April 12, 2013
New Politics, Old Politics: Has Lapid Lost his Magic Touch?
Her name is Riki Cohen. She is 37 and lives in Hadera, a small city on the road from Tel Aviv to Haifa. She is a teacher with three children and a husband who works in the high tech sector. Together, they make 20,000 shekels a month, before taxes. They travel abroad once every two years, and are worried about being able to help their children when the time comes for them to buy their own apartments. They are also imaginary – no such people exist. Nevertheless, Israelis have been discussing the lives of the Cohens and their meaning for the past week.
There are hundreds of women named Riki Cohen in Israel, but the one from Hadera is a creature of our new and inexperienced Finance Minister's mind. Yair Lapid was the surprise of the last election, and was catapulted into this position of influence after being a columnist, author and TV host before becoming a politician. By his own admission, Lapid knows little about economics. But this didn't stop him from 1. lecturing Finance Ministry professionals on the economic lessons to be learned from Riki Cohen's situation, and 2. posting a status on Facebook, detailing the contents of this uncalled-for lecture.
His status began thus:
"I want to talk about Mrs. Cohen,” I told senior Finance officials few days ago.
They paused, surprised.
Cohen, in Lapid's tale, is Israel's "average Joe". He continued by describing the details of his message to the professionals:
“We sit here,” I said, “day after day, talking about balancing the budget, but our job is not to balance Excel sheets, but to help Mrs. Cohen… It’s because of people like Ms. Cohen that our state exists. She represents the Israeli middle class – people who get up in the morning, work hard, pay taxes and do not belong to any interest group, but carry on their backs the Israeli economy. What are we doing for her? Do we remember that we’re her employees?”
Lapid's persona as a TV star was one of a mister nice guy, the most likable face on one's screen. But there was always a bit of smugness there. Maybe now it just got momentarily out of control. He probably thought that his Facebook post will make him seem more in touch with Israel's economic reality than the detached Finance professionals. Frequently young and bright, these professionals are often derogatorily called "the Finance Teens", and for politicians, these "teens" are an easy scapegoat whenever tough economic times require that they make cuts. But even though lecturing the unpopular "teens" seemed like a safe and easy way to gain popularity, the "Cohen" post became golden-boy Lapid's first lesson in public humiliation. Lapid simply didn't do his homework-
An income of over NIS20,000 places a family like the imaginary Cohens in the second income decile, way above average. "It's true that Cohen and her friends don't have it all", wrote one economic commentator. They are not millionaires. And they still might deserve sympathy and care, and recognition for their contribution to Israel's economy. But by inventing Cohen, his economic cause-celebre, Lapid exposed to the larger public the extent to which he is a representative of well-to-do Israel, no less (and possibly even more) detached than the Finance Ministry professionals, and much less accurate than their deprecated "Excel sheets". On Election Day, Lapid's party ranked high in almost all the way-above-average municipalities. And Lapid is repaying these voters by taking care of their needs, pretending they are no less needy than other Israelis, pretending to be fighting for a class that isn't there.
Lapid was elected, among other things, for promising to practice "new politics", and up until now, in several occasions he could reasonably argue that he has. But with his Riki Cohen status he seems to have confused the new means of communication (Facebook) with very old politics (blaming the pros). That Lapid hasn't yet mastered his economics is a problem which can be forgiven considering he is still a novice. The fact that he has already forgotten his promise – new politics – and his true expertise – being the likable man who appeals to people of all income levels- is more troubling (maybe that's why the officials were "surprised").