their business activity. Therefore, everyone who gave away money without receiving guarantees must be fired. Nothing will happen if they are kicked out. In general, a commission of inquiry must be set up to examine who was responsible for granting credit in such huge sums. It will lead to justified beheadings, because this is money belonging to the public.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think that Yair Lapid had an alternative, in the recent budget, to harming the middle class with taxes? Look, he claims that in about half a year, the situation will improve …

Cohen:  It's all nonsense. I don't know if Yair Lapid even understood the program he was handed. It is uncertain whether he examined its ramifications and where it leads. He had to soften that program.

Al-Monitor:  And what about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Cohen:  If someone would conduct a study on this issue, we would reveal that in the years prior to Netanyahu's term as finance minister, and afterward as prime minister, there were fewer poor people in Israel. In other words, the number of poor people only increased. Our problem is that no leaders have come forward. Therefore, I think that the Labor party's mission is to create new leadership that can replace the government.

Al-Monitor:  What about Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich?

Cohen:  She cannot continue to lead. She squandered her opportunity. She didn't understand the processes underway, and thought she could do it alone. She couldn't care less about anyone else. And when a person works alone, he remains alone. Of course, she made a tremendous mistake by not talking about the diplomatic issue, because you can't win in elections here by waving the economic flag alone. With her own hands, Shelly lost the elections. The Labor party drove away at least 10 mandates that should have been in her court, and went instead to other parties.

Al-Monitor:  Is there no one in the party who can win an election campaign? Not head of the Labor Knesset faction Buji [Isaac Herzog]? Not Knesset Member Erel Margalit? Knesset Member Eitan Cabel?

Cohen:  Unfortunately, there is no one who can lead an election campaign. I can afford to say this [objectively], because I am not running.

Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career on the Bamachane army weekly newspaper. She later worked for the second-leading Israeli daily, Maariv. In 1998, she joined Haaretz and later became its chief political analyst. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as their chief political analyst.

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