The Knesset is celebrating, the coalition is delighted and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik is smiling with satisfaction. The mission was successful: The Economic Arrangements Bill has been gutted. There will be no reforms next year, no structural changes and no increase in competition. Knesset members have taught the finance minister a lesson. They are the big winners.
Publicly, the MKs say that the Economic Arrangements Bill is "anti-democratic," as there is not enough time to study it thoroughly. However, this is far from the truth. Finance Minister Roni Bar-On gave the legislators 11 weeks to discuss the Arrangements Bill and the reforms it includes, but they have already wasted a month in groundless arguments and have not yet begun to work. This is because what matters to them is not the good of the economy and the citizenry, but their personal careers.
They are seeking power and influence. They want the reforms to go to the various Knesset committees, and then the wealthy, the lobbyists, the lawyers, the large unions and the party central committee members will have to make pilgrimages to them during the year to "convince" them that the reform is pernicious. And since the MKS will be easily convinced, no reform will pass.
Take, for example, a reform relating to gas for household cooking and heating. Its aim was to make it easier for customers to move from one gas company to another, which would compel the companies to stop abusing their customers with respect to price and service. But Itzik, Knesset House Committee Chairman David Tal (Kadima) and coalition chairman Eli Aflalo (Kadima) succeeded in excising the reform from the Arrangements Bill - because the gas companies applied pressure. Itzik has admittedly promised to get the law passed separately by the end of the year. So she promised - big deal.
These wonderful MKs also succeeded in removing a reform of the water economy from the Arrangements Bill. This reform would have authorized the Water Council to supervise water quality and supply. What is bad about that? Ask Itzik, Tal and Aflalo.
Our wonderful MKs cut another reform out of the bill as well - a reform that would have required gas station owners to publish actual gasoline prices on large signs, instead of merely the "discounts" they offer. That would have enabled customers to choose the cheapest filling station. In addition, they wiped out a public transportation reform that would have transferred bus lines from the Egged and Dan cooperatives to private companies, which would have improved service and reduced prices. But for Itzik, Tal and Aflalo, the big unions are more important.
The MKs also excised important changes in real estate taxes, a reduction in the number of paid deputy mayors and a reform that would have allowed everyone to receive the five public television channels without having to subscribe to Yes or Hot.
And all this happened even before the full Knesset began its plucking process. After all, other Knesset members also want "achievements" that can be chalked up to their name. If we add the fact that the reform of the Israel Electric Corporation is stuck and that there are no reforms of the Israel Lands Administration, the Airports Authority and the civil service, the conclusion is that we have a weak finance minister. One who let the Economic Arrangements Bill die during his term.
Bar-On has only one excuse for this collapse: the treachery of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It is hard for a finance minister to act without the prime minister's support - and not only has Olmert not supported Bar-On, he has even undermined him. Even though he voted in favor of all the reforms in the cabinet, at the height of the struggle, Olmert announced that he wants to reexamine the necessity of the Economic Arrangements Bill, as well as the expenditure ceilings in the budget. Officials in his bureau went even further, hinting to the MKs that it would be no disaster should the reforms fail to pass. Some of them even rejoiced: "We'll teach the treasury a lesson." As though it were an enemy state. Petty political score-settling shot down important measures that would have benefited the economy and society.
The outcome of this miserable process is that the Israeli economy will shift into a lower gear. Without the engine of growth (the reforms), there is nothing to propel it forward. One morning we will wake up to an economy in a slowdown, falling incomes and rising unemployment rates. Perhaps then we will recall that it began this week, when Olmert and Bar-On disgracefully surrendered to Itzik, Tal and Aflalo.
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