December 2, 1999
Poverty and Unemployment Plague Israel
The peace process isn't the news in Israel anymore; it's poverty, unemployment and hunger. The domestic agenda, the one that Prime Minister Ehud Barak focused his election campaign on, has jumped up and bitten him.
Recent polls show that Israelis, by a margin of over 2-1, think Barak is mishandling these all-important socioeconomic issues. He took a public relations beating on his recent visit to the U.S. As Israelis watched him on TV visiting Wall Street and attending festive dinners with multimillionaires, the faces they saw on their local news were of hungry, hopeless people.
"They ask me if I'm hungry. Am I hungry? Am I hungry? I'm hungry for bread!" an Israeli welfare mother screamed, in a scene repeated over and over on the TV news. The organization of municipal governments came out with a statistic that 135,000 Israelis were hungry or malnourished -- a statistic that in the following days was shown to be grossly inflated. But with the condition of Israel's have-nots undeniably getting worse, the impression of people going hungry stuck.
Unemployment has now reached 9.2 percent nationally -- roughly double the American rate. In the dozens of backwater towns of the Negev Desert and Galilee, far from the industrialized center of the country, the jobless rate appears to be in the vicinity of 20 percent.
Approximately one out of every four Israeli children lives below the poverty line, and many, many more live just barely above it.
These are the issues Barak illustrated time and time again in his campaign -- "the child who cries himself to sleep because his father can't find a job," and "the elderly, sick woman lying on a gurney in the corridor of the hospital because there is no bed for her." A "change in the order of priorities" is what Barak promised -- government intervention on behalf of the poor who, after three years of recession and Reaganite economics under the Netanyahu government, needed help in a big way, and fast.
But since Barak has taken over, he has changed his thinking on economic and social policy. He has become quite a Reaganite himself, leaving it to the business sector to bring economic growth that is supposed to trickle-down to the poor, and provide the government with increased tax revenues to improve infrastructure, education and other vital elements of the public sector.
Recently he has made a number of statements that betray an insensitivity to suffering -- or at least an unfortunate ability to appear insensitive.
To the problem of hungry Israelis, he offered charity on the part of those with full stomachs as an answer. "The way is for people to open their refrigerators and find how to prevent others from being undernourished. I don't know of a citizen in the country who would not take from his refrigerator or table a little food that is there, in order to transfer it to another family which is truly hungry."
He told industrialists in New York that he wanted to cut taxes for Israelis, and promised that if they came to invest in Israel, his government would let them make their profits unmolested.
His proposed budget for 2000 includes a series of cuts to social welfare, and despite calls by cabinet ministers to spend more money to help the poor, Barak vowed that he would not increase the budget "by even a millimeter."
Most tellingly, perhaps, Barak has said that when the current monetary czar, Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkel, steps down at the beginning of next year, he will be replaced by someone who will carry on Frenkel's conservative, low-spending, low-inflation policies.
The prime minister is banking on the renewal of the peace process, along with a natural upturn in the business cycle, to fuel the economic growth that should shower blessings on all Israelis, rich, middling and poor.
Israel experienced tremendous economic growth in the first half of this decade, but the boom created jobs almost solely in the center of the country, and mainly in high-wage professions -- not for the poor, and not for the people living in the Negev and Galilee, said Dr. Shlomo Swirski of Tel Aviv's Adva Center, a social policy think tank.
"To break into the high-wage economy you need advanced education and access to the jobs, which few people living in the periphery of the country enjoy. The growth of the Rabin-Peres years didn't help them. Business investment went to the center, not to the outlying areas," said Swirsky, a leading expert on development towns.
In Ofakim, which has become a symbol of hopelessness in the Negev, Motti Zohar, director of the state Employment Service said, "We didn't really feel that much difference between the boom [of 1990-1995] and the recession that's been going on since. The growth period passed over us."
Yet Barak pins his hopes on a return to good times. In the meantime, the poor and liberal middle-class who elected him is growing impatient. Wrote Gideon Samet, a columnist for the Ha'aretz daily: "The political story is first and foremost economic and social. What some of Barak's disappointed supporters are saying is that if he does not stick to his promises to improve their lives, they too will withdraw their support from him."