Local Israeli authorities lose a little freedom on Independence Day

With local governments paying increasingly exorbitant prices for performers to entertain on Independence Day, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has introduced a cap in pricing to take effect in 2020.

al-monitor Israelis pose for a picture on Israel's 70th Independence Day, in the southern city of Ashkelon, April 18, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

May 9, 2019

Independence Day is an Israeli happening. City streets are decorated with flags and colorful lights, and downtowns are filled with food stalls, balloons and inflatable hammers, creating a carnival atmosphere. At the center of the action are the stages for entertainment organized by local authorities. The best Israeli artists perform for the occasion, with those most in demand moving from town to town without rest, performing multiple times in one night. In recent years, the competition to bring the most famous (and expensive) artists to town has gotten out of control.

The high prices paid to these artists from public coffers has more than once sparked debate. In addition, the artists raise their prices every year. For example, Omer Adam, one of the most popular and successful singers in Israel in recent years, performed for 140,000 NIS ($39,000) in 2017 and raised his price to 205,000 NIS ($57,000) in 2018. This year, his price skyrocketed to 292,000 NIS ($81,000), for about half an hour of music.

Such price increases are not unique to Adam. In 2016, the most expensive artist was Moshe Peretz, who charged 198,000 NIS ($55,000) for Independence Day performances, but this year it is Adam, whose fee represents a jump of more than 30%. The problem is that although the mayor organizes these celebrations, it is residents who end up paying the high prices or them. 

On April 29, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri decided to adopt the recommendation of a public committee to cap payments to artists for Independence Day shows at no more than 70,000 NIS ($19,500) for an hour-long performance. According to Deri, “There’s no reason that disadvantaged local authorities should pay exorbitant prices to singers on Independence Day beyond their abilities. This causes serious deficits for some of the authorities. These exaggerated prices come at the expense of other essential services, and there’s no reason for them to be hurt.”

This distortion was captured by Kobi Mizrachi, a resident of Rosh Ha-ayin, in a tweet: “Omer Adam’s performance over the summer at Rosh Ha-ayin cost 300,000 NIS [$83,500], two weeks later they announced to parents in the new neighborhoods that they won’t open nursery schools for kids because there’s no budget for it.”

Mizrachi believes that it is wrong for mayors to advance public relations with public funds. “The height of the absurdity is in an election year,” Mizrachi told Al-Monitor. “The mayor, thirsty for any bit of positive coverage, writes a check at the expense of public funds to some star, the masses come, he gets the credit and gets [good] public relations at the expense of the public. It’s totally twisted.”

Mizrachi believes that such money spent could be put to better use. “This money could be distributed for cultural events throughout the year, for long-term educational activity, and not to an hour performance,” he said. “I’m for the artists making a living, but there’s a difference between public money and private money. Public money should be treated with great respect and this is far from the reality. Mayors sometimes see public funds as a cash faucet.” 

In the meantime, the new limit, which goes into force next year, is causing an uproar among artists and agents. Peretz, when asked about limiting payment to 70,000 NIS, said that for that amount, he preferred to have a BBQ with his family instead. Sources in the entertainment industry and local authorities believe that lower prices will lead big artists to refuse to appear at independence celebrations. 

A well-known agent in the music industry argued in a conversation with Al-Monitor that this is a populist decision by the interior minister. “There’s a jihad atmosphere against artists following the interior minister’s decision,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Suddenly the artists are to blame for the theft of public funds. The sums are indeed large, but they include payment to producers and the band and other staff. In the end, the artist travels throughout the country and works very hard. Those who benefit are the public, which sees a singer they love on the stage [for free], and the price for seeing him perform throughout the year is 200-400 NIS [$50-100]. So what if it’s the public’s money? It goes back to the public!”

Kiryat Shmona's mayor, Avichai Stern, sees the current situation as an opportunity to bring young artists to Independence Day stages. Stern decided that this year, only local artists will appear in his town.

“It’s precisely on Independence Day that there’s no greater pride than to see local artists appear in their own towns,” he explained in a conversation with Al-Monitor. “It’s also an opportunity to extend a hand to young talents at the beginning of their road. As a public body it’s our role to bring talents from the community to the fore and put the focus on those who haven’t had that opportunity.” 

Stern believes that limiting payments to artists will make things easier for many heads of local authorities. “There are 256 local authorities in Israel, and a tough competition has emerged among them that has led to wasteful celebrations,” Stern said. “Now that there’s a governmental limit, no one can complain. At 300,000 NIS, I can put on an extensive cultural program throughout the whole year and not waste it on a half-hour performance on Independence Day.”

Revital Amiran, a member of the committee that recommended limiting payments, sees the decision as necessary. “A competition has been created that has gotten out of control,” she told Al-Monitor. “At this rate, we could reach a half a million NIS payment per artist. An immediate intervention was needed to protect public funds, and we are getting amazing responses from the field. I ask myself where the argument came from that the public demands the expensive artists. Everyone understood that this isn’t right. There are local authorities that receive [government] support, rack up deficits, but burn 300,000 NIS on one night. It’s crazy.” 

Amiran is not concerned about some artists deciding not to appear on Independence Day. “There are veteran singers who have been pushed outside the circle of performances, and there are new artists who want an opportunity,” she said. “They would be happy to come and appear at sums of up to 70,000 NIS.”

In 2013, the state comptroller issued a harsh report on the management of local events and celebrations, asserting, “The inspection showed that local authorities that were checked did not act in the best way to handle public funds that were entrusted to them.” Although government intervention in the management of local authorities is not a healthy move, in this case the situation appeared to demand it. While Israel is celebrating its independence, local authorities will simply get a little less of it.

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