Israel's Finance Minister In Hospital

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JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's finance minister, facing growing public criticism over rising prices, was hospitalized overnight after "feeling ill," a Jerusalem hospital said Wednesday.

The minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israeli radio stations that he felt fine and would soon return to work. Hadassah Medical Center said he appeared to be suffering from a virus and exhaustion and would remain hospitalized for 24 hours for tests and observation.

A string of government-mandated price increases on food and gasoline to keep pace with rising commodity costs worldwide has drawn a threat of a broad public sector strike. The prices of gasoline, water, bread and other staples are set by the government. Critics have called for government subsidies or tax cuts to offset the harm to consumers.

Steinitz was hospitalized several hours before he was scheduled to attend a high-level meeting aimed at defusing the strike, which could shut down government offices and possibly banks, schools and ports.

Steinitz says the plan is necessary for the long-term health of Israel's relatively strong economy.

The plan has drawn criticism even from inside the ruling Likud Party, of which Steinitz is a senior member. Seeking to calm Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to speak Thursday on the economy and was expected to announce steps to lessen the impact of the price hikes.

One possible alternative to the price increases would be a significant cut to the budgets of the various government ministries.

The governor of the Bank of Israel, the internationally respected economist Stanley Fischer, has urged the government to enact a cautious fiscal policy to avoid endangering the country's economic stability.

Asher Blass, an Israeli consultant with the Economic Research and Consulting Group, said one possibility would be to reduce the tax on gasoline. But the government was unlikely to significantly intervene in the market, he said.
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