David Levy's Israel is out of work, poorer Ex-foreign minister is rooted in places prosperity spurned

January 15, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

OFAKIM, Israel -- When Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy resigned last week over the plight of the country's poor and jobless, Itzak Gozlan had mixed feelings.

Out of work for more than a year, the mechanic applauded Levy's stance. But Gozlan worries that, in Levy's absence, no one in the Cabinet will champion the country's growing underclass.

Levy quit the government of Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu in a budget flap over social programs that would benefit his core constituency -- the working poor and unemployed Jews from Middle Eastern countries.

"He did right," Gozlan said of the former foreign minister, whose resignation left the Netanyahu government with a precarious one-vote majority in the Israeli parliament. "But if somebody wants to do something, he has to be where he can do something, and now he is not in the government."

Levy's resignation turned on a deep divide in Israeli society: the cultural rift between the Jews from Europe, who founded this country 50 years ago, and the so-called Oriental, or Sephardic, Jews who came from Arab countries in the decade that followed.

Levy's departure also served to underscore a complaint that the government prefers to spend money to settle the occupied territories, rather than improve the older towns in the Negev desert and Jordan River valley -- communities within Israel's original boundaries.

The dispute centers on economic parity and political power. The problems in Ofakim serve to illustrate the condition. Today, Israel is experiencing its highest unemployment in more than three years.

At the end of last year, more than 151,600 people -- 8.7 percent of the population -- were out of work. In Ofakim, a one-time factory town of 23,000 in the Negev, the unemployment rate is 14.3 percent.

Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman and Jacob Frenkel, a Bank of Israel governor, have characterized joblessness as Israel's chief economic trouble.

Paradoxically, Israelis are living better today than they did five to 10 years ago, according to economists and social researchers. The economy is healthy and foreign investment continues to be strong.

But 47 percent of Israeli wage earners don't pay taxes because they don't meet the income threshold of $745 a month, says Shlomo Swirski of the Adva Center, a social research organization in Tel Aviv.

"Inequality is growing and people are realizing that more and more doors are closing down for them, whether in employment, housing or in the chance of a young couple to get stabilized -- get a job, purchase an apartment, raise children," said Swirski. "It used to be a matter of peripheral groups, but the periphery has come to the center."

Last month, Ofakim was the scene of angry protests by the unemployed, who accused governments past and present of neglecting the development towns. Hundreds took to the streets. They set tires and garbage cans ablaze, blocked roads and confronted police with fists. The confrontation was a startling event for a town that voted overwhelmingly -- 74 percent -- for Netanyahu.

The average monthly wage in Ofakim is about $800. But municipal workers led a two-week-long strike because they weren't being paid on time. The disturbances brought Netanyahu rushing to Ofakim with a promise of 500 jobs.

"You were and you remain out of touch," Levy said then of the prime minister and his Likud-led government. "Only a fire gets you going -- and we are standing before a huge social uprising. You are surprised that I raise my voice in protest, but I am raising my voice for those who have no recourse other than to run wild and burn tires. What are you busy with today, formulating policy or looking for a sedative?"

The Ofakim protests came at a time when Netanyahu was wrestling with the budget demands of other factions in his coalition, especially the ultra-Orthodox and the nationalist settlement community.

Netanyahu promised to pump $100 million into programs for the poor and unemployed. Levy called it "hocus pocus" and quit the ruling coalition, taking with him the five votes of his faction and triggering a government crisis.

"David Levy's is the first government crisis to be caused, at least on the level of rhetoric, on the growing inequality in Israeli society," said Swirski of the Adva Center.

Ofakim, established in April 1955, also represents the loss of traditional, textile-based manufacturing jobs and the difficulties in luring new industry to the development towns.

Like the former foreign minister, Gozlan came to Israel as a boy. His family was among the wave of Moroccan Jews who emigrated in the 1950s.

The government, run by Ashkenazis (Jews of European descent), sent the new arrivals to remote, undeveloped areas where they lived in tent camps. Gozlan's family landed in Ofakim.

The new immigrants were unskilled and spoke no Hebrew. They initially found work in the fields.

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