The appearance of Minister for Environmental Protection Avi Gabai (Kulanu) at a meeting of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on the Natural Gas Outline last Wednesday was like a breath of fresh air.
Gabai participated in the meeting despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forbade him to appear due to his known opposition to the outline. The attorney general permitted Gabai’s appearance but added that he may not speak against the government’s official policy which is to support the outline.
Gabai chose his words carefully during the meeting, but nevertheless expressed his reservations. His main reservations are that the government should not have negotiated the outline with the gas corporations since it is sovereign (though he is certainly not against their being consulted), that the issue of competition was not properly addressed in the outline, that not enough was done to ensure that the Leviathan gas field will be developed and start producing within a reasonable time frame, and that not enough was done to ensure the laying of a second pipeline to the mainland.
What Gabai said will not change the outline, which at this stage is probably unchangeable, but it was nevertheless important, especially in that what he said, and the way he said it, could not be swept aside by government spokesmen as not being serious.
What is most disturbing about the government’s position is that in the first instance it tried to prevent any serious public debate in the Knesset and outside the Knesset on the outline, and secondly, when it failed in this endeavor (certainly a political victory for those insisting on democratic procedures), it has been inclined to pooh-pooh the arguments of the opponents as nothing but populist bunk.
This is not to say that the government does not have any serious arguments in favor of the outline, such as the constraints created by the original gas concessions and by foreign policy considerations, only that its decision making process and modus operandi was faulty, to the point of being a cause for serious concern to anyone for whom democratic procedures and transparency are important.
Kulanu has three ministers in the current government: two of them, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, who are also MKs, and Avi Gabai, who is not. The former two abstained during the vote on the outline both in the government and Knesset several months ago, hiding behind the excuse of “conflict of interests.” The latter, who voted against the outline in the government, has no Knesset vote.
Kahlon and Galant have said nothing in public about the outline; Gabai has spoken out loudly and clearly. One is left wondering whether he expresses the view of Kulanu as a whole, or whether he is simply acting as a lone maverick.
The truth of the matter is that if Kulanu were adamant about defeating the current natural gas outline it could have done so. Even if Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu were to join the coalition (with its six Knesset seats), Kulanu (10 seats) is the only party that can bring down the current government. One may thus assume that despite all of Kahlon’s brave talk about economic competition and fighting monopolies before the elections, he does not regard the gas issue as important enough to bring down the current coalition, with or without new elections, though he is known to favor the Zionist Union joining the coalition and is unlikely to insist on Bayit Yehudi remaining in.
It should be noted that Kulanu has occasionally made use of its leverage to constrain the government, as in the case of its refusal to support any move that is designed to weaken the Supreme Court, and its reservations with regard to the more extreme versions of a law stating that Israel is the state of the Jewish nation. It is largely for this that I would term Kulanu “the righteous in Sodom,” and the one member of the current coalition that I can usually identify with, even though I am not sure what its policy is regarding the efforts of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to weaken the human rights organizations in Israel, and of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev to interfere with the legitimate narrative of Israel’s Arabs.
Nevertheless, from time to time even Kulanu and its leader Kahlon manage to rub me the wrong way. Such an incident occurred during the Knesset plenary debate on the 2015-16 budget on November 18, in which without any apparent direct provocation Kahlon justified the large increase in child allowances (a condition included in the coalition agreement between the Likud and the haredi parties) by stating: “Yes, our colleagues from the opposition – we favor child allowances... Where I grew up, children are considered a blessing. For you, children are a burden.”
I have no idea why Kahlon made this outrageous accusation, to which several members of the Labor Party reacted in angry protest, but it certainly didn’t come from a vacuum. Kahlon was born to a hard working but low income family with seven children, for whom child allowances were apparently an important source of additional income.
No social democrat objects to such families receiving child allowances. The welfare state is part of social democratic ideology. The problem has to do with those who wish to avoid going out to work – whether for religious/ ideological or for social reasons – and for whom child allowances serve as an alternative to employment, which places a superfluous burden on an already overtaxed economy.
From the side of middle class values there is also the principle that one ought not to have more children than one can support without state help, or the modern consideration that one ought not to have more children than one can cope with without serious neglect, when both parents are pursuing careers.
However, to conclude from all this that those who have certain reservations regarding excessive child allowances, or who choose to have small families, regard children as a burden, is cheap populism, just like the saying that “children are a blessing” is a very shallow observation, which is frequently untrue. Family planning has a lot to be said for it, and the fact that Kahlon himself has “only” three children speaks for itself.
In the final reckoning Kahlon will be judged on the basis of how successful he is in reducing the price of housing, which was the main issue in his election campaign. So far his insistence after the elections on gaining control of all the ministries and government agencies that are somehow connected to determining the price of housing doesn’t seem to have paid off. But perhaps it is still too early to pass judgment.
I still believe that the only way to change the housing market is for the government to play a much greater direct role, at least for a certain period, in order to change the basic rules under which the housing market operates in Israel.
That is probably also what should have been done with regard to the natural gas issue, as the Dutch government chose to act after the giant natural gas field was discovered in Groningen in the Netherlands back in 1959, as we learned from Mattan Hodorov’s excellent program Asda la Vista on TV Channel 10 last week.
But all this is beyond anything Kahlon and Kulanu can or might wish to do, and is therefore besides the point in the current context.
The writer is a political scientist, and a retired Knesset employee.