Standing Firm? The Home Front Is Livid

Eli Yishai tours the north. All he can offer is comfort

Carmiel was quiet last Monday. No missiles had landed for 24 hours. The streets were clean, and empty; almost all the stores were closed, including the two McDonald's and the Thai restaurant.

Three cars were parked by the pedestrian mall, which is usually humming. In the new mall, the Super-Sol was open and four shoppers strolled among its packed shelves. The lottery booth was also open. A guard was checking the bags of the few people who came into the mall.

This was the situation when Minister of Industry and Trade Eli Yishai came to visit. He was greeted by a giant billboard: "We'll win!"

Since the war broke out, Yishai has been up to the Galilee quite a bit. He has abandoned his regular ministry routine and spends all his time on the mounting problems of business in the north. "I tell my wife that if I weren't here, I'd be called up to reserves duty anyway," he jokes.

No money to run

Dov Lautman awaits Yishai at the Delta Galil textiles plant, in the old industrial zone off the main road. The town may be silent, but inside the plant, the machines are noisy. A moment before starting to talk with the minister, Lautman has to take a call: he has donated 20,000 T-shirts and pairs of socks to soldiers, but what about underpants, he's asked. Lautman's people say it will be okay and the package hits the road.

At Delta, it's almost business as usual; 1,500 workers make underwear and socks for export. The production rooms are semi-air conditioned and salaries are low, as befits an industry that survives by the skin of its teeth. Lautman reports full production and a low rate of absenteeism, 5% of 10% of the workforce.

Not bad, for the missile-ravaged area. But to be truthful, a week's vacation in Eilat to get away from the rockets is beyond the means of Delta's workers anyway, about half of whom are Arabs.

Lautman tells Yishai about Delta, which makes underwear for Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Victoria's Secrets and other world brands. "We're a global company that makes shmattas," he says.

The war room

Carmiel mayor Adi Eldar arrives to report to the minister on the situation. Half the city's residents left after about 70 missiles landed and Eldar is concerned about getting food supplies to the needy. The city hot-line tries to meet all needs, though some of the requests sound a tad bizarre. One woman demanded an exer-cycle.

At 15:00, exactly as Yishai's body-guard had predicted, a missile alert siren went off and the dignitaries trooped off to take shelter.

Yishai's next stop was the Klil plant at the Carmiel new industrial zone.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may declare that the "home front is standing strong" and at Delta, it seemed to be, albeit perhaps through lack of choice. But the flight southward and army orders that people could only work in safe areas are hurting production. Money transfers are disrupted, not all customers are understanding, and the Haifa port is partially closed down, disrupting cargoes.

Yishai goes to Klil's small dining hall, and meets with 80 managers and business owners. All are men and none are in a good mood. In fact, the home front is angry, and disappointed with the government.

The home front feels that the government response has been muddled and that the government has been taken aback by the damage to the home front.

"The timing of the war had not been planned," Yishai tells me. "But we knew in advance that problems would arise, and the moment the war broke out, we prepared two legislative proposals. One is to prevent layoffs of workers who went absent because of the war. The other is to compensate businesses."

But last week in Carmiel, he had no ready answers to hard questions. Yishai has set up an emergency desk in his office, and his people are up to their necks in work. Some of the decisions are in the realm of his colleague, Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, who pre-war didn't seem to be made of much stuff.

For all Yishai's efforts, it seems that Israel was unprepared for the missile barrages, which are keeping tens of thousands of people away from their jobs, and badly hurt production in the north. There were no plans ready to roll. The clerks of government are groping in the dark.

One after another, the industrialists stand up and expose their wounds before the minister. They advise, they beg, they threaten of economic disaster. Yishai listens silently, taking notes.

The businesspeople appreciate that he came up north to the Galilee and is at least listening to their plaints. It helps, a little, but not for long.

Their host, Klil manager Arie Richtman, is harder pressed to stay calm. He tells Yishai that 70% of his workers don't show up and the ones that do keep scurrying for shelter as the sirens wail time and again. The plant, which makes aluminum frames, is still meeting demand, but only thanks to inventory. When that runs out, the clients will start getting angry.

"I feel there's nobody to talk with," Richtman complains, in frustration at the non-answers he feels he gets from the Home Front Command hot-line for businessmen. Confused by contradictory orders, he has a belligerent suggestion: "The state should treat us like a battalion. They should put a war room here. I'll allocate it space? Every evening we'll evaluate the situation and prepare. Some of us fought in Lebanon and Gaza too, and commanded soldiers for years. We can do it now too."

Gristle, no substance

Soglowek manager Boaz Zafrir also feels the government is a broken reed as the winds of war buffet his meat-processing business. Out of Soglowek's 1,500 workers in Nahariya and Shlomi, he says, only 320 are manning the machines. Production is down 40% and he's deeply worried about wages.

"We can work in economic uncertainty, but not in governmental uncertainty," Zafrir chides Yishai, by which he means that the government and not business should pay wages to workers forced to stay home.

Yishai says he knows the business sector is essentially extending credit to the combat, but it won't last long. He feels the tremendous pressure that could well affect the timetable of the gunfire just 20 kilometers to the north. "I may not be able to solve all the problems, but as government, most of them can be solved," he tells the business leaders.

Meanwhile the enemy has halted its missile bombardment of Carmiel. Not far away, some Israeli soldiers died. A tank was blown apart and a helicopter came down. Yishai drives on to Safed and Hatzor Haglilit, to listen, to take notes, to promise.  His spokeswoman issues a press release that the minister wants soldiers to visit the homes of the elderly and disabled, to see if they need food or drugs. Business may be impaired, but politics never stops.