Naftali Bennett: "From Crisis to Prosperity"
(Last chapter of "How to Beat COVID-19. The Way to Overcome the Crisis and
Lead Israel to Prosperity.")
Translated to English by IMRA. Distributed and posted with permission of
When, God forbid, an accident occurs, we usually hear that the goal is to
"restore the situation to its former state." Our natural aspiration is to
restore what has been destroyed, to repair what has been broken or to pick
up what has fallen. In short, get back to routine.
COVID-19 is a serious accident that the State of Israel went through. It hit
us head-on, suddenly, without us being ready. It has wreaked great havoc on
us which we did not expect.
But it would be a huge miss if our goal were to 'just' get back to routine.
It will be a historic miss if we strive to recreate the situation we were in
in February 2020.
With all the difficulty, COVID-19 has opened a window of opportunity for us
to launch the State of Israel an entire generation forward. Complex social
and economic processes that without the pandemic would have been delayed for
many years can now progress rapidly, if only we decide to act with courage
A day will come, and it is not far off, and the COVID-19 crisis will be
behind us. I do not know when this will happen, but there is something that
I do know: The State of Israel must not waste this crisis. We must not
resign ourselves to the feeling of discomfort, disappear behind the masks
and just try to pass the time and survive until the vaccine arrives. We need
to look today for the opportunities that exist in the crisis, find the new
springboards it creates - and simply jump from them.
This could be Israel's beautiful hour.
* * *
The first and most urgent thing we must do is stabilize the Israeli economy.
For those who have been thrown by the wayside by COVID-19 - first aid should
be provided; Whoever it put on the ropes - should be put on their feet.
Long-term damage must be avoided, and everyone must have a way to bring
bread home and pay rent.
This is our basic responsibility as a country. It should be done now,
immediately, without any delay.
Today, the government's way of doing this is in the form of unemployment
benefits - which have been extended for a year, until June 2021. In other
words: the state has decided to give citizens fish instead of fishing rods.
This is a mistake.
Instead of restarting the economy - the government is freezing it.
Countless factory owners, restaurants and various businesses complain to me
that they are unable to recruit workers. Yes, while we are at the peak of
all-time unemployment in Israel, tens of thousands of business executives
are in dire need of working hands.
Why is it happening? Because many people would rather enjoy a year off with
70% of their salary, than go out and work for the other 30%. Many of them
also work off the books in the 'black', without reporting to the tax
authorities and get used to it. Thus, the government is building with its
own hands a huge unreported black economy.
Even for the unemployed it is a paradise of fools. People by their very
nature need work, meaning, activity. Young and old, full of energy and
abilities, who could adapt and succeed in the new reality, will now get used
to long months of unemployment, which will make it very difficult for them
to return to the labor market in a year.
I see in their eyes the 'rusting' experience. The gray meaning of sitting at
home. This does not motivate the economy.
We need a different economic emergency plan. A program that believes in the
powers of the citizens of Israel and gives them tools to rise on their own
from the complex situation they have reached.
I will give you an example of an idea of ??this kind, which stabilizes the
economy and allows it to continue operating even in the days of COVID-19 -
instead of freezing it.
The culture sector is one of the most severely affected by COVID-19 because
it is based on a crowd of many people in one place. For several months now
there have been no plays, no concerts, no movies, no performances. The
curtain went down on the stages and the lights went out in all the halls.
Today the government does not offer any creative solution to deal with the
cultural crisis. It sends home the actors, directors, producers, make-up
artists, lighting designers and dancers, and offers them, at best,
unemployment benefits. This forced shutdown, which means zero activity, is
the result of a collapsed business model. But as the state continues to fund
workers, this downtime will also be very costly. Is it possible to create an
alternative to sitting at home idle?
