Israel's poor lost in political fray
A $3.2 billion budget cut planned for 2003 will unfairly target Israel's poorest citizens, say critics.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
It is the high season for Israeli party politics, but the campaign is far from the mind of Etti Avraham, a divorced mother of two who lives in the Shapira slum area of Tel Aviv.Skip to next paragraph
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She works parttime, depending on social security allocations to supplement her income. Last year, she endured a cut in social security payments as part of Israel's austerity program. It was launched amid a recession prompted by worldwide economic woes, the decline of high-tech and other industries and the confrontation with the Palestinians.
Ms. Avraham had to choose between cuts in the family's diet and sending her children, 5 and 8, to after-school instruction, which costs $10 a month for each child. "I prefer less food and that they learn more," Ms. Avraham says. "I prefer that I do not eat meat and that my children eat the meat."
Avraham is one of hundreds of thousands of lower-income Israelis hit hard by cutbacks in social security and unemployment benefits. And the situation is threatening to become much more severe, warn academics and social activists. New cuts are planned in the government's 2003 budget, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes to pass by the end of this month. These are part of $3.2 billion in planned budget trims, which the activists say will be borne disproportionately by those who can least afford them. Avraham, for example, would face a cut of another $165 a month in social security payments under the new budget. "There is no justice in our country," she says bitterly.
The lack of attention, even in Israel, to the lopsided battle between left-wing activists and government economists points to the extent to which even social emergencies continue to take a back seat to security issues.
Activists say the budget cuts could help shape Israeli society for years to come, locking more poor into a cycle of poverty and widening income and class distinctions in a society that was founded with an egalitarian ethos.
But with the debate on the right focusing on whether Yasser Arafat should be expelled, and the Labor candidate for prime minister, Amram Mitzna, vowing to evacuate Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, poverty has not emerged as yet as an electoral issue.
"We are already seeing people picking through the garbage and we need to start asking why," says Evyatar Fluss, who heads a Jerusalem charity. "But there is no political party for the poor and thus they have no backing. And poverty, except for dramatic individual cases, is something that our journalists apparently believe does not sell newspapers."
Finance Ministry budget director Ori Yogev disputes that the poor have been made to pay more, saying that a new tax on capital gains shows that middle and upper class are paying for the deficit. "Services are being cut for everyone, not only the poor," he says. He argues that cutting people's social security allocations will encourage them back into the workforce. But critics say that with unemployment currently over 10 percent, it will simply cut them adrift.