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Israelis slip below poverty line

Mentally and physically disabled Israelis, demanding higher subsidies, blockaded the entrance to the Knesset in February. (Brian Hendler)

Mentally and physically disabled Israelis, demanding higher subsidies, blockaded the entrance to the Knesset in February. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Dec. 10 (JTA) — On rainy winter days, Katya sits with her bulging shopping cart at a bus stop in Rechavia, one of Jerusalem’s older, more genteel neighborhoods. The 54-year-old was once a music teacher, but a prolonged divorce and depression cost Katya her job, and now she is homeless on the streets of Jerusalem. “I don’t mind it,” she said, bundled up in several sweaters and coats. “No one bothers me, and people usually give me any leftover food they have in their bag.” It’s still unusual to see a homeless person sitting at a Jerusalem bus stop, but it may not be unusual for long. According to recently released statistics on poverty, Katya is one of 1.2 million Israelis, or nearly 20 percent of the population, living below the poverty line. The figure has increased by almost 1 percent from the previous year. The poverty level for an Israeli family of four is $934 per month. The release of the poverty statistics coincided with the start of Israel’s election campaign, and some parties are making demands for greater social equality a prominent issue in their platforms. On the left, new Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, for example, says Israel must disengage from the Palestinians — withdrawing unilaterally from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, if need be — in order to concentrate on socioeconomic and other domestic issues. On the right, when Benjamin Netanyahu mounted his recent challenge to unseat Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as head of the Likud Party, he began by trumpeting his ability to resuscitate Israel’s economy. The platform of Yisrael Acheret, or A Different Israel — which is fighting a legal battle to register as a new party — ignores ideological disputes over policy toward the Palestinians to focus exclusively on Israel’s internal needs. And on Monday, another new party — the Protest Movement, which hopes to unite all social protest groups — announced its formation, under the slogan “Israel wants equality of chances.” Yet while politicians cite the figures and results of the recent poverty report, few seem to have any concrete suggestions or solutions to address Israel’s growing socioeconomic gap, beyond general statements that Israel should spend less on settlements or yeshivas and more on development towns. At a recent press conference, Mitzna spoke about the link between the current economic recession and Israel’s social problems. “We have to deal with domestic issues and divert all our resources into domestic problems,” he said. The left-wing Meretz Party also is focusing on what Meretz legislator Ran Cohen calls a “socioeconomic disaster that has reached monstrous proportions.” When 58 percent of Israeli citizens, including the middle class and business people, have been harmed by the current recession, it creates an awareness that change is necessary, Cohen added. Yet more often than not, Israel’s growing income gap and widening circle of poverty remain an issue for the op-ed columns, low on the government’s to-do list when Palestinian terror attacks are continuing. Reacting to the recent statistics, the New Israel Fund called for a focus on economic equality in the current election campaign, and for immediate government action. “Israel has been understandably focused on its security situation,” the NIF’s president, Peter Edelman, said in a recent statement. “However, the long-term strength of the country also depends on its economic health.” The government must develop an emergency economic program to address the gap between rich and poor, reduce unemployment and restore the economy’s vibrancy, Edelman said. In addition to the violence of the intifada, Israel has been suffering from a widening recession, brought on by the collapse of the high-tech bubble and the worldwide economic downturn. Unemployment has risen above 10 percent, and the country’s economy is expected to grow by just 0.5 percent in 2003. The numbers speak for themselves, experts say: • The number of poor Israeli children increased by nearly 50 percent in 2001, to about 530,000. • The United Nations Human Development Index for 2002 ranked Israel 22nd out of 174 countries, placing it among the world’s most developed countries. Yet Israel’s ranking in the next index is expected to drop, as the number of Israelis living below the poverty line is one of the highest in the Western world. • A recent report from the Knesset committee on social gaps showed that the average monthly income for the top decile of Israeli households was around $9,000 — or 12 times the $716 average income in the bottom 10th of the population. The findings expose a “society deep in a process of total collapse,” said Cohen, who headed the committee’s yearlong study. Worsening economic conditions have led to severe budget cuts, primarily in social welfare. While politicians and ministers have lobbied successfully for larger outlays for security and defense, little progress has been made on funding and policies to battle poverty. “The poverty trend has brought us to this situation where the state of Israel is saying, ‘We aren’t equipped to handle this or we’re not interested,’ ” said Joanie Gal, a lecturer at Hebrew University’s social work school. “There could be a different budget that thinks more about the weaker sectors of the population,” Gal said. “The priorities could be changed, even in this terrible economic-security situation.” Outside the ivory tower, there are those who at least pay lip service to the poverty situation and income gap. At this week’s Israel Business Conference, keynote speaker Eli Hurvitz, chairman of drugmaker Teva Pharmaceuticals and an active Labor Party member, said he was convinced that the economy is capable of earning enough to provide workers and the unemployed with a decent living. Citing what he called Israel’s “defective” political culture, Hurvitz dismissed the government’s tendency to blame its economic failures on the intifada. “We can’t blame everything on the intifada,” he said. “There is more poverty and inequality, and less growth.” In fact, the figures show that the latest poverty report is not an aberration and can’t be blamed on the intifada, which began a little over two years ago, said Danny Guttwein, a lecturer at Haifa University and expert on social issues. As Israel reached Western European income levels during the 1990s — and economic policy-makers liberalized the economy in the direction of free-market capitalism — economic inequality also soared. “There wasn’t a ‘poverty oversight,’ ” Guttwein said. Rather, the poverty report tells of a continuing trend based on socioeconomic policies that have guided the country for the last 20 years. “It shows that poverty has become a life experience for a wide sector of society,” Guttwein said. “That is the most prominent statistic in the report: that poverty has become the basic experience for many Israelis.” So far, none of the major party leaders has proposed a serious plan for addressing poverty, and that worries those who do think about the matter. The result will be the undermining of the foundations of Israeli democracy, Guttwein warned. “The time has come for the people who have been running the economy for the last 20 years to give up their places,” Guttwein said, “for the good of a more social and equal society.”

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