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Inflation Hits Israelis in Their Vegetable Salads

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In the land where people pride themselves on how small they can cut a vegetable salad, the soaring price of tomatoes has hit Israelis hard.

The subject has been the topic of radio call-in shows, newspaper editorials and nationwide surveys.

A Gallup poll released this week found that 19 percent of the 350 respondents have completely stopped buying tomatoes, and another 25 percent have significantly cut their consumption of the popular vegetable.

Prices have soared from between 50 percent to 80 percent in the past month.

Reasons for the huge increases include a poor agricultural season; the intermittent loss of Arab workers when the administered territories were closed off after terrorist attacks; and a recent ban on fruits and vegetables from the Gaza Strip because of the outbreak of cholera there.

In one (non-scientific) Israel Radio telephone poll, 90 percent of those surveyed said they would boycott the pricey fruit to force prices down.

But a significant price cut did not seem likely in the near future, despite the much-anticipated announcement Thursday that several hundred tons of tomatoes were on their way from Jordan.

Cabinet ministers this week were busy pointing fingers at each other for the high prices and short supply.

Finance Minister Avraham Shohat accused the Agriculture Ministry of moving too slowly to get approvals to import fruit and vegetables. He suggested that the public forego eating tomatoes for a while, in an effort to bring the price down.

MAIN LESSON IS ‘ENCOURAGE OUR OWN FARMERS’

“I’m calling on the citizens of the State of Israel to tell them that it is not terrible at this time of year not to buy tomatoes at 10 shekels a kilo (about $1.50 a pound). It is possible to eat cheaper vegetables for a month or a month and a half,” said Shohat.

He even recalled that “during certain periods in my childhood I didn’t eat tomatoes, and I don’t seem the worse for it.”

Agriculture Minister Ya’acov Tsur blamed the tomato shortage on the Finance Ministry, for not subsidizing Israeli farmers so they would plant and maintain a large supply.

“I think the main lesson of this event,” said Tsur, “is that the cheapest way to have produce in the markets is really to encourage our own farmers and encourage them in such a way that they will continue to plant and to grow and to remain in this sector.”

Yehuda Shani of the Supersol supermarket chain said tomato sales were down by 30 percent.

“The customers are angry, we’re angry. We just don’t have the volume to sell,” he said.

Meanwhile, tomato growers from Moshav Itamar on the West Bank said they would sell their organically grown product for 5-6 shekels a kilo (less than $1 a pound), even though they usually export it for more, Israel Radio reported.

(JTA correspondent Huge Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)

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