The Bottom Line / The March of the Fools

The economic-social cabinet yesterday approved Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam's construction acceleration plan.

The economic-social cabinet yesterday approved Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam's construction acceleration plan.

The program, slated to run for four months, will cost the Housing Ministry NIS 200 million, and include aid for apartment purchases and financing infrastructure in national priority areas - and we all know what Eitam means when he says, "national priority." So, most of the money will go toward expanding settlements in the territories and apartment purchases - in the territories.

According to Eitam, "The plan will ease the distress of the homeless who cannot buy their own apartments due to the high price of real estate".

That sounds a lot like former housing minister Natan Sharansky, who had a similar world view. In 2001, he said that his program would help the weak and homeless. It sounded good in the media; but in practice, the Sharansky plan was slated to help settlement and construction in the territories, rescuing contractors with huge inventories of apartments, and saving the banks that granted huge credit lines to the entire real estate sector.

Operation Sharansky did increase sales during the period in question, but almost the entire increase stemmed from people pushing up purchase dates to get the perks.

The Bank of Israel found that apartment prices rose during the period by the size of the Sharansky grants - NIS 25,000-50,000. In other words, the state gave indirect grants to contractors, who passed them along to the banks in order to reduce their debt, while the apartment buyers themselves saw virtually zip from the whole operation. But the settlement enterprise in the territories got some fortification.

While we have a fragile hudna and the prime minister talks about Judea and Samaria in terms of occupied territory that one day will be returned, official Israel continues to pour money into the settlements at the expense of the Negev and the Galilee, of Dimona and Shlomi, at the expense of growth and employment.

A tender was recently published for the construction of 22 residential units in the Gaza Strip settlement of Neveh Dekalim. And this is not long after we "evacuated the Gaza Strip." In addition, we continue to pave roads in the West Bank, right now south of the Hebron Hills. Statistics indicate that the number of settlers increased in the past year by 5,415. And now another NIS 200 million in grants and subsidies will go almost entirely to the territories.

If this isn't the ultimate march of the fools, what is?

Eitam himself lives in a bubble, detached from reality. He says, "The construction sector needn't be impacted only by the security situation." But what caused the deterioration of the industry year after year, if not the state of war that led to economic crisis, deep recession, a fall in demand and cessation of sales.

The fact is that in 1996, construction amounted to 14 percent of GDP; and now, it barely makes 8 percent.

But false messiahs are above the facts of life. They have led the people of Israel into disaster in the past. And, as National Infrastructures Minister Yosef Paritzky said of Eitam: "Since the man is mad, with messianic delusions, a response has to come from a professional in the field, not from me."