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August 12, 2011
 

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PAGE 18A By David Rosenberg The Media Line Israeli Prime ~Minister Ben- jamm Netanyahu, who laid the groundwork a decade ago for Israel's booming economy with a strategy of smaller government, may be reversing course as he faces anonslaught of consumers angry that the growth he spurred hasn't trickled down to them. Last weekend. 100,000 or more protested incities across Israel against the high cost of housing and other consumer goods, sending tremors across Israeli politics and prompting Netanyahu to undertake a series of rapid-fire measures to satisfy their demands. But far from assuaging them, the protesters returned to their tent cities while municipal employees staged a one-day strike Aug. 1 in support of the protesters. "I talked to some of them [the protesters] ... What I think they are hankering for is to reestablish the big government of the sort that existed until the mid 1980s. I hope that Netanyahu won't succumb to that." Yakir Pless- ner. who teaches economics at The Hebrew University, told The Media Line. "If he starts to feed the protestbeast little HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, AUGUST 12, 2011 Netanyahu to reverse economic course? morsels, he'll just whet its ap- petite. That's what he's doing and it's a mistake." A change in policy could have far-reaching implications for Israel, whose free market reforms and tight budgetary policies have enabled the economy to post eight years of near uninterrupted growth and attra~:t billions of dollars in foreign investment. With Greece and other European countries struggling with huge debts, markets are keep- ing close tabs on a country's finances. A Standard & Poor's team that met with Finance Minis- ter Yuval Steinitz two weeks ago expressed concern the budget deficit may swell as the government raises spending to respond to protesters' de- mands, harming the country's credit rating, the daily Ma'ariv reported. Butanalysts saidNetanyahu seemed to be panicking in the face of protests that began as a small Facebook campaign and quickly ballooned into street demonstrations and tent cit- ies across the country, whQse impact has been magnified by extensive media coverage. Reversing the trend of skyrock- eting home prices--which is at the top of protesters' de- mands-would take time, so the prime minister is looking for quick fixes. "Elections are two years from now but the politicians want to ensure they are re- elected and don't want to lose their popularity in the meantime. But the scope of the protest made the government aware that the problems are more acute than it previously thought," Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University and Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, told The Media Line. On July 31, Netanyahu ap- pointed a team of ministers. most of them indentified with the so-called "social" agenda, to meet with protest leaders to devise a Way of reducing the "economic burden" on ordinary citizens. He also orderedasched- uled rise in gasoline prices to be rescindedand doubledthe home heating grant for senior citizens on welfare. 'Officials are weighing a grab-bag of other measures aimed at winingl~avor with the protesters and the public--tax benefits for working mothers, young couples and people do- ing reserve duty in the army; reining in the scheduled hikes in electrical rates; and lower- ing the value-added tax (VAT). Opposition leader Tzipi Livni urged the government to go a step further and tear up the 2012 budget in favor of a plan that would increase over- all spending and devote more resources to social outlays. Meanwhile, the forces of fiscal discipline and a system- atic approach to addressing problemswere in retreat. Haim Shani. the director-general of the Finance Minister and its No. 1 civil servant, quit Aug. 31 over what media reports said was a dispute over the cost of budget handouts promi~ed by Netanyahu to protesters and the scattered approach to addressing issues. Netanyahu is widely cred- itedwith unleashing the forces that created the economic miracle by reducing govern- ment spending and taxes, sell- ingoffstate-owned companies and deregulating industries while he was finance minister from 2003 to2005. As a result, Israel is fiscally healthier than the U~S. and much of Europe. But that fiscal rectitude came at the cost of slashing welfare spending while exacerbating the already wide gaps between Israel's richest and poorest. Israel's booming economy and the taxes it collects from it have put the government in an enviable fiscal situation. In the first half Of the year, the budget showed a surplus equal to 0.3 percent of gross domestic product, compared with a deficit of 1.1 percent the same time in 2010. But the measures Netanyahu has taken or is contemplating could upset that. Cancelling the rise in gaso- line prices will deprive the government of 60 millions shekels ($17 million) inAugust alone. Each cut in the VAT rate costs NIS 1.8 billion. Tax benefits will cost six billions of shekels annually. If the gov- ernment were to meet all the protesters' demand, it could cause the budget to swell by 60 billion shekels or 20 percent, according to a leaked Finance Ministry memo. On Aug. 31. Netanyahu insisted that there is no con- tradiction between his new emphasis on social spending and budgetary discipline. "We must avoid irrespon- sible, hasty and populist steps that are liable to cause the Country to deteriorate into the situation of certain European countries, which are on the -verge of bankruptcy and large- scale unemployment. I don't think that anyone wants Israel to reach such a situation," he told the weekly Cabinet meet- ing on Aug. 31. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who is widely creditedwith ensuring Israel's strong economm performance in the last several years, admit- ted at a recent news conference that he was surprised by the wave of protests. But he warned the government against act- ing too hastily, especially in the current global economic environment where economic tigers like Ireland rapidly turn into trouble spots. "These changes happened very quickly." he said. "We need to preserve the framework in which the government oper- ates. We, the government, nee d to make tough decisions butwe can only make them after we have done the groundwork." In fact, most analysts ex- pressed the view that Netan- yahu's government faces no immediate political threat from the protests. The coalition he depends on for his parliamentary majority has no interest in early elec- tions. Diskin noted that the Aug. 31 protesters failed to get the backing of Ofer Eini, the powerful head of Israel's Histadrut trade unions federa- tion, marking a major setback for them. Plessner said he expected the protests lack depth because the economy is thriving and will likely fade out with the end of the summer holidays. Lieberman From page 1A Instead. melding an un- likely array of tales ranging from 16th-century Safed to tension-soaked Republican and Democratic back rooms, Lieberman makes the case for a structured day of rest that offers freedom within ir0n wall . The book also provides a glimpse into how religion shaped this most adamant of congressional centrists, whose stubborn hewing to his beliefs brought himwithin shouting distance of the vice presidency before propelling him toward the end of his political career (Lieberman announced in January that he will not seek re-electi0n in 2012). One potent example of Liebernia/t's championing of freedom through restrictions is how the dictates of the holy day liberate him from his BlackBerry. "Six days a week. I'm never without this little piece of plastic, chips and wires that miraculofisly connect me to the rest of the world and that I hope makes me more efficient. but clearly consumes a lot of my time and attention," he writes. "If there ~vere no Sab- bath law to keep me from send- ing and receiving email all day as I normally do, do you think I would be able to resist the temptation on the Sabbath? Not a chance. Laws have this way of setting us free." As it turns out, this has been a book Lieberman has been considerinl~ for a while. He says the seeds of it reach as far back as his first run for state senator in 1970, when his Sabbfith observance first created logistical problems for his campaign staff. It emerged full force when A1 Gore named him as his running mate in 2000. In Lacrosse, Wis., on a Saturday after the announcement, he found people coming out of their homes to greet him and wish him well as he walked to the local synagogue. Conversations with Chris- tians and their curiosity about his observance crystallized the idea for the book, he told JTA in an interview. "This is something I thought about doing for a long time," Lieberman said. "b C U e ttl meant so much for me. It's real been a foundation for my life." The book is published by Si- mon & Schuster's Howard im- print in conjunction with OU Press. Lieberman co-wrote it with David Klinghoffer, a conservative (and Orthodox Jewish) columnist and author, and consulting with Rabbi Menachem Genack, who runs the Orthodox Union's kashrut division and with whom Lieberman takes a weekly telephone class. Genack in an interview downplayed the book's out- reach to Christians. "He really wants Jews to read it; he wants to bring the beauty of Shabbos to his own constituency," Genack told JTA. ?But that message and that beauty has a universal theme as well." Each chapter ends With a list of "simple beginnings'- practices that could launch a reader's observance: "Turn off the TV, computer, cell phone orall three"; lighttwo candles; bless your children, "placing your hands on their head or shoulders"; and "consider choosing a congregation close enough that you can walk there and home again." In one chapter he describes God's "brilliance" in mandat- ing conjugal sex during the Sabbath. Eieberman's growth as an observant Jew and his frus- trations and triumphs as a politician weave through the book. His Sabbath observance appears to be inextricable from' his public career: He withdrew from observance at Yale University, writing in the book that he continued to lay tefillinbecauseitwas aprivate act, but Sabbath observance seemed too public for him. It"interrupted theweekend social flow of college life," he writes. The death of his beloved maternal grandmother--his "Baba" in 1967 returned him to the Sabbath obser- vance 0t upbringing. Within three years, at ag~ 28 and with-the campaigning skills of his Yale Law buddy Bill Clinton assisting him, he won his first elected office, Connecticut state senator. "I began to see myself in the larger context of history," Lieberman said. "I came back step by stepto observance." In the book, he says his Sab- bath observance "has made it easier for me to be different in my political life when being different is where my beliefs have taken me." His Jewish observance in- evitably seeped into his public life, writing vividly of how it influenced his decision in 1998 to chastise Clinton from the Senate floor for his affair .with intern Monica Lewinsky. He recalls discussing with his family whether to be the first major Democrat to speak out. His four children said he should; Hadassah, his wife, was torn; his mother, who adored Clinton, urged him to keep