Let us review a number of known facts: In the past two or three years, the economic situation of large sectors of Israel's population has deteriorated, and both poverty and hunger are evident for the first time in the homes of many Israelis. The exact location of the poverty line may be a subject of debate, the estimates of the number of hungry children may change from one survey to the next, but the dispute over the scope of the problem affecting the lives of many Israelis cannot conceal the very existence and presence of this evil. It is not for naught that people and organizations of good will have mobilized to establish food programs and soup kitchens, and it is certainly not for the purpose of television coverage that so many people scrounge around in the piles of garbage in the markets.
This deterioration causes despair, humiliation and distress among law-abiding citizens, damages their self-respect and endangers their future and that of their children. The responsibility for creating a new class in this country - the class of the working poor - lies first and foremost with the incumbent prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who by dint of his role in recent years has been in charge of all government activities. In addition to him, those responsible for the situation are the ministers with economic roles, and primarily former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who during one of his arrogant press conferences, spoke about the fact that in the foreseeable future, Israel will be one of the world?s five leading nations in terms of economic growth.
I don't pretend to know for certain whether the poor state of the Israeli economy necessitated the extreme measures that, on the one hand, have enriched one stratum of the population - which is steadily increasing its festivities and pleasures with inflated salaries and manipulations of the capital market - and, on the other hand, have pushed other sectors into the garbage. But it is entirely clear that we must, quickly and drastically, amend and stop these extreme measures, which have caused and continue to cause damage to so many people. There is no reason why Israel should be among the five countries in the world with such rapid growth - if the price is also poverty, hunger and humiliation. The rosy future predicted by treasury economists does not justify the gloomy present of so many poor people.
In recent years, we have also seen the dubious, absurd and cruel efficiency of such extreme measures in the area of security, as well - for example, in the Gaza Strip. In the profound philosophy of "the fate of Netzarim will be the fate of Tel Aviv"; in the strange and futile strategies of continuing the occupation while strengthening the settlements; in the cost of an annual average of about 40 dead, civilians and soldiers, in the Gaza Strip, while massive funding was channeled into the protection and development of the settlements, until only the sobering reality led to the decision to undertake a unilateral disengagement.
Perhaps when it came to the Palestinians we could still say that there was no other alternative, and that it was necessary to follow a winding and bloody road so that the general public would understand what had already become obvious to clear-sighted people many years earlier. But when it comes to the suffering of Israeli citizens, who were cruelly subjected to poverty by their leaders with the sweeping support of the well-to-do - we can no longer remain aloof and say: There's no choice, we have to continue to encourage growth and not destabilize the capital market.
Far worse conditions In little Israel of the 1950s - after a prolonged and painful War of Independence in which about 6,000 people were killed and tens of thousands were injured, infrastructure was destroyed and agricultural communities were abandoned - within only a few years, some one million new immigrants were absorbed, most of them penniless people streaming in from Europe and from the Muslim world. Nevertheless, in that same small and poor Israel, which continued to confront the hostility of the Arab world, daily acts of terror, threats of war and serious border incidents - nobody scrounged around in the garbage and no soup kitchens were established to provide free meals for hungry children. And most important: There was no huge economic gap between the poor and the rich, as there is today in Israel, and which, to the disgrace of us all, is becoming the greatest such gap in the Western world.
The man who managed the economy in far worse conditions of scarcity than those of recent years, also knew how to respect basic values of social and economic solidarity, and was unwilling to drag people, with a total absence of feeling, into poverty and humiliation, while other segments of the population enjoyed their festivities and pleasures.
For the lip-service paid for the disinfestation of poverty, we are all paying now. And even the prime minister is playing the role of the righteous man and is crying for the hungry children, as if he wasn't the one who starved them in recent years. But there is one important person in politics today who has experienced this situation for years in the harshest way, and who does not whitewash or babble, but takes a microphone and raises a proper hue and cry. I am referring to the elected head of the Labor Party.
It is absurd and demagogic to define the policy that he proposes as communist, since in the global world of a free economy there is no possibility of reviving economic systems that are no longer valid. He is a social democrat in the new European style, and in the style that is now conquering and rehabilitating the social fabric of South American countries. Nor will the head of the Labor Party be Israel's next prime minister. But if Labor under him accumulates enough power in the coming elections, he will be able to position it as a strong and significant partner in the coalition that will be formed, and to force the new government to divert the steering wheel of economics in the direction of a more moral socialist awareness, in order to reduce the injustice that has been caused to so many Israelis.
I do not have many illusions about the ability of the truly weak segments of the population to identify their problems and to support the person who is offering them the proper assistance. For many years, the impoverished classes supported the hawkish policy of the Likud and the huge investments in the settlements, which robbed a great deal of money from the resources earmarked for them. But there is a significance in the moral demand of the traditional voters of the Labor movement and its sympathizers, whether from the middle or upper classes, who have immersed themselves in efforts to promote peace and the disengagement, to try now to amend in some way the social injustices caused to the weaker populations as a result of the brutal economic policy of the Likud.
All those who are slipping over from the Labor movement to Kadima, first and foremost among them Shimon Peres, are now offering pathetically false explanations to the effect that by joining Sharon, they will be better able to promote the political process. They are well aware that in return for anything that Sharon does (if at all) to promote the peace process and an additional disengagement - he can expect almost automatic support both from Labor and from Meretz-Yahad, whether in the framework of the coalition or outside it.
But the next government will not be able to correct the social injustices without the encouragement and pressure of a strong and substantial partnership with those who have studied this phenomenon, and have lived it day and night in recent years. Those who have not tired of dealing with it, and not only as a matter of routine, but out of a profound belief in social and economic change. Indeed, for that purpose they have established an outstanding professional team that is working on realistic solutions, and not only uttering empty slogans about pity.
The poverty and distress in Israel are not only painful, and not only undermine the dignity of us all. They also unravel the social fabric and the values of solidarity that were built up here over the years; and until the economic growth in Israel reaches the level of which Sharon and Netanyahu have dreamed, they are already causing the burgeoning crime and corruption that are bringing Israel to an unprecedentedly low rank among the countries of the Western world.
There is a way to correct this. Not by magic, not all at once, not with a revolution, but with the patient work of those who are now heading the Labor Party, who have prepared themselves for this move. Any rejection of them in the coming elections, with empty excuses of lack of experience, will not be a political rejection, but a moral one.