Meretz clamors for social justice as budget votes near

As their coalition colleagues debated the draft state budget in the Knesset's plenary on Monday, Meretz lawmakers organized a protest in the Rose Garden across the street. The tame crowd of 30 or so people hung signs on the iron fence demanding everything from reformed budget priorities to government land distribution policies more favorable to low-income Israelis. The rally was also attended by Hadash MK Dov Henin. "The whole attitude is wrong," said Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz. "It's anti-social, there is no clear economic policy. It just is a total submission to all sorts of sectarian demands by the political parties and all their interests. The bottom line is very gloomy." Meretz chairman Haim Oron said he wanted to see a one or two billion shekel reduction in defense spending, money he said that should instead go toward social issues like education and health care. "We are now in a society which has the biggest gaps in the Western world," Oron said. "Gaps between rich and poor, Arab and Jews, the center of Israel and the periphery. All these gaps increase every year and the budget doesn't face this problem." Standing amid the crowd as his party's symbol emblazoned on a green flag fluttered in the evening breeze, Oron said he opposed the rise in the value-added tax that went into effect on July 1, from 15.5 percent to 16.5%, as well as planned increases to taxes for health care taxes and on cigarettes. He supports the higher tax on cigarettes in principle but not as part of the broader budget package. "What they're doing now, they're destroying the hope of the Israeli people who are going to suffer from these laws," said Ury Eldar, chairman of Meretz's social and environment forum. "If you see the law, if you see this bunch of laws, all of them are against the low-economic population." Eldar condemned an ill-fated proposal that would have imposed VAT on fruits and vegetables. He also said that 95% of Israeli land is owned by the state and should instead be distributed to poor citizens.