Cottage Cheese Furor Reaches Knesset as Boycott Spreads

Israel may begin allowing parallel imports of dairy products and cheeses.

The mushrooming consumer rebellion against the high price of cottage cheese and other dairy products reached the Knesset yesterday, where the dairy staple was served to the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and where Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz voiced firm opposition to restoring government price controls and said he would consider introducing competition by allowing dairy imports.

"We are thinking of allowing parallel imports of dairy products and cheeses," Steinitz said. "That is the surest way of lowering milk and cottage cheese prices in Israel."

Netanyahu cottage
Amit Shabi / Yedioth Ahronoth

He promised, though, not to lift government controls from the 10 dairy products still subject to price caps, including milk (1% and 3% fat, in carton and plastic bag ), Eshel 4.5%, Gil 3%, shamenet (sour cream ) 15%, ordinary butter (100g ), Emek yellow cheese, and Gilboa yellow cheese.

In recent weeks all the dairy companies in Israel have raised their prices. In the space of two days, as of press time, more than 40,000 people had joined Facebook groups calling for consumer boycotts of cottage cheese for a month because of the "disproportionate" increase in its price.

The public outcry over the price of the Israeli breakfast staple reached the halls of parliament yesterday during a debate on "The government's failure in diplomatic, economic and social issues." Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh arose at the start of the discussion, cheese container in hand, and planted it on Netanyahu's desk. It was a present for the prime minister, she said, given that it has become a luxury item.

Deputy Knesset Speaker Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List - Ta'al ), who was chairing the debate, ordered the ushers to remove the cottage cheese.

Nissim Zeev (Shas ) protested at the drama. "This is simply a disgrace, giving cottage cheese to the prime minister in the middle of a debate. How much will the dignity of the Knesset be trampled? Disgusting."

Perhaps more to the point, Zeev Elkin (Likud ) said that if anybody had complaints about the price of cottage cheese, they should complain to former finance ministers Abraham Hirchson and Roni Bar-On (both members of Likud ).

The Likud also released an announcement following Tirosh's delivery of the cottage cheese to the prime minister: "As usual Kadima is trying to hide the truth from the public. Hirchson, who is sitting in prison now, is the one who rescinded government control from several dairy products in 2006. Kadima is a party of gimmicks whose members choose to embarrass themselves again and again for a headline." Zahava Gilon of Meretz rebuked Tirosh too, saying that if the opposition has to resort to gimmicks, it won't get far, and accused her of disgracing the Knesset. "You can't give me marks," Tirosh retorted. The Finance Ministry opposed government price controls in principle, for the sake of the free market: Steinitz suggests instead allowing imports. But that won't be easy. The recently enacted Milk Law mandates permission from the Ministry of Agriculture to import any dairy product already made in Israel. A source near Agriculture Minister Orit Noked said she will not allow it. "Steinitz would be wise to stop releasing fabricated announcements that he couldn't carry out, designed merely for cheap populism," the source said. Cattle breeding association chairman Yaakov Bachar also criticized Steinitz's suggestion. "Three years ago the government removed price controls from basic dairy products, including cottage cheese, and hurt the poor," he said. "Now the finance minister means to import these products instead of restoring controls, which will hurt not only the poor but Israeli dairy producers too." The Knesset Economics Committee has scheduled a discussion on food prices for next week. Shelly Yachimovich said yesterday that most of the increase in food prices, including of the latest hot-button issue cottage cheese, is due to the increase in tax on fuels, which most Knesset members supported.