housing - Haaretz - August 3 2011
Housing protesters. Photo by Haaretz
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The demands submitted by the leaders of the tent protest are a mix of the reasonable and the less so. So it's too bad the list was topped by the most unreasonable demand of all: pulling a bill to set up national housing committees, a fast-track approval process for residential construction.

The steep rise in housing prices has two causes. First, the Israel Lands Administration controls 93 percent of the state's land, and doesn't offer enough of it for sale. The shortage of land pushes up prices.

Second, there are six regional planning committees that simply don't do their jobs. Building plans can be stuck in these committees for six years. And without approved plans, construction can't begin.

Therefore, a sweeping reform of the ILA is needed. And today, the Knesset must pass the national housing committees law, which would circumvent the snail-like regional panels. The new committees won't jettison environmental protection, but they will approve more construction plans. And then, housing prices will fall.

Protest leaders also are demanding a reduction in indirect taxes, especially value-added tax. They're right that indirect taxes are too high. But they ought to be focusing not on VAT, but on the high customs duties imposed on food imports.

There's no reason on earth why a 190-percent tax should be slapped on fresh beef, or 170 percent on chicken, or 160 percent on milk powder, or 140 percent on butter. And similarly outrageous duties are imposed on numerous other imported foods. These levies are causing our high food prices, and lowering them is thus more important than lowering VAT.

Regarding health care, protesters are right to demand more staff positions for doctors and more hospital beds. But the government has already promised some increases, and is now discussing further increases with the striking doctors.

In contrast, the demand for free education starting at the age of three months would cost the state billions, and it's not clear the budget could absorb this outlay. Even Europe doesn't offer free education from such a young age, and there's no reason for us to be the first. Moreover, there are other ways to help working mothers, such as by giving them larger tax credits.

The protesters oppose all forms of privatization. But the state doesn't know how to run anything; its role should be to supervise. Therefore, privatization improves service to the public, on one important condition: There must be close state supervision.

Finally, the protesters want the state to return "surplus tax revenues." That sounds nice, but it's an empty slogan. Because this year, there will be no surplus revenues - and that's even before we know how many additional billions the protesters' demands will cost us.