The National Insurance Institute's poverty report - according to which the proportion of the population living under the poverty line grew to over 24 per cent (the percentage of poor children was even higher) - made front-page news for a day following its release last week. A main reason for the continuing growth in poverty and the huge gap between rich and poor is that the men and women who control Israel's politics and the media believe that the dispute with the Palestinians, and the Arab world, is sexier (and of greater public interest) than our socioeconomic problems and the fate of our poor citizens. Despite that, the tiny Meretz faction succeeded in rounding up 25 MKs who called for the convening of a special Knesset session last week to consider the report. Something like 9 members bothered to attend, and the meeting was cut short. The poverty figures are for the second half of 2004 and the first half of 2005. Indications are that the trend of growing poverty continued into the second half of 2005, although at a somewhat slower pace. To shift from percentages to real figures: 1,580,000 Israelis were considered poor, and the number of children below the poverty line rose to 738,000 in that period. It is even more worrisome - in the light of exhortations by former finance minister and current Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu that poor people on the dole should go out to work - that the proportion of poor families headed by people who are working rose by 1.5 percent. The poverty line is, by definition, set at half of the median income, and has in effect been frozen for the past few years during which Netanyahu's economic policy has been in effect. In the period reported by the National Insurance Institute it was set at NIS 1,808 for a single person; NIS 2,886 for a couple; NIS 3,824 for a family of three; and NIS 6,133 for a family of six. Perhaps most shocking of all: Every one of these developments occurred during a period in which the national economy grew by over five percent. ALL THIS should come as no surprise to those who follow periodic television reports on the rocketing growth in soup kitchens and on the number of people dependent on them for at least one square meal a day. Friends (all middle- to upper-middle class) with whom I discuss such issues often react by saying that the crisis is wildly exaggerated because of the element of self-imposed poverty. That is partly true. A large proportion of the poor are haredim whose rabbis have talked them into adopting a life-style in which men shun work but, on the other hand, have large families. Another major proportion of Israel's poor are the Arabs, where the women do not work outside the home but have families double the size of Israel's Jews. But most of Israel's poor are neither Arabs nor haredim. These opinions are more than balanced out by what I have been told by two of my grandsons, who served in the paratroops and the Golani Brigade through the height of the recent intifada. They told me that their respective battalion commanders frequently sent soldiers on extra home leave so they could work to help support their poverty-stricken families (neither haredim nor Arabs). They often left on such leave loaded up with food from the battalion kitchens. Poverty has clearly hit the men who fight in the elite units of our armed forces - an extremely dangerous situation. Still, there are similar sub-populations in other Western developed countries to which we compare ourselves. And in those comparisons Israel ends up close to the bottom, a place it shares with the US. By comparison, up to the early 1980s Israel was one of the most egalitarian countries regarding the gap in income between rich and poor. THE PRESENT trends do not reflect a national need for economic belt-tightening, but rather ideologically-motivated policies. How do we know? Because the income of those in the top two deciles of the population grew by close to 12 percent in the past two years. Netanyahu made no secret of his Thatcherist economic policy, and of his hope that some of the unequal wealth would "trickle down" to the lower deciles. Election time would seem the best time to expect some of his political competitors to propose a way to turn this situation around. The Likud's Netanyahu is directly responsible for the growth in poverty. Kadima's Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a long time colluded in that policy. Which leaves Labor's Amir Peretz. He and his party are prime candidates for a post-election coalition with Kadima. It should be obvious that Peretz stands no chance of being prime minister, defense or foreign minister in such a coalition. But he does stand a good chance of winning the Treasury for Prof. Avishay Braverman, and a major social portfolio for himself. The condition seems to be that he focus the rest of the campaign on the fight against poverty and downplay his super-dovish opinions on the Palestinian issue. Can he continue to exhibit such realistic self-discipline? It's an open question. The writer is a veteran contributor and a former managing editor of the Post.