Israeli Finance Minister Looks to 'Working Class'

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid says he'll promote economic policies that will benefit the working class.

Lapid, who just deftly negotiated an agreement with the Histadrut, the national labor federation, to end a two-day strike at Ben Gurion Airport, says he's ready to do whatever it takes to address the underlying issues impeding average tax-paying citizens.

The former television journalist says his task is to reduce the deficit he inherited, but not by badmouthing former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

"I don't care whose fault it [the national deficit] is," Lapid told conference participants at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University on Tuesday. "I care what we do next," YNet reported.

One of Lapid's first moves as finance minister was to return to an annual budget, saying the biannual budget, voted in by the last government, contributed to the runaway deficit.

Reducing the ballooning deficit will require sizable budget cuts and some tax hikes, he said. There's no way around it, but the goal is stability and a better future for the average working Israeli.

Lapid has been criticized for lacking experience in economics and for using social media to convey his positions. Some even predicted taking on the Finance Ministry would damage him politically, but Lapid seems determined to get the economy back on track.

Among his biggest critics are the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which were excluded from the coalition by Lapid's partnering with Jewish Home (Bayit Hayehudi) chairman MK Naftali Bennett, now serving as minister of economics and commerce.

Labor Party chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich, who leads the opposition, has also been unrelenting in her criticism of Lapid, accusing him on a recent Facebook post of miscalculating the annual deficit by 7 billion shekels.

"The state budget is too important for errors of this magnitude," Yachimovich quipped, with Lapid's spokeswoman Nilly Richman quickly posting a rebuttal, the Jerusalem Post reported.

"The annual deficit for financing in 2012, which is the deficit that includes net credit receipts, came to 34.6 billion shekels, and that's the deficit the finance minister was talking about," Richman wrote. "This is the number accepted by the Bank of Israel, the Finance Ministry and the Israeli government."

Both Lapid and Bennett are determined to reform the draft, which has allowed the majority of ultra-Orthodox to opt out of compulsory military service to study in yeshivot (Torah seminaries).

With Shas and UTJ sitting in the opposition, Lapid and Bennett, among others, want to see the ultra-Orthodox community integrate into the workforce, thereby reducing the dependency on government subsidies.

"If housing benefits are given according to the number of children in a family and discriminate against people who went to the army and who are working, then we've sacrificed the workers [working class], and we are about to change that," Lapid said Tuesday evening.

"If daycare costs a working mother 1,000 shekels more than it does for another mother who does not work, then we've been sold [out]," he said.

Lapid also addressed cuts in the defense budget, but said Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz "both realize we are facing a different economic reality."

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