Consider, for example, the following option: It is already possible to hold
theater performances today, for example, if the hall is only 30% occupied
for reasons of social distancing. If this audience size is maintained, it is
possible to follow the instructions of the Ministry of Health and hold a
permitted gathering. But what's going on? The theater owners are not willing
to make all the effort to put on a show just for such a small number of
people. It does not pay off for them. But instead of opting for the easy
option of closing the theater and sending all the workers home, the state
could "buy" an additional ticket and a half for each ticket the theater
sold. Thus, a theater hall that has a play with 30% occupancy will receive
from the state a supplement that will cover an additional 45%, for a total
of 75%. They can work with that.
Such an action would not only be cheaper than paying unemployment benefits
for many months. It will also be several times more efficient. The most
important thing is that such activity will allow the wheels of the economy
to continue to operate. Employees will be able to return to work, receive a
salary and continue with a normal and creative routine.
True, under normal conditions this kind of subsidy is a terrible economic
program. The free market should generally be allowed to do what it does,
without unnecessary government intervention. But in emergencies the goal is
to warm up the frozen market a bit so it can go back to functioning on its
Once the strategic perception changes, when we understand that the economy
must not be frozen but helped to move again - a variety of ideas will
emerge: the long unemployment benefits will be replaced by effective
vocational training programs. Tens of thousands of COVID-19 unemployed
people will receive vouchers for training in the private market that will
allow them to acquire a new profession - in programming, mechanics,
agriculture and teaching - each according to their skills and preferences,
and return to earning a decent living. It will be possible to employ the
unemployed as 'COVID-19 inspectors' who will roam the streets and
courteously help enforce the guidelines. It will be possible to initiate
government programs to encourage Made In Israel procurement, and more and
All of this requires a conscious start: instead of worrying that "it will
only get worse", everything must be done so that the economy gets back on
its feet and starts moving in the right direction.
Why is this change so important? Because only those who are walking can
break out into a run. Already now we can - or rather: we must - leap
Our national DNA has the genes needed to turn any crisis in the present into
a springboard to the future. Our natural talent is to take the sticks that
are stuck in our wheels, reshape them and use them as springboards.
Take, for example, what happened on November 9, 1989. That day a human
earthquake shook Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Communist East
Germany toppled the wall that separated them from the free and capitalist
citizens of West Germany, in an impromptu and huge demonstration.
The fall of the Berlin Wall instantly wiped out an eighty-year-old Soviet
propaganda campaign seeking to portray life under communism as better. A
huge swarm of people who toppled the wall at the risk of their lives was the
last nail in the coffin of the communist experiment. A new era began in the
history of mankind and also in the history of Israel.
The fall of the Soviet Union, which banned immigration to Israel, lifted the
iron curtain before a million immigrants who came to Israel during the
The difficulties of immigration were immense, both for the absorbers and the
absorbed, but in retrospect this was undoubtedly a tremendous success. The
contribution of one million Zionist citizens to our country, whose
population has grown by a third in just one decade, is enormous. It is
impossible to imagine the national resilience of Israel or the rise of
Israeli high-tech without the wonderful talents and forces that this Aliyah
brought to Israel.
It was Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whom I admired, who understood the
historical potential, fought to direct the flow of immigration to Israel and
turned the global crisis into a national opportunity.
Now it's our turn. Today the challenge lies before us. History will not
forgive us if we do not learn to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis and
turn it into a new milestone in the history of the State of Israel.
* * *
The first strategic opportunity that the COVID-19 crisis presents us is very
similar to that of the late 1980s: bringing mass immigration to the country.
The COVID-19 crisis sent the Jews of the world's largest communities to
their homes. In the United States, Canada, France, Britain, Russia, and
Australia, millions of Jews have moved from a vibrant and fulfilling life to
a strange routine that goes on and on. Circumstances have forced the seven
million Jews in the world's largest communities to cancel travel, reconsider
enrolling in academic studies, close businesses and reflect on their
A Jew who was born and lived all his life in Paris, London, New York or
Melbourne is given a golden opportunity to realize the Zionist dream under
the auspices of the crisis. Let it sink in for a moment: yes, COVID-19 has
created a bizarre reality. But in this delusional reality, immigration to
Israel no longer necessarily involves job loss. After all, if for example
you are a lawyer who works via Zoom and manages most of the meetings
remotely, it does not really matter if you are in New York, Paris, Netanya
or Sderot. The geographical boundaries have lost their importance, and this
fact makes the Zionist possibility much cheaper and more inviting.
