Liberman has called the agriculture reform one of the most important items in the budget and shows no signs of backing down.
Israel’s new plan to increase competition for eggs and produce is “the greatest reform that has been made in agriculture in the last 30 years,” according to Agriculture Minister Oded Forer (Yisrael Beytenu).
Israeli farmers are taking to the streets in protest, saying the reforms will destroy the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and agriculture workers, with no impact on the cost of living.
Welcome to the battle for Israel’s first budget in three years, which was officially presented to the cabinet on Sunday.
Proposed agricultural reforms are possibly the most contentious issues on the budget agenda, which includes an extraordinarily ambitious and complex set of reforms that the Finance Ministry seeks to push quickly through the Knesset.
Two weeks ago, Forer and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) announced a five-year plan designed to increase competition and lower the prices of fruits, vegetables and eggs through a broad and gradual reduction in import tariffs.
Israel will recognize European standards for fruits and vegetables, and regulation of produce imported from Europe will be reduced. The program follows OECD recommendations, and it could save Israelis some NIS 2.7 billion a year, or NIS 840 per household, the ministers said in a joint statement.
However, it would also destroy much of Israel’s agriculture sector irreparably and pose serious food-security risks for the country, said Amit Ben-Tzur, founding director of the Yesodot Think Tank for Public Policy and Practical Zionism.
“The government can’t pass a law like this as part of the Economic Arrangements Law with just a few weeks of discussion,” he said. “This issue is very complicated, with impact in so many areas. You have to sit and check all the data and possible scenarios. The plan that was put on the table is too simple, and they didn’t present any real numbers or scenarios.”
The current proposal would lead Israeli farmers to completely stop growing many basic agricultural products within one to three years, Ben-Tzur said.
“I’m not talking about tropical fruits; I’m talking about the basic foods that many of us eat every week,” he said. “And we wouldn’t only lose the products themselves. We won’t have the excellent R&D or innovation that Israel has developed in this field either.”
The cost of a mistake could be permanent, Ben-Tzur said.
“Once these capabilities are damaged, and the land is converted to residential or commercial real estate, it’s not coming back,” he said. “If we make a mistake now, when there is a national crisis, it will be too late.” That could significantly damage Israel’s food security, an issue that countries around the world have been taking more seriously over the past decade, Ben-Tzur said.
“Around the world, especially in the EU and the United States, countries know that they have to ensure reliable access to sufficient food for their populations,” he said. “The EU spends 40% of its total budget on agriculture. Agricultural yields have been declining in the past decade due to climate change. A US study found that even with technological innovation, yields are down 21% in recent years.”
“Israel is a small country with enemies all around us,” he added. “We also have the fastest population growth among developed countries, and we are expected to have 16 million people here by 2050. We will need a lot of food, and if just one country decides to stop exporting to us, it could endanger our population. We can’t allow our agriculture sector to be broken.”
The farmers did not say they would fight against any reform,” Ben-Tzur said. “But if you want a real reform that will help everyone, you need to start with a plan that first evaluates Israel’s food-security needs and takes everything into consideration, and that includes the farmers in the process.”
Meanwhile, agriculturalists say the planned reforms don’t even target the root of the problem.
“The farmers who receive a few shekels for produce are not the ones who set the prices in the supermarkets,” said Avshalom Vilan, head of the Israeli Farmers Union, which is leading protests around the country. “It is the marketing chains that sell it for several times the price and earn billions of shekels on the backs of consumers and backers.”
“The farmers have no influence on the price of fruits and vegetables and no influence over the cost of living,” he said. “We are here, standing at intersections all over the country, to show that it is not possible to close agriculture in the State of Israel.”
There is widespread criticism that many of the measures being pushed through on the budget need more debate. The Berl Katznelson Foundation, a progressive think tank, said: “The Economic Arrangements law that is being discussed in the government is one of the most disconnected ever seen here, with no social benefit. The law includes sensitive and half-baked reforms on dramatic issues that are being put to a vote in one go, without any proper public and parliamentary debate.”
It singled out the agriculture reform, as well as planned deregulation reform and an outline to raise the retirement age for women from 62 to 65, as particularly dangerous to the state’s long-term interests.
Liberman has called the agriculture reform one of the most important items in the budget, and he shows no signs of backing down. It remains to be seen whether this issue will cut the cost of living, create food shortages, or bring down the government.