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  • Writer's pictureOperation Tarshish

How to overcome COVID-19 and lead Israel to prosperity

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.

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 working together.

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 step is to stabilize Israel’s economy. For those who have been thrown by the wayside by COVID-19, first aid should be provided; those 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-, restaurant- and business-owners 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 this 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 they 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 that 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 and no performances. The curtain went down on the stages and the lights went out in all the halls.

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 Health Ministry 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. However, 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 own.

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 people unemployed because of COVID-19 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 more.

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 forward.

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 80-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 had banned immigration to Israel, lifted the Iron Curtain before a million immigrants who came to Israel during the 1990s.

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 hi-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.

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, hi-tech, consumer and entrepreneurial industries.

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 that 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 1,000 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%.

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.

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 gain a full Israeli experience.

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.

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 hi-tech people who have moved to Silicon Valley, New York and the global technology centers to be close to what is happening, and who are currently working from a rented American home. Why not do it from here? Let’s bring them home!

We can do it.

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 when this will continue.

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 restrictions.

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.

The writer is Israel’s former defense minister and chairman of the Yamina Party. Adapted from his book ‘How to Beat COVID-19 – The Way to Overcome the Crisis and Lead Israel to Prosperity’.

Naftali Bennett, October 1, 2020

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