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Lapid, Bennett Performances Disappoint on Israeli Economy

On this Jewish time of “assessments” for the New Year, many are reconsidering the performance of Finance MInister Yair Lapid and Minister of Economy and Trade Naftali Bennett.
Israel's Finance Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett (2nd L) walk together during the swearing-in ceremony, at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem March 18, 2013. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new governing coalition took office after a parliamentary vote on Monday with powerful roles reserved for supporters of settlers in occupied territory. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3F5XP

Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the HaBayit HaYehudi Party who also is the economy and trade minister, regularly slept on the couch in his Jerusalem office on extra-busy work days at the beginning of his term;  he lives in the city of Ra’anana, an hour and a half drive from the capital.

Bennett, 41, a veteran of an elite army unit, wanted to demonstrate a military standard of sacrifice and commitment to the job. He wanted to show that he works around the clock, does not waste his time driving home and does not sleep at a hotel in Jerusalem as his job allows him. People with whom he shared this information found it difficult to see the logic behind the senior minister sleeping at night in his office. They did not understand how this contributes to his or his ministry’s functioning well. After all, Bennett has a driver and a comfortable and accessorized official car, and he could work during his commute home.

The chairman of Yesh Atid, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, insists on driving himself in his car, even if his workday ends late at night. He works hard and sleeps little, as can be expected of a finance minister in a country in financial crisis. Only now has he finished passing the state budget. Lapid apparently sees a personal driver as a status symbol and wants his choice to broadcast simplicity, accessibility and informality. But after an exhausting day at work, the finance minister can do himself and us a favor and get home safely and perhaps even steal a nap. 

Lapid and Bennett, the models of the new and spunky politics, are caught up in the image that brought them impressive results in the election, and refuse to part from it. The result is that as time passes and the work increases, the two national security cabinet members’ lovely gestures seem childish and unserious.  

And so, only seven months after the rise of the new politicians in the last election, on the eve of their first Jewish New Year in office, it’s clear to everyone that the new politics already needs a face-lift or a profound self-examination. 

It’s not because the two of them have not achieved anything, but more because of the disappointment which followed the great expectations of them, which they encouraged in the campaign and the coalition negotiations. Lapid and Bennett marketed themselves as the representatives of the middle class in the government, and when this basic promise was broken, they turned into just two more politicians sitting at the government table, who have to be flexible and cut corners.

The public has discovered that the new politics is just the old politics that doesn’t use a driver and sleeps at the office. Last week [Aug. 21], the state comptroller’s report named Bennett as breaking records for violations of the party financing law and fined him 65,000 NIS [$18,500] — an exceptionally severe fine. The comptroller also strongly disapproved that Bennett hired a private investigator to dig up compromising information about his competitor in the primaries of HaBayit HaYehudi party, Zevulon Orlev. Not exactly a model of clean politics.

The radical diplomatic line that Bennett is taking toward the renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, while hanging onto his seat in the government, does not contribute to his ethical image, either. There’s a reason that the hard-core ideological element in HaBayit HaYehudi is already forming an internal opposition to him. On the day [July 28] the government authorized the release of the Palestinian prisoners, Bennett went out to protest in front of the prime minister’s office with those who opposed it, after he disparaged the government’s decision on his Facebook page. He didn’t for a moment consider the possibility of resigning.

There was also that embarrassing incident where the chairwoman of HaBayit HaYehudi’s Knesset faction, Ayelet Shaked, sent the American Secretary of State John Kerry a letter of rebuke following the government’s decision to release 104 prisoners. In the letter she accused him of forcing the prime minister of Israel to release the terrorists. It’s still hard to believe, but Shaked wrote Kerry the following words: “You are acting hypocritically and foolishly.” This made many people long for the old politics. Afterward, she said that the chairman of her party was never privy to the letter. Bennett, as the leader of a party in the coalition, should have called Shaked to task, or at least should have publicly renounced the shameful letter. But from someone who has called the Palestinian problem “shrapnel in the butt,” forgetting that he’s a minister in the government and a member of the cabinet, it seems respectable behavior could not be expected.

Lapid bravely took upon himself the job of finance minister, but afterward fell in line with the bureaucrats of his ministry, and signed off on a nightmare budget for the middle class — that same middle class that gave him 19 seats in the Knesset. Lapid has not succeeded in gaining the trust of the public, which in polls of recent weeks says it doesn’t trust him as finance minister. Lapid’s twice failing to nominate candidates for governor of the Bank of Israel, and his flippant response to the mistakes he was responsible for, have also hurt him publicly. Additional blunders he made during his brief term in the government include the right-wing positions he espoused in an  interview with The New York Times, in opposition to the position of a majority of his faction; the strange covert meeting at US business magnate Sheldon Adelson’s house; and the excessive bullying of Knesset member Adi Kol, who dared to vote against the position of the Yesh Atid faction.

In recent months, Lapid has endured a harsh attack on social networks. Partially justified, partially exaggerated, it’s based on schadenfreude. His online enemies look for and find inaccuracies and apparent lies in things he’s said about himself. The latest storm around the story of the joint that Lapid continues to insist he didn’t smoke, is an example of the cruelty of the network that built Lapid. Indeed, the finance minister is bravely ignoring it all; it seems he has a thick skin, but his image of a "clean politician" is cracking.

Lapid and Bennett, each in his own way, succeeded in identifying exactly the desires of the Israeli public, and very precisely manipulating the rawest nerves of the middle class. Both were excellent campaigners. Lapid and Bennett’s greatest achievement was the breath of fresh air they brought with them to the Knesset and the government, which emerged from the social protest that swept over the streets of Israel a year and a half earlier. But as great as the expectations were, so is the disappointment. The middle class has no one to turn to.  

Mazal Mualem is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and formerly a chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz. She also previously worked for Bamachane, the Israeli army's weekly newspaper.

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