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Israeli Cabinet approves package of higher taxes, spending cuts

  • Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (R) and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem July 30, 2012. (REUTERS/Sebastian Scheiner/Pool)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved Monday a plan to increase taxes and cut spending in an effort to contain the deficit. Under the plan, approved by a vote of 20 to 9, valu -added tax will be increased by 1 percent to 17 percent from Aug. 1.

Income tax will rise in 2013 by 1 percent for most tax brackets, and by 2 percent for those who earn 67,000 shekels ($16,594) or more a month. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz raised taxes on beer and cigarettes last week.

“This is a brave and important step that will prevent deterioration in Israel’s economy,” Steinitz said.

The finance minister’s plan was submitted to the Cabinet just days after the Bank of Israel’s monetary policy committee, led by Governor Stanley Fischer, kept the benchmark interest rate at 2.25 percent, in part citing “uncertainty in fiscal policy.”

Steinitz said that the government was drafting plans to meet its new deficit target. The steps approved by the Cabinet include across-the-board cuts in spending this year and next.

“There is no doubt that the government’s recent measures are improving fiscal credibility,” Modi Shafrir, economist at Tel Aviv-based I.L.S. Brokers Ltd., said. “The government’s actions are providing some opportunity for the Bank of Israel governor to continue lowering the interest rate.”

The rate decision was the second time in as many months that Fischer publicly criticized the government.

He said on June 28 that the government’s increased budget deficit target for next year isn’t reasonable and interest rates are unlikely to stay low unless fiscal policy is put on a “sustainable” path.

The Cabinet voted on July 1 to double the deficit target for next year to 3 percent of gross domestic product as the economic growth rate fell to its lowest in almost three years. Fischer had recommended 2.5 percent.

Economic growth is expected to decelerate to 3.1 percent this year from 4.8 percent in 2011, the central bank said on June 25. The slowdown has reduced tax revenue, creating a 2.9 billion-shekel shortfall in the first six months of the year, the Finance Ministry said on July 4.

“Governments that didn’t act on time, didn’t act decisively, and didn’t act responsibly, caused tremendous damage to their citizens,” Netanyahu said at the Cabinet meeting Monday.

In the first quarter, the economy grew an annualized 2.7 percent, the least since 2009. In the second quarter, the economy is expected to expand 2.8 percent, the bank said in the rate decision. Inflation eased to 1 percent in June, the slowest since August 2007.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 31, 2012, on page 5.
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