Opinion |

Israel's Inflation-busting Ministers Should Be 'Men of the Year'

Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler
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Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman in June.
Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman in June.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler

This year too, when we sit down with the family for the Rosh Hashanah holiday meal, the apple and honey will be too expensive and the price of the fish will be sky-high, too. In fact, the entire meal will be appallingly expensive.

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The honey and fish are two products that Agriculture Minister Oded Forer has been trying to make cheaper for a long time. He tried to lower customs duty on both these products, but ran into fierce opposition from the farm lobby and other government ministries. Orna Barbivai, for example, the minister of economy and industry, refused to cooperate with Forer because she wanted to curry favor with the farmers. The cost of living interests her less.

This is how the discussions were dragged out, the elections are drawing closer, the Justice Ministry halted the processes, and just this week Forer managed to issue a one-time competitive bidding tender for 500 tons of honey with customs duty of only 10 percent – instead of 100 percent! As a result, the price of honey will drop in another week or two when this honey reaches the stores, but on Rosh Hashanah we will still be paying the highest price in the world.

The story of the fish is quite similar. In this case too, the farmers fought against the Israeli people. They filed endless objections to the reductions in customs, with Labor Party Knesset members backing them up. It’s worth knowing that 92 percent (!) of the fish we consume, frozen and fresh, is imported. So who are we protecting here? A handful of inefficient local fish farmers? Because of them, 9.6 million Israelis, some who earn minimum wage, are paying prices that are 24 percent above the price in other OECD countries.

This week, in spite of the attacks by farmers, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman signed the reduction in customs duties on fish, and canceling them completely within two years. In this case too, the lower prices will arrive only in another week or two, so on Rosh Hashanah our gefilte fish and chraime will still be the most expensive in the world.

Honey and fish are just examples. Lieberman and Forer are trying to cut tariffs and obstacles to the import of all food products – and also to cancel the uniquely Israeli standards for hundreds of other consumer products. This is a fierce battle against the agriculture lobby, which is the most powerful in the Knesset. It has representatives in every party, which helps the lobby attain insane levels of duties on food. This is why the price of honey is 50 percent higher than what it costs in the West, the price of olive oil is 180 percent higher and the price of frozen vegetables is 90 percent more expensive.

For months, Lieberman and Forer have been trying to lower customs on fruits and vegetables too. They have partially succeeded. The reduction won’t come all at once, and we won’t have zero tax either. It will be stretched out over five years for tomatoes, cucumbers, apples and more – but will drop immediately for fruits and vegetables that are almost not grown in Israel. Yet the price of pineapple, berries and garlic have already fallen steeply.

The fight to lower food prices is hard. The farmers slander and the government ministries are erecting barriers that prevent cheap imports. The plant-protection division in the Agriculture Ministry prevents the import of grapes, avocados and lemons with strange justifications that do not exist in any other Western country.

The Economy and Industry Ministry is doing everything possible to keep “unique standards” for a long list of packaged food products. The Health Ministry is also participating in the festivities. It wants to block the import of 33 basic foods such as olive oil, honey, halva, canned fish and tuna, beef, frozen fruits and vegetables, beer, wine and many more – because as far as they are concerned, the standards in Europe and the United States are not good enough. After all, they’re the Third World.

As for the matter of olive oil, the ministry is presenting an astonishing justification: “Oil has a place of honor in Jewish tradition. … It served for anointing kings.” Help!

In honor of the new year, it would be appropriate for the farmers and government ministries to stop interfering with Lieberman and Forer in their work of reducing the cost of living. Instead of slandering them, it would be right for them to be honored with the title “the economy’s men of the year.”

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