silent. In the end, his rebuke that the president's behavior was "immoral" and "harmful" and "too consequential for us to walk away from" made history. This break with the Demo- cratic consensus helped lead Gore to choose him as a run- ning mate in 2000; Lieberman represented a Clean break with the scandals that had dogged Clinton. Many of these episodes seem bittersweet. He writes of the celebratory Sabbath he shared with A1 and Tipper Gore on Dec. 7, 2000, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of a recount that almost certainly would have propelled Gore to the presidency and Lieberman to the vice presidency. The Liebermans rushed to the Naval Observatory, the vice president's residence, just in time for Shabbat candle light- ing, and after dinner the two couples walked the mile or so back to the Lieberman home in Georgetown. "It was a night when we felt at the door of history and also very close to these two fine people," he writes, and stops there. It's as if he can't bring himself to the denoue- ment: The door that history opened was not to occupancy of th.e Naval Observatory but to a profoundly, divisive U.S. Supreme Court decision over- ruling the Florida court that would put George W. Bush in the White House. It's a fluke of the fates keenly felt by his friends; Genack corrects me when I call Lieberman "the first Jew on a major ticket." "He was the first Jew elected vice president." he says. "He was elected vice president." The same bittersweet sense borne of lost opportunity informs another recounting in the book of a failed vice presidential bid. Staff for the McCain-Palin campaign urged Lieberman to give then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a pep talk at a low point in the campaign, when she seemed unable to absorb the briefing material for her vice presi- dential debate with Joe Biden. Lieberman talked of how the biblical Esther's fate as a Jew differed from her destiny as a savior of Jews. The former was a covenant thrust upon her, while the latter was a covenant that handed her a choice. Palin, like Esther, now had a moment of choice: "The covenant of destiny iswhatwe make of ourselves." Palin ate it up, he said. How Lieberman concludes this tale, however, again suggests his frustration with history. The Republican can- didate, his close friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), report- edlywanted to take Lieberman as a running mate, but the Republican establishment convinced McCain otherwise. Lieberman recalls urging Palin to "use all the ability you have to take advantage of the moment and realize your destiny," and then c0nciudes, "And she did." Lieberman laughed when asked if what he meant'was that losing was her destiny. "I meant that she worked hard and did pretty well in the debate." he said. The book's political content is hardly a hettling of scores. If anything, it is what Israelis call a "heshbon nefesh," an accounting of a s0ul. Lieberman ends the Lewin- sky episode by emphasizing that he did not vote for im- peachment and regarded the former president as "'capable of genume goodness, even greatness." He is effusive in his praise of Gore, although the former vice president shocked Lieberman by endorsing Howard Dean. Lieberman's nemesis, in the 2004 election. The book's fond recollec- tions of Democrats through- out particular.ly Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager--obscure his painful break with the party in 2006, when he lost his state's primary election and ran for senator as an Independent. Oddly, that episode is not mentioned. The decor in Lieberman's Senate office is a testimony to the path he chose right through the center of Arner- ica's deeply partisan divide. Dominating the entry wall is an invitation to an 2006 event he once hosted marking the 1787 Connecticut Compro- mise that set up America's bicameral parliament, and "compromise" defines the photos below it: One of Li- eberman with George H.W. Bush, one with Bill Clinton, two each with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The magazine basket is topped with the conservative Weekly Standard; nosing out beneath it is the liberal American Prospect. Occasionally a regret seeps through: Describing the village-like atmosphere of his Washington synagogue, Lieberman notes in the book mat ne and a journalist ne once regarded as a friend now barely exchange hellos, and that another friend still chides him for voting to go to war with Iraq in 2002 a war that most American Jews eventually came to oppose. That's not the only hint of the Joe Lieberman that has driven crazy many liberal American Jews who other- wise felt great pride in his rise. Lieberman praises John Hagee, the evangelical pas- tor who founded Christians United for Israel and whose excoriations of President Obama and other Democrats have turned off much of the Jewish establishment. And there's material to drive Jewish conservatives crazy. Explaining his Sabbath compromises, he says that voting for social welfare pro- grams on Shabbat amounted to "pikuach nefesh," saving of lives, which mandates violat- ing Sabbath prohibitions. Lieberman says he does not regret striking his own path down the middle. "It's certainly made me more productive as a senator," he says. Perhaps, but it was his closeness to Bush and h.is Iraq War advocacy that drove him out of contention for the presi- dential nomination in 2004. The legacy he now longs for, exemplified by this book, has supplanted the legacy that his independence cost him: first Jewish president. "I feel that this book may be one of the most important things I do in my lifetime," Lieberman said. "It's from re- ally inside me. I hope it affects people's lives."