New York, with its two million Jews, is one of the cities hardest hit by the
COVID-19 crisis. At the height of the crisis, hundreds of thousands of city
residents chose to leave, return to their parents, or relocate to other
areas in the United States where the damage was less severe. But why shouldn't
the natural destination of Jewish New Yorkers be Israel? Why not take
advantage of the crisis for a long homeland visit and try to get on with
their lives and run their business ventures from here?
The State of Israel has a golden opportunity to propel with the COVID-19
waves also waves of immigration that have not been seen here for thirty
Beyond tactical actions aimed at fighting the pandemic, we must adopt a
strategic vision that will allow us to realize national opportunities that
will build Israel's resilience for decades to come. For example, we can set
a goal of an increase of half a million Jews in the next five years. The
immigrants will come from Western countries, Russia and Argentina and create
an economic 'boom' in the construction, high-tech, consumer and
In the medium term, the benefits of such a wave of immigration will dwarf
the damage the virus is currently causing to the Israeli economy. In the
long run, a decade or two from now, I estimate that thanks to such a massive
Aliyah, the State of Israel will change for the better so much so that we
won't be able recognize it.
So why is this wave not reaching our shores? Because just like the choice of
unemployment benefits, the government chose seclusion instead of daring. On
March 18, it was decided to close the country's gates to anyone who is not a
resident or citizen of the state. The implication of this move is: entry to
Jews who are not citizens of Israel is prohibited. Thus, Jews who are not
citizens who want to set foot in Israel must first complete the full
immigration process through the Jewish Agency.
The 'success' of the closure was almost complete. The traffic of all
passengers to and from Israel fell by 99.9% in April and amounted to only
400 people. In other words, for every thousand tourists who entered Israel
in April 2019, only one tourist entered it in April 2020. In May, only 2,300
people entered Israel, a decrease of 99.5% and in June 6,000 people, a
decrease of 98%.
Israelis living abroad who chose to return to Israel under the auspices of
the crisis, and there are quite a few, had to subject themselves to two
weeks of automatic isolation, which made the visit much less attractive even
to those who managed to meet the strict criteria set by the government.
Hardly any new immigrants arrived. As for mass immigration, there's nothing
even to talk about.
To me, closing the State of Israel to Jews in distress is a renunciation of
our very essence.
Even in the COVID-19 period, Israel can and should be a magnet for Jews from
all over the world. Establishing a dedicated system of quick COVID-19 tests
before and after the flight and operating a system of hotels that will host
them in the hours or days until a definitive medical result is obtained
would allow hundreds of thousands of Jews to come here - without too much
hassle on their part and without too great a risk for us.
Do you now understand the connection between the availability and quantity
of COVID-19 tests and the exploitation of an historic opportunity in the
history of the Jewish State?
This is also true for Jews who want to come to Israel for a short visit
before the holidays or for a period of a few months: those who come for a
few days are important to help revive Israeli tourism. For those who want to
stay here for a period of several months, a special temporary status can be
created that will allow them to work in Israel and experience a full Israeli
As part of this program, it is important to address not only new immigrants,
but also and especially returning Israelis. Today, hundreds of thousands of
Israelis who have left the country are scattered around the world - mainly
because of their search for work. This is a brain drain and a flight of
talent, because mostly these are talented, entrepreneurial people with
vision, who, if they return to Israel, will be able to make an important
contribution in propelling the economy forward.
