Who Cares About the Poor?

There are still those who believe that Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a media whiz who has all the journalists wrapped around his little finger. Maybe that was once the case, but today said whiz is Histadrut labor federation leader Amir Peretz, who specializes in spin and half-truths. Peretz managed to emerge from the latest wage agreement with Netanyahu with flying colors, as the one who got everything and didn't pay a penny - although the facts demonstrate otherwise.

A few days ago, he published notices in all the newspapers with a long list of achievements, but one small detail was missing: the price paid by the workers. Paragraph 3 of the wage agreement with the treasury reveals that the Histadrut gave up the cost-of-living increment (2.2 percent) in 2005. This means NIS 750 million less for the workers. And that's not all. The Histadrut also agreed to postpone some of the vacation payments (NIS 400 million) from 2005 to 2006. In all, Peretz gave up NIS 5 billion from 2003 to 2005 in the name of the workers. In other words, he's not Superman.

Whom is he really protecting? The weak? The unfortunate? Peretz boasts that he managed to cancel the treasury's plan to tax the money allocated to those who earn over NIS 7,000 a month. This cancellation will benefit 400,000 people (out of 2.4 million salaried workers), who earn over NIS 7,000 a month, and whose employers set money aside for them for a professional training fund (keren hishtalmut). These are large workers' committees, in the banks, the Israel Electric Corporation, the Mekorot Water Supply Co., the Airports Authority, the Ports Authority, et al. But the vast majority of workers earn less than the average, and they have no professional training funds at all. They will only lose; because the moment the professional training tax was cancelled, the treasury was forced to make up the difference in the budget by taxing cigarettes, and it is about to tax diesel fuel. These are indirect and regressive taxes, which harm mainly the weak.

But not only Peretz protects the poor. The Labor Party also says that the entire purpose of its entering the government (aside from the disengagement) is concern for the weak. But the budget negotiations with Labor focused on one subject: pensioners. Not the weak pensioners, those who live only from an old-age allowance and are in need of income supplements. The Labor Party is interested in those pensioners who are relatively well off, those who receive a pension in addition to their old-age allowance. They are very important at this time because they have about 400 representatives in Labor's central committee, and will play a major role in the crucial decision next week: Who will be appointed a minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government?

The problem is that the public still remembers that those presently conducting the negotiations, Labor Members of Knesset Dalia Itzik and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, voted in favor of cutbacks in the allowances of exactly those same pensioners in 2002 - when they were ministers in the first Sharon government. In any case, the negotiations over Labor's joining the government did not blow up over budgetary matters (they didn't introduce a single change in Netanyahu's policy), but over ministries: their number, quality and size.

Even United Torah Judaism (which is on its way in), is concerned only about the poor. These happen to be the poor who are also their electorate. The party obtained NIS 290 million for yeshivas and ultra-Orthodox kindergartens, and wants the job of chair of the Knesset Finance Committee in order to control a central financial junction.

Eli Yishai, head of Shas (which has not yet decided whether to join the government) mentions at every opportunity that he is the only one to whom the weak are important. But he intends only to improve the financial situation of the Shas elite, those who prefer to die in the tents of Torah rather than in Gaza, and want their large families to be funded by the public coffers, without working at all.

The public will of course not forget Netanyahu, who declares that he is the only one who is really working for the poor when he reduces allowances and encourages people to go out to work. If that's the case, who is really concerned about the poor? Apparently no one. The fact is that their number is growing from year to year.