‘Israel Is Stuck in Traffic With a PM Who Hates the Word ‘Public

“They see traffic jams; I see interchanges,” was the unforgettable statement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once made to the media. While a good deal of the media is part of the personality cult around him, Netanyahu — in that haggling-victimized way of his — continues to strike out against it, calling it “an industry of despondency.” But it is actually the traffic example that he chose that highlights one of his biggest and most depressing failures, which is a direct result of his socioeconomic worldview.

In the Netanyahu era, as prime minister and finance minister, five comprehensive government plans have been prepared on the transportation situation. All of them made clear the huge damage caused by the increased use of cars instead of public transportation. They all warned of the traffic jams that lead to huge losses in economic productivity — worth tens of millions of shekels a year. The emotional damage and the negative effects on the time and quality of life of each of us is hard to measure, although the pollution and accidents certainly can be. In the Netanyahu governments’ plans, it was made clear that the only solution, as is the norm worldwide, certainly in densely populated areas, is to increase the use of public transportation instead of passenger cars. But these recommendations will never be implemented.

This bitter conclusion is not the product of the mind of a sourpuss journalist. It was written explicitly in a report two years ago from the State Comptroller's Office. Since then the situation has only grown worse. Israelis spend an average of more than an hour in traffic each day. By the end of the next decade, it will be two hours a day. Why? Because the number of cars has skyrocketed and there’s no way to build roads at such a pace. A lot of roads have actually been built in Israel, but we have also reached the conclusion that the whole world already knows: New roads don’t reduce congestion; they only increase it. The solution is public transportation, but that is where the big problem lies.

"Public" is the word Netanyahu hates most. Public health, public education, public housing and public transportation. He does them as much harm as he can, because the prime minister hates what is socially minded and loves private enterprise, and what’s more private than a passenger car? Except that there’s nothing private about a car, just as there’s nothing private about a private hospital or a private school. They all exist at the expense of the public, except for those few with connections, into whose pockets astronomical sums flow. When Netanyahu speaks of backups, he is actually thinking about hospital patients, thinking: "They see the congestion in the emergency room and when I get there, a private doctor and a private room are waiting for me."

Netanyahu despises public expenditures that take the entire public into account and is shifting the major burden to individual citizens. In the Netanyahu era, Israel has grown to become one of the leading countries when it comes to what citizens have to pay for education and health. What does that mean? That if you have money you’ll have good health care, while if you don’t have money, that’s your problem. And after all, the prime minister thinks: "What are you complaining about here? They see the disabled and the sick; I see the healthy and the strong."

Netanyahu’s selfish worldview sanctifies privatization, but like many other steps taken in the name of the “private citizen,” they do not benefit those citizens, instead helping only the few at the expense of the many.

Private health care is a cancer eating away at the health and the pocketbook of individual citizens for the benefit of the insurance tycoons and the wealthy. Private transportation is a particularly horrific money-guzzler — from car importers to highway contractors and leasing companies. Israelis pay a huge portion of their taxes for the construction of heavy infrastructure, and their use of passenger cars is among the most expensive in the world — the cost of the car, the gas, insurance, repairs and parking. And what do they get in return for this huge outlay? A horrible “user experience.” The roads in Israel are more crowded than any other developed country in the OECD. By contrast, any number related to Israeli public transportation is dramatically lower than in Europe. Except for one, which is particularly high: the time it takes a bus to arrive on the Sabbath.

Published in Ha'aretz.