Taking Stock / Israel's Most Deprived Citizen

What are the CSPI, ACSH, ACCI, AAFTEC and the AARP? Initials of technological applications? Names of startups? Chip models? Patents?

No. This incredible alphabet soup are consumer organization operating in the United States. These are the starting team of a list of organizations that work for consumers. The rest of the list has dozens more big organizations and hundreds of small ones. The AARP for instance - the American Association of Retired Persons - lives and breathes to protect and fight for the financial security of the over 50s.

And who in Israel defends the rights of pension-savers over 50? No one, of course. That's why the huge pension fund arrangement, which shaved a cool 10 to a huge 30 percent off the pension rights of hundreds of thousands of insured, passed without any criticism. To this day, in fact, most of them still don't understand what happened to them.

Israel is not the United States. For one thing, we're much much smaller. Nonetheless, for a country with GNP of more than $100 billion, very developed consumer culture and many characteristics of a developed economy, it's pretty amazing to discover that we have exactly two and quarter consumer protection organizations.

This week, we took another small step backward: The director general of the Industry and Trade Ministry's Consumer Council, Galit Avishai, resigned, firing off a myriad of accusations at her boss, Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert. Among other things, she revealed that Olmert plans to cut 40 percent of the Council's budget for next year.

How many tens of millions of shekels are to be had from the brutal 40 percent slashing of the Consumer Council's budget? This is the funniest bit: According to Avishai, the budget is slated to drop from NIS 3 million to NIS 1.6 million. In other words, the consumer protection budget is slated to shrink from ridiculously small to preposterously minuscule.

We must measure the Consumer Council's budget up against the billions of shekels poured by the Trade Ministry in decades of grants to big industry - despite expert economic opinions stating this is damaging and unnecessary intervention in the marketplace.

We can also measure the Consumer Council's budget up against the budgets for other authorities, like the Israel Securities Authority, the Antitrust Commission, or the Bank of Israel's Supervision of Banks, each of which gets an annual purse of NIS 50 million to as high as NIS 100 million. And it's not surprising: The regime in Israel doesn't see consumer rights as any particular value that deserves protection.

True, every once in a while, a Knesset member hops up in his chair with a popular initiative of one sort or another to grab headlines; but that's sporadic. No one in Israel is engaged in methodical and organized activity to protect consumer rights.

The two bodies in charge of consumer protection in Israel are the Consumer Council, subordinate to the Trade Ministry, and the Consumer Protection Authority, subordinate to the Histadrut labor federation.

And here is the heart of the problem: Consumer rights have always been marginal on the agendas of generations of industry and trade ministers; the ministry has always been thought of as the "Industrialists' Ministry" - both because of the billions of shekels it pours out in grants, and because of the close relations between the ministers and Israel's tycoons.

Consumers don't invite the ministers to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies at new factories, and are just a sea of anonymous faces, and those who handle them won't get much in the way of PR and invitations to openings, ribbon-cuttings and cocktail parties.

The interest the Histadrut shows in its Consumer Protection Authority is not much greater than the Trade Ministry's interest in the Consumer Council. Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz, like Olmert, knows money and power do not lie in defending anonymous consumers - but in defending the workers of the strong monopolies. Huge strikes make him a TV star and candidate for the leadership of the Labor Party; battling for consumer rights will never win him precious screen time.

Galit Avishai cannot blame the heads of the Trade Ministry: Until 10 or 15 years ago, the Securities Authority and the Antitrust Commission were marginal entities with little clout to speak of. They both made breakthroughs due to the people who headed them - Arie Mientkavich at the Securities Authority, and Dr. Yoram Turbowicz at the Antitrust Commission.

The pair were helped by huge powers granted to the bodies by law. The Consumer Council doesn't have that authority - not for investigations, not for arrests, not for warrants, not for stopping prospectuses and not even for halting mergers.

The time has come for the establishment of a new authority - for consumer protection - that is not subject to one or another politician, that is empowered by legal authority and that is headed by a superstar who wants to make a career of fighting the good fight for one of Israel's most deprived citizens - the consumer.