Text size

The most important statistic for 2003 released yesterday was the number of new immigrants who settled in Israel last year: Some 23,000 immigrants arrived in 2003, as opposed to the record of 200,000 set in the 1990s. As the Israeli phrase goes, Jews around the world are voting with their feet about Zionism. They are not flocking toward a country plagued by daily warnings of terror attacks along with economic stagnation and rising unemployment.

The Central Bureau of Statistics data released yesterday indicates that per capita gross domestic product, a measure of the standard of living, declined in 2003 for the third straight year. It currently stands at a level of $16,300. This is the standard of living that Israelis had in 1996. In other words, the past three years of the intifada have set living standards in Israel back seven years.

This per capita GDP figure appears particularly worrisome when it is compared to figures from other countries. Western countries increased their standards of living by an average of 1.3 percent in 2003. Countries such as Greece ($17,000) and Spain ($20,000) are ahead of Israel in terms of per capita GDP.

With these facts in mind, there seems to be little objective reason for consoling ourselves with the thought that we are experiencing the "start of economic growth," as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared. True, GDP grew 1.2 percent last year, after two consecutive years of decline; but since the population grew by 1.8 percent, per capita GDP fell 0.6 percent, which reflects a drop in living standards.

Last year's growth was not produced by government expenditure (which decreased), by investments (which continued to plummet), or by private consumption (which remained unchanged in 2003). Instead, whatever growth was attained came from exports - and increased exports were due primarily to the international economic recovery. (See Op-Ed, Page 5)