Shalom Simhon apparently believes you can fool all the people all the time. He thinks we've already forgotten that he was the agriculture minister in the last government. A few days ago, when he became chairman of the Knesset Economics Committee, he told reporters the committee "will examine why the government does not plan to implement the reform in the water economy, since it's in terrible shape."
That's an interesting way to put it, as if nobody has any responsibility for the situation in which farmers keep getting water at half price and usable water is wasted without any accounting, to the point that Israel's drinking water is threatened - and please, don't be impressed by one rainy season. The effective price of water to farmers is 89 agorot per cubic meter, while it costs the cities NIS 1.83, more than twice what the farmers pay.
When he started out as agriculture minister, Simhon presented himself as the reformer. He appointed a committee of Gedalia Gal from Kfar Vitkin and Yonatan Basi of Sde Eliahu, to examine the water issue. It didn't take long for them to present him a two-page report that proposed a complete revolution.
They said subsidizing agriculture through low-cost water is an economic absurdity, because it causes enormous waste of precious water on thirsty crops that are not at all appropriate to a desert country suffering from a built-in lack of water. Therefore, they proposed raising water prices for farmers to the levels paid by the cities, and subsidizing farmers with grants for tilled land.
Simhon adopted the report and was praised from every direction, except the farmers who opposed the plan, particularly the kibbutzim, which get large quantities of water at prices low enough for some to speculate in it as a commodity. But Simhon pressed on with the reforms, and crossed all the obstacles, winning the blessings of the water commissioner and the government's approval.
But just when the reform was about to go into effect, and a three-year timetable was set for equalizing the water prices paid by farmers and cities, the prime minister stepped in. True, the attorney general had forbade Sharon to directly intervene in issues of water and land because he owns farmland in Kfar Malal and his Sycamore Ranch, so there could be a conflict of interest.
But that's what a Prime Minister's Office director general is for. Avigdor Yitzhaki, knowing what his boss thinks, appointed a new committee headed by Eli Finerman, to examine the issue. The committee was comprised of people whose views were already known and it has recently reached its forgone conclusion - the reforms are inefficient and will harm the farmers.
Simhon, as agriculture minister in Sharon's government, didn't fight the Finerman committee, even though he knew what it would produce. He went one step forward and two backward. He wasn't capable of standing up to Sharon. He didn't even think he had any political power or principles. Throughout his entire term he did everything he could to find favor with Sharon. He opposed Labor's departure from the government and nowadays he's one of those who would be all too happy to forget the water crisis, and the reforms, to run back to Sharon.
The current agriculture minister is Yisrael Katz, a moshavnik from Kfar Ahim, a member of the farmers' lobby and a politician who derives his power from the moshav movement. Sharon knew when he appointed Katz that he was someone who would never dream of the water economy reforms. On the subject of water, Katz said upon taking office, "the solution of cutting water quotas is not good. The solution is desalination and recycling water." Not a word about the reform.
In other words, instead of charging the farmers the real price of water, Katz wants to cancel quotas so the tax-paying public finances desalination at NIS 3 a cubic meter, and then that water is sold to the farmers at 90 agorot a cubic meter - the height of economic efficiency. Later, the government will ask where to cut more, from the handicapped or the children, because it needs an additional few billion to build the unnecessary desalination plants.
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