Israel’s finance minister: ‘We sacrificed the economy on the altar of health’

Outgoing finance minister says he prevented complete financial disaster by keeping industries open despite health ministry pressure.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon took credit for keeping the Israeli economy from collapsing due to the coronavirus pandemic in a farewell interview with Israel Hayom Thursday.

“During the whole crisis, we prevented enormous damage to the country,” he said. “If we had accepted everything that the health people wanted, we’d have three million unemployed right now and a pit that we wouldn’t be able to climb out of even in another 10 years.”

He said that he simply refused to completely shut down the economy when Health Ministry officials were panicking at the rising numbers of infections.

“When we started to feel that [the officials] were exaggerating a bit, I gave instructions that contradicted what they requested,” he said. “For example, they wanted to close all industries, and I didn’t agree…. Every industrialist who had an overseas client received permission to stay open. Manufacturing never dipped below 80 percent activity.”

He had agreed with other major steps that were taken, such as the weeks-long closure of retail outfits and the service sector, but he does not think that should be repeated if there is a resurgence of the deadly virus.

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“It is not over yet, but even if another wave of corona comes, we must not repeat the moves we made,” he told the Hebrew daily. “They were correct, we sacrificed the economy at the altar of health. [But] it is impossible to do another lockdown of the economy if there will be another wave, it’s dangerous. As of now, we can say that we’ve managed it.”

Part of the economic sacrifice was in the government handouts promised to the million Israelis who were forced for the most part to take unpaid leave, although some were also fired from their jobs. Kahlon said that the Israeli government was also among the more generous in the world regarding the financial support it is giving its citizens.

“The United States gave $1,500 to each family, we’ve given NIS 15,000-16,000 over several rounds,” he maintained. “Corona cost the State of Israel about NIS 140 billion. I hope that it will end with that.”

The outgoing minister said that he understood what the health officials were thinking when they made their demands, but that he had kept his cool.

“They’re presenting frightening scenarios, and you can’t contradict it,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Look at the pictures from Italy, from the United States, how the bodies are starting to pile up, the number of coffins.’ So what will you say? That it’s not correct? That it won’t happen? I told the director-general, ‘Remain calm, don’t worry, everything will be alright.’”

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He also said that part of the pressure stemmed from fear of a future investigation into their conduct.

“They didn’t know what would happen,” he said. “Each one looked and told himself that there was surely going to be a state commission of inquiry, and he doesn’t want to explain why there are [dead] bodies of Israelis.”

Kahlon is retiring from politics once the new government is sworn in Thursday night. The current foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, will take his place.