They Should Have Some Work to Do

The unity government appears to the Labor Party veterans to be a necessity resulting from the situation and Ariel Sharon is one of them - a Mapainik, anachronistic, a believer in government involvement in the economy, nostalgic for his farm days, and he curses in Russian.

Last Thursday evening, the air-conditioners weren't working at the Labor Party branch in Givatayim. The crowd, mostly aging members of the party and pensioners, used brochures handed out by MK Haim Ramon's advance men, as fans. Before November 19, primary election day for the Labor Party, chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and contender Amram Mitzna will also pay visits to the local headquarters.

Something strange is happening in the Labor Party's branches. The older the crowd gets, the more it appears to acquiesce to the situation. The veterans say it explicitly. The unity government appears to them to be a necessity resulting from the situation and Ariel Sharon, chairman of the Likud, is one of them - a Mapainik, anachronistic, a believer in government involvement in the economy, nostalgic for his farm days, and he curses in Russian.

Sharon's associates say he also feels more comfortable with the aging residents of Givatayim's Borochov and Hulda neighborhoods than he does with the Etzel veterans. No wonder, then, that Ramon's battle cry to leave the unity government that is gradually evaporating the Labor Party, is met - at least at the start of the meeting - with a sleepy resistance. Only some are ready to wake up and ask themselves why the movement is ready to kill off the little bit of ideology it still has, and commit suicide.

While the Labor Party is in a deep coma when it comes to the diplomatic-military issues, on social and economic affairs it long ago lost sight of the differences between itself and the Likud. Since Yitzhak Rabin outlined his new priorities for the nation on the eve of the 1992 elections, there's been only one pale effort, in the waning days of Ehud Barak's government, to formulate a social-democratic platform for the party, and even that was made by a group of economists from Tel Aviv University who initiated the plan.

This week, one of the members of that group, Dr. Dan Ben-David from the Pinchas Sapir Center at TAU, published a series of articles called "Inequality and Growth in Israel." The articles reiterate much that has already been said, but the despairing Labor veterans, and the party's leaders and policymakers, should read the articles carefully - and not only the tables and data, but also the analysis of the roots of the economic inequality in the country and the drop in growth.

Ben-David pays special attention to a number of aspects of inequality and growth. The growing gap between gross and net income, which reaches 58 percent, creates a growing need for support systems for the poor; there's too little participation in the work force - one of the lowest levels anywhere in the world. Ben-David emphasizes that it's not the fault of the workers, but rather because of factors like too little education, army service and, of course, the deepening recession and the irresponsible import of foreign workers.

Finally, he cites the decline in the level of education in Israel. If at the beginning of the 1960s, 13-year-old Israelis were the top of the world's class in math and science, now they are 35th, on a scale of 35.

Ben-David shows that there is a close connection between education, unemployment and income, and explains the connection between growth and education. It's a simple formula: Less professional education means more unemployment and social gaps; more expenditure on infrastructure for the settlements and security means dwindling public coffers. But unemployment and the growing social gaps require more public expenditure; thus, the weak get weaker and growth is harmed even more.

Unlike many academics, Ben-David dares to propose practical solutions, like long school days and shortening the school week to five days. He is not enthusiastic about canceling social welfare allotments, and has reservations about the Wisconsin plan, while supporting entitlements for work, education, professional training and pinpoint treatment of problems. His text depicts a clear worldview, which should be recognizable to anyone who claims to be a social-democrat. After all, who in the Labor Party doesn't define themselves with that cliche?

Perhaps after Ben-David, people will start thinking in the Labor Party that it is possible to come up with a socio-economic policy that isn't identical to Silvan Shalom's, Yaacov Neeman's or Jacob Frenkel's. Perhaps it might even be possible to conduct an election campaign with a platform instead of promises about elderly women in hospital corridors. They should read it. They should have some work to do.