Three weeks ago, a comparative study of tourists appeared on the Internet, placing Israelis squarely at one place before last. What the survey was nobody can say, but like any worthy caricature, it contains an element of truth.

One reason for their unpopularity is that the average Israeli tourist is tight-fisted. But at least Israelis don't discriminate against foreigners. They aren't generous with each other either.

The public generally opines that the welfare system is too generous. Yet Israeli spending on welfare falls short of the norms in southern Europe Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal, nations that are alike us, going by geographical similarity and the UN's rating of economic development. After the cuts in the 2002 and 2003 budgets, the rating of Israel's care for the poor will be even lower.

Like all international comparisons, evaluating Israel's welfare spending to those of other nations isn't easy. There are differences in the ways welfare organizations are set up, and of definitions, too. For instance, Israel's financial support ate up 11.2% of the 2000 gross domestic product, included pension payments for civil servants. Such expenses cannot be defined under traditional welfare support.

Trimming unemployment benefits, child allowances and income assurance will reduce the income of certain families by tens of percent. Not enough for the treasury, which then raised tax on assured income by tens of percent (tax on work, municipal taxes, and television tax). If the poor are to be tormented, why not to it thoroughly.

Tax on capital gains is treated far more gingerly. It took six committees 15 years to force the finance minister to impose a modest 10% to 15% tax on financial gains and that hasn't been imposed yet. The effect of the cuts in support for the poor never did warrant examination by a panel, let alone six.

International comparisons teach that Israel's public consumption is high, and not only because of its heavy spending on defense: it's also because of its bloated civil service. The multiplication of ministers and deputy ministers is symptomatic of the disease. It epitomizes the unbearable lightness with which taxpayer money is spent for no good reason. In fact, the phenomenon is widespread, as shown by the latest report of the treasury's Wages Director on the irregularities in public sector wages. Or in reports of local authorities, who have countless high-ranking officials whose positions are entirely gratuitous.

This is not symbolic, it is a fundamental flaw in the structure of the national budget. Slashing at wages in the public sector must become a long-term goal of budgetary policy, in order to genuinely be generous to the needy.

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