Just months after a dazzling political debut, Israel’s new finance minister Yair Lapid has come crashing down to earth with a budget that critics say hits the very people he vowed to protect – the middle classes.
The deficit-cutting package was approved by the cabinet early on Tuesday and now passes to parliament, where Lapid faces a buoyant opposition eager to damage the rookie politician whose seemingly impregnable image has suddenly shattered.
Propelled by his movie-star good looks, Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party came second in January’s election, winning over almost every undecided voter in the final days of the campaign to the dismay of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But in barely two weeks, his poll ratings have nosedived, his ever-active Facebook page has become a wall of abuse and his many enemies are already writing his political obituary.
“Yair Lapid is finished. Wiped out. Done for,” said a column in Israel’s centre-left Haaretz newspaper on Sunday.
With the new government only two months old, news of Lapid’s demise is greatly exaggerated and a swift turnaround of state accounts in 2014 could yet propel the former television host towards his coveted goal – to become prime minister.
Experts have calculated that the austerity measures will cost the average Israeli household an amount equivalent to nearly one month’s average gross salary over a year.
Economists say the much-maligned budget, which mixes tax rises with spending cuts, does however stand a good chance of achieving its goal and reducing the deficit to three percent of gross domestic product in 2014 from a projected 4.65 percent this year.
But besides hoping his maths are right, Lapid is going to have to work hard to convince his sceptical supporters that he can live up to his campaign rhetoric and tackle powerful forces in Israeli society, such as the unions and corporate giants.
“I am sad about the reaction to the budget,” said Dov Lipman, a rabbi and one of Yesh Atid’s 19 parliamentarians.
“Challenging the unions and the monopolies are goals of ours, but a decision was made that this was not the right time. The economy cannot be fixed overnight,” he told Reuters.
Many people were surprised when Lapid emerged from coalition negotiations as the finance minister. Although one of his campaign slogans had been “Where’s the Money?”, he himself had no economic background and wanted to become foreign minister.