Already today, the state encourages their return to Israel, and the Ministry
of Absorption and Aliyah grants tax benefits to returning residents that
increase the longer they are overseas. The maximum benefits are given to
Israelis who have been abroad for more than a decade. But what if, in light
of the situation, we declare 'Operation COVID-19', in which we set that in
the coming year it will be possible for every Israeli to return and receive
the maximum benefits even if they have not been abroad the requisite number
of years? Such an operation will bring home at least many thousands of
Israeli high-tech people who have moved to Silicon Valley, New York, and the
global technology centers, to be close to what is happening and are
currently working from a rented American home. Why not do it from here?
Let's bring them home!
In order to bring tourists, visitors, new immigrants and returning residents
to Israel, there is no need to raise huge budgets and there is no need to
establish a bureaucratic system of thousands of people. What is needed is to
harness the imagination and longings of our brothers and sisters overseas
and thus turn a difficult time into an historic opportunity.
We can do it.
* * *
Our second strategic opportunity is to turn the State of Israel into an
economic paradise and an empire of innovation.
During the War of Independence, Arab forces laid siege to Jerusalem. The
vehicles trying to reach Jerusalem on the main road got caught in the
section between Bab al-Wad and the Castel, where they were within the range
of Jordanian snipers who controlled the commanding hills. To break the
siege, a bypass road was created and partially paved in the Jerusalem
mountains. In parts of the secret ravine road, a tractor was required to
push the truck up the mountain, but the goal was achieved. This is the
"Burma Road" which broke the siege of Jerusalem, gained world fame, and
became a milestone in the history of the revival of the State of Israel.
The Burma Road is a symbol of Israeli ingenuity. This is our ethos: Block us
here? It's not so bad. We will find a way around. Are we being boycotted? No
problem, we will produce ourselves. This optimistic and dynamic approach
gives our country an overwhelming advantage in emergencies like war,
economic crisis and even during a global pandemic. We are agile, know how to
adapt to frequent changes and thrive even under pressure. The COVID-19
crisis is a great opportunity to exercise our 'Burma Road' muscle and stand
out in the spirit of our innovation and entrepreneurship.
The world is now in a fog. No one knows how to properly manage the education
system, the labor market, cultural life, and the world of commerce going
forward. No one knows what the consequences will be of a reality in which
social distancing is obligatory. No one knows what tomorrow's world will
look like and how different it will be from yesterday's world. And I say -
it's great that we don't know. Let's try new things!
The State of Israel can be the world's laboratory from which new inventions
emerge one after the other. We can become the global capital of educational
technology and a universal incubator of groundbreaking ideas in the field of
working from home. There are so many new 'Burma Roads' just waiting for us
to break through.
For this to happen, Israeli creativity must be given breathing space.
The Ministry of Education, for example, needs to freeze for two years the
tight supervision of schools, remove regulation and dictation from above and
allow principals and local authorities to conduct distance learning
experiments. Within a short time, collaborations will be developed between
the leading and most daring principals and the many Israeli start-up
companies that are engaged in learning and working online. There is nothing
better than that, for both parties: the companies will benefit from the
pilot and our educational system will benefit from the most advanced
technological solutions in the world.
Schools are just the beginning. Faced with the challenges and business
opportunities facing us and the world, Israel needs to take advantage of the
crisis and turn the next decade into a decade of leaping forward that will
bring Israel to the top ten in terms of per capita GDP.
How do we do that? Freeing the market. The first and boldest step is to
reboot regulation. The regulators in the various government ministries
should be instructed that they have a fixed period to write from scratch
up-to-date and proportionate regulation. Let them imagine for a moment that
in a particular field there are no regulations at all, and then rewrite them
from the bottom up after answering the question: What laws, rules,
circulars, provisions and regulations are really essential?
Any proposed regulation will be examined by a special team that will also
include representatives from the public and the business sector, to ensure
that the regulatory patchwork that breaks the back of the manufacturing
sector is replaced with the essential minimum.
Every regulator usually sees reality only through their own glasses. The
fire brigade sees only the risk of fires and the Ministry of the Environment
thinks that the world revolves only according to environmental
considerations. They do not look at things from the perspective of starting
a business and having it succeed.
