Sometimes Netanyahu Is Right

You can't lament the bitter fate of the unemployed and complain about manual laborers' low wages while permitting and encouraging the entry into Israel of foreign workers who drive down salaries.

It's hard to be the prime minister of Israel. Even when you occasionally do the right things you face criticism from every direction, defamation and unfounded accusations.

If you try to shake up the last dinosaur, the Israel Lands Administration, to force it to sell off land to reduce prices, you're accused of acting in the service of "the real estate sharks." If you try to simplify and shorten the planning process to release the bottleneck in the construction industry - and in so doing halt the rise in housing prices - you become incorrigibly corrupt and a confirmed anti-environmentalist. If you encourage the reduction of income and corporate taxes to stimulate jobs, investment and economic growth, you are accused of knuckling under to the "tycoons."

And if you say that the number of foreign workers in the country should be reduced to allow disadvantaged populations in Israel to find a decent job, you are accused of cruelty, racism and "modern slavery," no less.

Data presented to the cabinet on Sunday show that Israel is nearly the global record holder for the proportion of foreign nationals in the workforce. There are around 300,000 foreign workers in Israel, 130,000 of them authorized and the rest unauthorized. That is about 10.4 percent of the workforce, compared with 4 percent in the Netherlands, 5.2 percent in both Sweden and France and 8 percent in Spain. Only Austria, at 12 percent, is ahead of Israel. The average for OECD countries is just 5.6 percent.

That is a genuine problem because the foreign workers who come here take the place of the same manual, blue-collar workers who once earned an honest living in construction, agriculture, industry, food service and cleaning. After all, you can't lament the bitter fate of the unemployed and complain about manual laborers' low wages while permitting and encouraging the entry into Israel of foreign workers who drive down salaries.

It wasn't always like this. Until 1993 there were relatively few foreign workers in Israel, and most were Palestinians. But after a series of terror stabbings that year, Yitzhak Rabin introduced a policy of extended closures that kept Palestinians from getting to work. Industrialists, farmers and building contractors began pressuring the government to allow the import of foreign nationals to replace the Palestinian workers.

The cabinet made a historic error by giving in to the pressure, effectively opening the country's borders to everyone; foreign workers began pouring in from every corner of the globe.

The result was a decline in blue-collar wages, and Israelis, especially in outlying areas, were thrown out of the labor market. The Filipina home healthcare aide whose job ended at the home of an elderly man turned into an unauthorized cleaner and housekeeper for the wealthy. Chinese construction workers became unauthorized restaurant workers and home renovators - and Israelis are pushed out of these jobs.

This has greatly hurt Israel's weakest populations, unskilled and uneducated workers. Unemployment among these groups has risen steadily, with increasing numbers of Israelis moving from employment to unemployment and welfare. Until 1994, for example, Israel's Arab communities were not even on the country's jobless map; since then they have been at the top of the list.

This week the cabinet approved a plan to reduce the number of foreign workers in Israel, especially the unauthorized ones. It's a good measure, but it must be aimed at employers. An "employers police" should be created to replace the "immigration police." Instead of chasing foreign workers around the city and wounding their dignity, the "employers police" should be permitted to enter workplaces and impose heavy fines, and even custodial sentences, on anyone who hires unauthorized foreign labor. That would be a true deterrent.

The time has come, too, to bust the myth that Israeli workers are unwilling to work in agriculture, construction, cleaning and restaurants. They are prepared to work in these areas, on condition that the farming and building sectors undergo mechanization, modernization and a rise in wages.

But why bother to change the accepted patterns of criticism when you can continue to vilify Benjamin Netanyahu? Even when he's right.