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Heavy sighs emanated last Tuesday from the cabinet room where the cabinet had convened to discuss the 2006 budget. Each minister in turn began the presentation of his demands with a lament over the poverty report published the previous day, and explained why it was important to add to his ministry's budget in order to help the poor. All were in agreement that the situation was dire.

The social welfare minister, none other than Ariel Sharon, was well prepared. He read out a series of directives he had issued against poverty. "I issued an order to increase allowances for the elderly, to feed 150,000 school children and to introduce subsidies (negative income tax) for low-wage employees. You'll see," he promised, "next year the poverty figures will improve. There will also be a lot more compassion now that Bibi is gone," he said bitingly.

The (temporary) price tag on the helping of compassion Sharon promised the ministers was more than a NIS 1 billion - a small price pay to defeat a political rival. Benjamin Netanyahu's replacement, Ehud Olmert, whose list of titles makes him a flourishing government monopoly, also exploited the poverty issue to attack his rival. "Economic growth has not trickled down to the poor," he conceded. "Everything will change from now on. We will create jobs and help the poor go out to work so they can stop being poor." And where has he been until now, the minister who is also in charge of Industry, Trade and Labor?

It is possible that the next poverty report will indeed reflect an improvement. Under pressure from the National Insurance Institute, the allowance for the elderly who have no other source of income was increased. A single senior will get an additional NIS 170 per month; a couple will receive NIS 230. Maybe that will be enough to lift tens of thousands of elderly people to slightly above the poverty line. They won't be much less poor, but the statistics will look good.

The NII did indeed recommend making this move back in 2004, but the Finance Ministry was too busy slashing taxes for the upper deciles.

Now it is the turn of the poor. In its burst of benevolence, the cabinet, in that same budget meeting, approved an additional cutback in child allowances and guaranteed income allowance for those aged 25 and under. This is the real answer to whoever wondered last week whether Netanyahu's resignation heralds a change in economic-social policy.

Olmert is the third finance minister Sharon has appointed since he became prime minister, and in all three cases economic-social policy cleaved to the conservative right-wing path set down by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. During his four years in office, the prime minister has driven 400,000 Israelis below the poverty line. The policy may be ascribed to Netanyahu, who gave it a sharpened ideological expression and translated it into blunt steps, but that is because it was convenient for Sharon to have the criticism stick to Netanyahu instead of to himself.

In the sweeping support he lent Netanyahu and in the deafening silence with which he met the consequences, Sharon authorized cutbacks in education, health, welfare allowances, rent subsidies, monitoring the enforcement of labor laws and vocational training - every resource that could have halted the slide into poverty of both the employed and the jobless.

Other steps taken by his ministers, such as the war they declared on workers' committees and the Histadrut labor federation, withholding the salaries of local authority workers, and privatizing welfare, health and transportation services, only deepened the damage.

Thousands of families have been evicted from their homes during Sharon's tenure because they did not have money to repay their mortgage. But it was only when Sharon decided to evict 8,000 settlers from their homes that his Teflon flak jacket burst.

The Gaza evacuees will be getting a roof over their heads and monetary compensation for the loss of homes and gardens and fields and greenhouses, which they acquired at a discount from the government in the first place; their children will get a decent education; social workers and psychologists will be at their disposal in moments of crisis. More than 1.5 million poor people within the Green Line did not receive and will not receive a single one of these benefits. But Sharon does not talk about their tragedy, not even when interviewed by Ayala Hasson.

The fabled protest rally of 400,000 calling Sharon to account 23 years ago after the Sabra and Chatila massacre will not recur. His 400,000 victims won't stand up, and there isn't anyone to protest on their behalf. The forces that joined together at the time to disgrace Sharon are now seated comfortably around the cabinet table. In any event, most of them are not part of the real social left and their credo resembles Netanyahu's more than they are willing to admit. The tragedy of the people in Israel is that only the supporters of 8,000 satiated settlers call Sharon to account.