The Bottom Line / The Miracle of the Loaves

Instead of stirring up a great drama over bread, instead of sitting with the millers and creating an orderly cartel, the Trade and Industry Minister Dalia Itzik could even have opened up the market.

Dalia Itzik is celebrating her victory. The price of government-supervised standard bread (white and dark) will not rise so she could declare "This is very important good news for tens of thousands of Israeli families." Prices of sliced bread, however, will go up by 13 percent and of challot (Shabbat loaves) consumed by the same thousands of families will rise by 8 percent, but that really doesn't matter. The main thing is that the standard loaf got Itzik her headlines.

Two months ago the flour mill owners asked the Trade and Industry Ministry to allow them to raise prices according to an agreed new formula. Back then, professionals in the ministry accepted that flour prices had to rise, but Itzik placed her veto. Had she brought the matter to a quiet end, how on earth would she have got her precious time on the television, radio and in all the papers, on the one condition for each media interview: Don't mention London.

Or maybe still, instead of stirring up a great drama over bread, instead of sitting with the millers and creating an orderly cartel, the minister could even have opened up the market.

Surely the minister knows that there is a surplus of flour mills in Israel, and a surplus of bakeries. And the moment state supervision is removed, competition will begin and quality of bread will go up. Maybe then we'll discover that you can wrap standard loaves in bags, so they needn't be sold loose in cartons piled by the corner store's door every morning. There is surely nowhere else in the developed world where the bread is delivered unwrapped into the supermarkets, where the public can squeeze each one. The bread gets this disgraceful and unreasonable treatment because it is under state control, and therefore earns the cheap government image.

And what about this pride in defending the poor sectors of society? Hardly appropriate as poverty is not measured by ability to buy only bread, but according to a slew of products and services. For example, Itzik set a levy on imports of yeast used by the baking industry (that includes bread). She also imposed a levy on oil imports. Last week she caused cement prices to go up by 15 percent, by effectively dividing up the market between Nesher and importers that toe the price line, thereby stopping any fall in prices. And not long ago Itzik imposed a "safety" levy on the import of plywood.

And when cement prices rise, so do apartment prices, and when plywood is more expensive so are furniture, closets, tables and kitchens. But then, according to Itzik, the poor don't use oil, don't buy apartments or furniture. Those thousands of families don't use electricity or drink water, don't use public transport and don't go to the health maintenance organizations - all of whose prices have increased recently due to our government's successful management. But then the thousands of families won't be hurt by this latest price rise, because they live by bread alone.