Steinitz: Top Economic Priority Is Preventing Mass Unemployment

Disenchanted students boo economic leaders at Sderot conference.

Speeches by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and other economic leaders were repeatedly interrupted by student hecklers at Sapir Academic College's Sderot Conference for Society Tuesday.

"The Negev demands social justice," a group of students shouted as Steinitz's speech began.

Yuval Steinitz -  Eliyahu Hershkovitz  - 30112011
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

"You're not unifying society, you're destroying it," yelled one student, drawing applause from the crowd.

Several hecklers were shuttled outside by security personnel, including Border Police, but the outbursts continued.

"The most important thing right now is preventing mass unemployment," said Steinitz. "Unemployment primarily hurts the periphery. It increases gaps and humiliates not just the unemployed but also their families. Unemployment hurts primarily the weak, not only in Israel but also in Britain and Spain."

"Britain downscaled public funding for tuition due to the recession, and the protests in London didn't help the students," Steinitz continued. "Spain's citizens are suffering, Britain's citizens are suffering, Greece's citizens are suffering, because major economies are falling."

Someone shouted from the crowd, "We're suffering, too."

Steinitz tried a different approach, noting his success at raising the state's take from natural gas profits. "My campaign against the gas companies will bring the state another NIS 200 billion," he said.

But Steinitz's comments failed to win over the crowd.

"That doesn't mean anything because the money won't ever reach us," one student shouted. "We haven't seen any of it, and we won't see any of it."

Steinitz also addressed the defense budget, which has been a source of conflict with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "The economy creates resources, and these resources are divided between welfare, education and defense," he said. "These resources are limited, and we need to prioritize. Thus the questions about the defense budget are appropriate."

"I have no doubt that we need to invest in defense," added Steinitz. "But everything needs to be done thoughtfully. Knee-jerk responses are not serious. Some of the developments in the Arab world are concerning, but since the Brodet report came out, the defense budget received an extra NIS 43 billion, instead of NIS 31 billion. This was not a real cut."

"If the defense budget were only transparent, we could save NIS 2 billion," he said. "This is important in terms of democracy, society and the economy, and it's even more important for the Israel Defense Forces."

A very rowdy crowd

The only time Steinitz received enthusiastic applause was when he discussed improving medical services in the periphery. He noted that the latest labor agreement with doctors had placed an emphasis on the outlying areas.

"We need to ensure that the quality of medical services in the Galilee and the Negev is no different than that in the center, and we're fighting for this," he said.

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Uzi Dayan, who initiated the conference, denounced the social protesters in his speech, which preceded Steinitz's.

"I don't suggest that anyone vote for someone who hasn't done anything in his life," he said. "Do we want Daphni Leef as finance minister or education minister? Those chosen by the public need to be the ones leading."

Particularly raucous was the discussion of the social protest, with repeated calls to radicalize the protest movement. Security forces, including Border Policemen, were called in to maintain the peace.

The speech that drew the most disruptions was that of Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni.

Gafni was repeatedly cut off by boos and people chanting "The people demand social justice." Several yelled, "The economy isn't good for us," "You all aren't doing anything," and "You're hurting us." Others tried to persuade Gafni to listen to their economic plights.

Gafni was participating in a panel discussion along with MKs Uri Orbach, Ilan Gilon and Rachel Adatto, as well as National Student Union head Itzik Shmueli and TheMarker editor Sami Peretz.

That panel was marred by outbursts from the beginning, and the crowd became more raucous after Adatto's speech, refusing to let Orbach speak for several minutes. The crowd included college and high school students who spurred on the dispute, as well as high school yeshiva students who danced and called out their support for Orbach.

Economy may be healthy, but not the middle class

"I told the prime minister a year ago that he needed to prepare for a protest," said Gafni, but the crowd cut him off. "I told the prime minister that everyone knows that while the data shows the economy is healthy, in practice a middle-class family with two breadwinners cannot cover its expenses."

He won applause when he mentioned some of his committee's steps to lower the tax burden.

Shmueli praised the protest for being nonviolent. "One of the accomplishments is that 400,000 people came to Kikar Hamedina and not a single window was broken," he said.

Someone interrupted him, "And nothing happened. It didn't help."

Orbach stated, "The central thing that came out of the protest was that the public's voice matters not only during elections, but also between elections. ... The middle class is bearing the entire country on its back - to the extent that it replaced the weakest citizens in crying out. The weakest were crying out for years, but they were so weak that no one cared."

Gilon drew the crowd's support with his speech.

"In our society, a teacher or a social worker needs to work for 25 years in order to earn what a bank CEO earns in a month," Gilon said. "In our society, there are people choosing between bread and medicine. It could be any one of us. Finally a generation has understood that it needs to know how to ask."

The Knesset members also attempted to take questions from the crowd. One high school student asked Gafni how the discussion about equality addresses the ultra-Orthodox, who do not work. Gafni attempted to explain the distress facing the ultra-Orthodox community, and added that he encouraged members of the ultra-Orthodox community to work, but he nevertheless drew a critical response from the crowd.