Like countless others, I know the consequences of this fact personally: When
my wife, Gilat, set up a small ice cream factory in Kfar Saba with a
partner, I remember the way the regulators bogged them down. Standards
Institute, Kashrut providers, the municipality, the Ministry of Health, the
Ministry of the Environment and more. Instead of making great ice cream,
they spent most of their time filling out forms.
My contention is not that all regulation is wrong, but that the needs of the
regulator must be balanced with the needs of the business.
In addition to removing unnecessary regulation and allowing the business
engine to rush forward and quickly lower the unemployment rate, we must set
a five-year freeze on labor laws not directly related to wages, and for the
next five years automatically renew business licenses and lower corporate
taxes to only 15%.
The third component in releasing the spring that will enable Israel to
realize its potential is in-depth reform of the public sector. There is no
reason why the people who created the most competitive and innovative
technological companies in the world should not also provide public medicine
and education at the highest level. The problem of the public sector is not
a shortage of human capital, but a mechanism that prevents this human
capital from realizing the quality and creativity inherent in it. Greater
flexibility in the employment and incentive of public employees should be
allowed, management methods from the private sector should be applied, work
should be defined according to measurable goals and service consciousness
should be instilled in the activities of this important sector.
The last step in the plan to reboot the economy and exploit the potential of
the crisis is mutual responsibility. First of all, it must be recognized
that the enormous price of adapting and dealing with the COVID-19 crisis,
the State of Israel finances and will finance with debts that will be paid
mainly by the young, and I mean also teenagers and children - in our
generation and future generations.
In simple English: the current generation takes loans at the expense of the
next generation, and if we do not act boldly, we will enslave our children
to huge interest payments for decades. This burden will come at the expense
of the education, health, and future of our children.
What parents would do such a thing to their children?
To be accountable to them we must work for a gradual but consistent increase
in retirement age in line with an increase in life expectancy. While fifty
years ago life expectancy in Israel was about 70 years, today it is
consistently rising and stands at over 80. This is wonderful, but it also
has economic implications: a source of funding must be found for many more
people who live many more years. This source is the work itself.
Another place where there should be mutual responsibility is between the
public and private sectors. The COVID-19 crisis has sent hundreds of
thousands of Israelis home, causing an oppressive cloud of uncertainty over
the livelihoods of millions of private and self-employed workers. In order
to restore public confidence and harness it to the COVID-19 campaign, the
public sector must also lend a hand. MKs, ministers and senior public sector
employees who receive a salary or budgetary pension of more than 30,000
shekels a month will contribute 20% of their salary - differentially, with
those with higher salaries contributing more - to the state coffers, until
the unemployment rate in Israel drops to pre-crisis levels.
It is inconceivable that retired Supreme Court justices receive a pension of
more than fifty thousand shekels from the state budget each month, while
hundreds of thousands of self-employed people do not finish the month.
Until such a cut in the pay conditions of senior members of the public and
political system takes place, I have chosen to contribute 20% of my salary.
I have been doing this since April, because leadership is not only setting a
roadmap, but also, and perhaps first of all, via personal example.
* * *
COVID-19 has brought upon us a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. In recent months,
we have gone through a complex period and have been tossed into a sea of
uncertainty. Our solidarity with people far away has been put to the test,
as has our relationship with the people closest to us.
It was not easy, and it will continue to not be easy. No one knows until
But I believe in us. If we learn to unleash the mighty forces inherent in
our people, educators, soldiers, members of youth movements and
entrepreneurs, the COVID-19 crisis will become a springboard.
These forces need to be set free.
They should be given room to maneuver, with few prohibitions and
I believe that in another decade we will all look back and see how this
tumultuous period opened a golden age in the history of the State of Israel.
This is not a naive belief, but a sober diagnosis rooted in our life
experience and history.
From our ancient roots we draw the ingenuity, the long-term vision, and the
moral and practical ability to turn any challenge into a golden opportunity.
COVID-19? Small task for us. Whatever it is - we are ready.