A marching mom puts Israeli pols on defensive

Victoria Knafo gathered together an Israeli flag, a change of clothes, two bottles of water, and her mobile phone. Then she spent a week walking the 120 miles from her town in Israel's Negev Desert to Jerusalem.

She arrived here nine days ago to see Israel's finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has slashed welfare benefits in the name of a leaner state budget. "I wanted to see him and I wanted him to see me and to tell me how I could feed my three children with this money," she says, referring to her diminished income supplement.

Along the way, Ms. Knafo drew the interest of Israel's media and much of its public, demonstrating that a determined individual can move people in a way that organizations sometimes cannot.

A few months ago, labor unions protested Mr. Netanyahu's policies, without much effect. But Knafo's act is inspiring dozens of other disgruntled Israelis to undertake similar pilgrimages. A camp of protest tents is growing outside Israel's parliament.

Netanyahu has not backed down, but he has met with Knafo and put out a 10-point program to address the needs of single mothers, who are loudly protesting the price they are being asked to pay as Netanyahu attempts to dismantle the Israeli welfare state.

"He received us very nicely, he let me talk, but the bottom line was nothing is changing," says Knafo of her session with Netanyahu.

The finance minister says he is determined to change the welfare system so poor Israelis are encouraged to work, rather than to stay home and rely on state assistance.

"The message of this plan is: 'Go to work,' " Netanyahu said Monday in Ha'aretz newspaper. "We will help you. But we will not negotiate with the single mothers about reinstating the allowances."

Knafo and others counter that that there are no jobs. Israel's unemployment rate is over 10 percent.

Knafo, a tanned, blond woman who is by turns calmly self-possessed and passionate about her cause, also observes that she has a job - she works part-time as a cook at a daycare center.

That position pays about $280 a month; when the government cut $300 from her monthly income supplement of $580, she and her three children found they had too little to pay for "food, water, electricity - everything."

So early this month she decided to walk to Jerusalem and a movement of sorts was born. "The public identifies with people who are getting hurt by the system," says Judith Baumel, who directs a program on contemporary Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

The struggle between Knafo and Netanyahu resonates in various ways for Israelis. For one, Knafo has tapped into a growing mistrust of Israel's establishment.

As Ms. Baumel notes, " The feeling is that Netanyahu is doing a reverse Robin Hood: He's taking from the poor to give to the rich."

Atalya Boymel, a divorced mother of four who drove four hours from Carmiel to Jerusalem on Tuesday to show her support for Knafo and other protesters, says that Netanyahu's reforms aren't intended to turn the economy around, but to "deepen the depression."

"This depression is good for the few rich families of Israel, which will take over small and medium-sized businesses and find unemployed people ready to work in conditions of slavery," Ms. Boymel asserts.

Many economists, politicians, and editorialists support the thrust of Netanyahu's program, but many of them also say that he has moved too fast and too harshly to pare down Israel's system of subsidies and benefits for the poor and disadvantaged.

"You cannot cut people's allowances by one third from one day to another," says Ephraim Kleiman, an economist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who adds that some of Netanyahu's changes are necessary.

Israel is a state founded on egalitarian economic principles, and the plight of Knafo and others is a reminder that those days are long gone.

Indeed, the disparities in Israel between rich and poor become more apparent every year.

The combination of Netanyahu's reforms and Knafo's protests, says Baumel, herald "the last vestiges of socialism in Israel."

Netanyahu "has a vision, which is that private enterprise is the only path which can pull Israel out of its doldrums," says Charles Liebman, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. "We all suspect that without peace nothing is going to help."

Knafo and other protesters don't see the conflict with the Palestinians as the dominant factor in their economic situation. One protester who has joined Knafo's tent camp complains that "all the money is going for the settlements, to protect them," but Knafo says this issue is a lesser consideration.

"They are stealing from us," she intones, referring to the leadership.

She explains why she brought an Israeli flag on her journey. "It's my country," she says. "And it's my country that is helping us to fall."

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