After four weeks in which tens of thousands of civilians, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have been living under extremely difficult conditions, the government this week yielded and agreed to contribute a few million shekels to enable some of them to leave their communities. The operation is being billed as a vacation, at the end of which the refreshed residents will return to the bomb shelters.
But as has happened repeatedly in this war, the people are proving wiser than their leaders. Both in the shelters in Kiryat Shmona and in the nonprofit organizations that are filling the vacuum left by the government, it is clear that many of those who leave the north will not return until after the war has ended. The Jewish Agency, the Tel Aviv municipality and many other bodies have mobilized to provide a roof and rest for those who cannot or do not want to return home at the end of the time period allocated them for vacation. The government, left with no other choice, will finance part of the operation with a few million shekels.
This chapter of the war is a direct continuation of the failings that have typified the government's handling of the home front, which has become the front. On the first day of the war, it already became clear that there was no plan for supplying food to residents of the north sitting in bomb shelters. Only after more than a week had gone by, when arguments and redundancies developed among the organizations that had taken the job of food distribution upon themselves, did the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Ra'anan Dinur, summon them - in order to divvy up responsibilities and territories in an orderly fashion. He also promised money, but according to the organizations, this funding covers less than half their costs. The activities sponsored by organizations, philanthropists and donors continue to evolve, and now include supplying diapers and wet-wipes, medications, air conditioners, chemical toilets, transportation, day trips, day camps and evacuation.
The local authorities and government ministries had no plans for contending with such a state of emergency. Many of the complaints and demands have been addressed to the Social Affairs Ministry, even though it is not responsible for dealing with the home front during emergencies, its budgets have been slashed in recent years, and it has been functioning for the past 18 months without a minister. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was asked about this recently, said that there is a minister: himself. Nonetheless, the ministry's staff readied to help. But the solutions it is capable of offering are limited.
Local authorities also proved dysfunctional. Years of budget cuts, nonpayment of regular salaries, flawed management and negligent oversight by the Interior Ministry, which prefered political appointments to professional management, have left their mark. Services collapsed, and residents claimed that cronies received preferential treatment with regard to aid for bomb shelters and trips out of town. Stronger cities with better management, such as Carmiel and Ma'alot, proved by their conduct that it is possible to do things differently.
The fiascoes reflect the state's ongoing process of divesting itself of responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, in contrast to its responsibility for the welfare of the stock market. It seems that when the government talks about the home front's stamina, it means the steadfastness of the institution on Ahad Ha'am Street in Tel Aviv. "We are receiving a huge dividend today on our budgetary credibility - the stability of the stock market and the dollar and the maintenance of Israel's international credit rating," the Finance Ministry's budget director, Kobi Haber, said this week in an interview with TheMarker. His conclusion: The budget must not be increased.
Obviously, it is important that the stock market be stable. It is important for pensioners, whose money is invested there, and for others as well. It is also important that Israel's credit rating be high, so that the interest that Israel pays on its loans remain low. But it is doubtful whether those living in shelters in the north - the people with disabilities who have nowhere else to go, the parents whose children are afraid to return to their homes, but have nowhere else to house them - think that they have received a dividend from what Haber terms budgetary "credibility." On the contrary, they are the ones paying the price: Cuts were made in their state allowances, and in education, welfare and health services, in order to attain that budgetary "credibility." And now, they are also being asked to absorb the Katyushas, to live in bomb shelters that have not been maintained and to rely on the kindness of strangers and philanthropists as if they were beggars.
The war costs money, as does rehabilitating and compensating its victims. And therefore, one can only wonder from where Haber will take the funding. The emerging plan of action is to retract the government's pledge to raise the minimum wage and halt the cutbacks in child allowances, and maybe also to enact further cuts in the budgets of the social welfare ministries.
If the government were to raise taxes, the war burden would be distributed equitably. But the treasury rejects this idea, as a measure that would harm growth. Clearly, the residents of the north must share in the benefits of economic growth - that which was and that which might yet be. It is imperative to adhere to the track of raising the minimum wage, halting the cutbacks in child allowances and allocating money for the material, emotional and social rehabilitation of the war's many casualties. Only in this way will those who are shouldering the war burden feel that the state has paid its debt to them, and not only to stock market investors.
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