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"This is not a peripheral protest convention," said attorney Ido Ohayun, director of the Sderot Convention on Social Affairs, describing the role of the first convention of its type, held this week at the Sapir Academic College in the Negev. "We haven't come to burn tires, to shout, and to block roads, but rather to point out the problem and how to solve it."

Economists, businessmen, academics, representatives of social movements, seniors, youth movement members, retired army personnel, politicians and representatives of Jewish and Arab peripheral communities participated in the convention. In fact, practically the only group that was not represented was foreign workers, which is probably why many of the recommendations involved reducing their numbers.

The eclectic mix of participants, the varied topics that were discussed, the location, and the atmosphere are supposed to be the social answer to the suit-and-tie economic conventions such as the Herzliya Convention, whose participants are the "leaders of the economy." Even the modest refreshments, which consisted of cookies and instant coffee, was a statement made by the organizers.

About 500 people participated in the convention moving from one session to another, trying to hear as much as possible about ways to handle unemployment, the relationship between the country's center and the periphery, the status of women, Jewish-Arab relations, social welfare policies, and suggestions for changing the Israeli education system's structure. The working papers and recommendations presented at the convention were prepared over a period of months by committees supported by the Council for Social Security, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan and Sapir College.

In the upcoming weeks, all the recommendations and papers will be bound and presented to the government with the hope that it will serve as a platform for revolutionary change in social policy in Israel.

And business came too

"There is currently no social agenda in Israel, but rather only a policy of damage control," Ohayun said. "Instead of solving problems from their foundation, industrialists like Stef Wertheimer or Mozi Wertheim are convinced to move a factory to the periphery. That is the end of the social policy," he said.

"The uniqueness of the convention and its messages is that participants included not only representatives of social movements, but also businessmen like Nir Barkat, Dov Lautman, Didi Arazi, Meir Shani, Ofra Strauss and others who are familiar with the problem and the need to deal with it. This is the first time we have achieved something with consensus and are acting on it."

The convention's organizers invested much effort over the past few months in bringing in "names" in order to attract an audience and media attention. This is because the organizers understood that without proper exposure it would be hard to edge into the frenetic local agenda. One of the organizers said that the decision to hold the convention in Sderot prompted some unexpected questions. One well-known public figure asked about accommodations in the area. "She had no idea that Sderot was just 45 minutes from Tel Aviv," Ohayun said.

One of the most important and relevant sessions dealt with the formulation of labor and employment policy. Dr. Dan Ben David of Tel Aviv University, who headed a team that examined this issue, said the high unemployment rate and low level of participation in the labor force are not dictated by reality.

"Instead of letting globalization worsen the socio-economic situation, Israel can focus on raising the standard of living of the whole population, including the weaker sectors, and the substantial reduction of unemployment," Ben David said. "Policymakers erroneously call their socio-economic policy `capitalism' when it actually favors the employers and narrow personal and ideological interests that have no connection with the capitalistic economic management."

Ben David and his team members feel that Israel's main goal in the socio-economic sphere is to focus simultaneously on two levels - increasing the level of skills and knowledge of the population in general and the weaker sectors in particular and substantially improving infrastructure and manufacturing methods.

The team recommended a few steps that will increase the supply of workers, including granting incentives to work by unifying a family's sources of income, broadening the tax base, and reducing the tax burden. At the same time, the team believes that all the sources of assistance and subsidies granted by welfare bodies and the various authorities should be unified and their transparency increased. "At present, no one knows who is giving and who is receiving. There is total anarchy in the assistance and subsidization spheres," Ben David said.

Fewer foreign workers

Another recommendation proffered by the team was to implement the "Second Chance" plan that will enable Israeli adults who were high school drop-outs, or new immigrants who did not receive a high school education in their native countries to complete their education. The assumption is that the higher a society's level of education, the lower the unemployment and the higher the income.

Ben David said there is a direct correlation between education and earnings. In 1999, for example, unemployment in Israel among the population with less than 12 years of education was double that of the population with 16 or more years of education. The chances for non-high school graduates to be employed are 39 percent, compared to 67 percent among people with post-high school education.

Concerning the demand for workers, Ben David's team thinks the government's first goal should be to stabilize the economy by increasing the credibility of the fiscal and monetary policy, creating a political horizon, and raising the level of security in regions that host the most economic activity. The team quoted a study that found that the postponement of the construction of the separation fence has caused NIS 14-19 billion in lost production per year, when the fence costs just NIS 3-4 billion to build.

Like other economists and speakers at the convention, Ben David firmly believes that reducing the number of foreign workers is a precondition for increasing the demand for Israeli workers. He noted that one of every eight workers is not Israeli - a higher rate than any European country except Switzerland. Ben David suggested reducing the number of foreign workers by imposing higher employment taxes on employers who use foreign workers, whose current employment costs are 40-50 percent that of Israeli workers.

Concurring on the need to reduce the number of foreign workers is apparently the only point of agreement between the convention's organizers and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was absent from the convention, even though he was invited.

Judging from the enthusiasm of many of the more influential participants at the convention, Netanyahu can expect to be flooded with working papers in the coming months. These will hopefully spur him to give some more concrete backing to slogans like, "Let's adopt a work culture instead of a stipend culture," and create some more jobs.