Analysis: Most farmers say Katz made their work more difficult

Farmers welcomed news of Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz's abdication Sunday, with one calling his tenure "the period in which relationships within the agricultural sector deteriorated to a low unprecedented under any other agriculture minister." "Katz was a minister whose primary occupation was politics. He forfeited the whole subject of agriculture in Israel," said Israel Farmers Federation secretary-general Yusta Bleier, characterizing his tenure as "tough years" for the sector. The Kibbutz Movement said a "serious break that weakened the entire agricultural sector and made the reality in which farmers operate in Israel even more difficult" formed between Katz and the country's agricultural organizations. The Farmers Federation released a statement accusing Katz of unjustly taking credit for growth in agricultural exports - which surged 72 percent since 2003 - and of managing the ministry through debilitating "political exercises." "The exporters did not receive any exceptional support toward increasing exports. The thankful growth in [the value of] exports is the result of objective factors, such as the rise in prices of agricultural produce on the world market and [fluctuation in] exchange rates, as well as the efforts and skill of Israel's farmers, and is not the result of any government policy whatsoever," the Farmers Federation said. In November, accusations surfaced about Katz's involvement in politically-motivated and otherwise improper appointments within the ministry. "I'm not talking about the minister's assistant, his driver or five or six or seven people around him," Knesset State Control Committee chairwoman Meli Polishook-Bloch told the committee. Boaz Aner of the State Comptroller's Office indicated that, given the particularly rampant unemployment at the time, intervention in appointments trickled down "to the most junior positions" in the ministry. According to the investigation, Katz's senior advisers and representatives directly "broadcast" pressure on those holding management positions to absorb various appointees into their work force, Aner said. Improper procedures and "creative maneuvers" also surrounded the ministry's use of external professional service providers, including senior advisers, Aner indicated. Katz himself testified that steps were being taken to correct any improprieties, and pleaded ignorance of actions attributed to him. In his defense, Katz listed the reforms which he pursued in the dairy sector and in the ministry itself and cited his professional handling of the affair of the smuggled Uzbek puppies in the spring of 2005. Despite public pressure to release the puppies, Katz consulted with the Veterinary Service, which originally called for them to be quarantined, and agreed to a compromise whereby the puppies would be held at a veterinary hospital, he told the committee. Ariel Boker, whose family owns a large dairy at Moshav Sde Ilan in the Lower Galilee, praised Katz as a minister who "did a great deal" for dairy farmers. "He corrected some of the distortions created in the course of the reform," solving problems related to eligibility for grants and the ability of small dairies to raise the funds necessary to participate and benefit from the reform, Boker said. "[Katz's predecessor] Shalom Simhon also began correcting distortions, and Katz continued the process," he said, praising the cooperation between Katz and Simhon as environment minister. "Ostensibly despite the fact that they are political rivals, when it comes to the good of farmers, they put disagreements aside," Boker said, adding that the only noticeable difference between the two as agriculture ministers was that "there was less political noise in the media under Simhon." The Farmers Federation concluded nonetheless that Katz "introduced an evil wind into the agricultural sector, which had always been characterized by cooperation among representatives of all [political] parties on behalf of their constituents." "I hope that any minister who will come after him will do a better job," Bleier added.