Turning a 'Protective Back' to the Residents of the South
This past month has been unbearable for all of Israel's citizens. Hearing about fallen soldiers, our eyes have hardly been dry. Each time we caught sight of a ghost town, emptied by the threat of tunnels from Gaza, our stomachs churned. And we lost sleep at the thought that the children of the south forced to endure an unimaginable daily routine. At times like these, what it means to be an elected official is reinforced — it is our responsibility to restore peace and security to all, to comfort the families who have lost their loved ones, to strengthen the soldiers, and, no less important, to help with the ever-present emotional and economic challenges, which are only exacerbated in war time.
This past month my agenda has focused on the South. In the mornings I fought on the Finance Committee for compensation for the residents of the South and against the government's spin, which took advantage of the war's smoke screen of tanks in order to try and covertly transfer large sums of money to unacceptable places. In the evenings I went on tours of the south, to meet with the residents of kibbutzim and yishuvim, to support the many volunteers who worked in disadvantaged neighborhoods as well as on visits to hospitals and the homes of bereaved families.
This agenda made it all the more clear for me the extent to which the government's cynicism is unceasing: it doesn't stop in wartime. On the one hand, government officials warmly embraced Israel's "intrepid towns on the home front" from the television studios, but on the other hand, until the last week of the operation, not a single shekel was transferred (!) to these self-same southern communities. Those who followed my work on the Finance Committee know very well just how quickly budgets can be transferred — so quickly that we often don't know where the money is going. As you know, more than 700 million shekels were transferred as bonuses to the settlements since last October for housing, education, and welfare. But when we're talking about Sderot and Ashkelon? The budgets of the Gaza Envelope? Suddenly there is time.
I will not tolerate this unfair division. It is high time we moved our money to the places that need it most. This is not just a moral issue — it's also economic. The failure of businesses in the south will usher in a much harsher economic downturn in their wake. Click here to hear to my radio interview on the topic.
If you, or someone you know, have been faced with any kind of difficulty as a result of this war, I welcome you to share it with me. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do all I can to resolve your issue with the help of the proper authorities.
The Day After
Now, after a portion of this latest military operation ended, our political 'operation' is more important than ever. We must push — with the same assertiveness, with the same determination — for a deal that would allow us to put this bloody cycle of violence behind us and bring quiet. This kind of agreement is possible. This would not be a bilateral agreement, one with the Palestinians alone. It would be multilateral, and include the partnership of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. It would be a step towards a regional treaty on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative and include the involvement of the United Staes and Europe. Without this kind of pressure for a deal, and given that there have been no strategic changes in Netanyahu's policy, "Tzuk Eitan" (Defensive Shield) would otherwise be just another stepping stone towards the next operation.
One last word in this regard. In recent weeks we have unfortunately witnessed not only an external war, but also an internal one. We have witnessed racism and incitement on social media as well as in the streets — bypassing partisan boundaries and across camps. We cannot allow ourselves to accept this as fact or become complacent. Frustration and bitterness in the hearts of citizens as a result of the difficult security situation cannot be allowed to turn to hatred against those who are different from us, or who hold opposing views. The hatred that has been given voice inside of our communities in no way helps the war effort. In fact, it does precisely the opposite: expressions of solidarity and partnership in Israeli society are what accomplish this — of which we thankfully have many as well. I expect the Prime Minister to strongly condemn these phenomena and to fight these lawbreakers with a heavy hand. Silence is dangerous. Almost two decades ago, incitement and violence from within Israel's internal debate led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and created a rift in Israeli society that has yet to mend. We must do everything we can to prevent internal war between us.
For All the Noise, We Came Out With Nothing
The Knesset's summer session ended with a massive farce: the bill exempting certain properties from the VAT tax, introduced by Yair Lapid, was toppled by the opposition after a long, tedious discussion process. I must say that, when this bill crossed our table, I was excited by the change in direction. Finally, it seemed, the state had decided to open its coffers and take out some money for housing solutions. But when I learned the specifics of the law, I understood that instead of taking out money in a process that would increase housing and provide us all with a future that includes a roof over our head, the Finance Ministry decided to do precisely the opposite. Instead of increasing the supply of housing, he is giving a gift, and increases demand. And instead of creating solutions that benefit everyone with housing solutions, Lapdi prefers to use our tax dollars for a tiny, lucky segment of the population.
What could the Finance Ministry do with this astronomical sum of four billion shekels a year? Well, one example would be to open a national housing project, and define by law that 20% of the new project would be dedicated to affordable housing, like the laws in France, England, and a number of states in the United States. This law, by my estimation, would only cost one billion shekels a year, and could allocate 10,000 houses to those with average income. And, at a cost of 500 million shekels, we could provide rental assistance to some 60,000 people. And we still wouldn't have reached half to the amount Lap[id wants to spend to every that would help only a few thousand people.
Lapid argued that his law was meant to help newly discharged soldiers, but this too was misleading. How many newly discharged soldiers are capable of purchasing an apartment of one million shekels? Very few. Most new discharges rent, and as of now, Lapid is still holding my Fair Rent bill hostage, a bill that could significantly improve the lives of this specific population.
During the discussions held in the Knesset about the law, Lapid suggested alternative housing solutions to his no-VAT law. For example, transferring the same amount of money — 4 billion shekels — as a special housing grant (for rent or purchase) to all discharged soldier, so that all be able to benefit from it, not only those with wealthy parents. After this suggestion was rejected by the Finance Ministry, I submitted a list of amendments in an attempt to improve the law: I suggested including vulnerable populations in the law in a way that would make the law deliberately repeatable and not a one-time grant (these included, among others, Arab, ultra-Orthodox, new immigrants, and disabled populations). The purpose of these amendments was in part to require that this money be used to fund some of the kinds of housing solutions that the Committee for the Fight on Poverty had already suggested, but primarily to direct the law towards massive building project of accessible housing. The Finance Ministry opposed all of my amendments.
Thankfully we were able to stop this populist bill, and we will continue the fight for truly fair housing that provides solutions for the full gamut of Israel's population.
Here is my speech from the first meeting on the VAT law, with the Finance Minister present:
Arise, and Walk the Land
At the top of my priority list in the coming months small businesses and those workers who have been harmed economically by the war. In this time, I am helping everyone I can who has turned to me with a request, I have come to visit and seek out those who don't know how to ask. In the coming months I will dedicate myself, among other things, to advancing my proposed bill for Fair Rent, which is up for a vote in the next Knesset session, and to the battle for transparency in the budget on the Finance Committee, which has risen to new heights since the court gave the order that the Finance Ministry negotiate with me last month.
The members of my staff and I would like house the summer months in order to reach you — do you have an idea or a new initiative you'd like to see? We'd like to hear about it. Is there a problem in your city or town that hasn't made it's way to a member of Knesset? Do you want to create a parlor meeting to discuss the battle for transparency in 2015? We're open to ideas. Write to us.