Finance Minister Silvan Shalom seemed upbeat yesterday. To ministry professionals who had urged a more ambitious program of budget cuts, he declared: "Perhaps now you understand how difficult it is to get an economic program through this Knesset."
And then he added: "The incident with Shas proves that I did not opt for politics, but rather for economic considerations. Had I merely whispered to someone that I would give in on the child allowances before the second and third readings, Shas would not have voted against in first reading. But I gave them no promises."
Shalom, it seems, is trying to change his image as someone who puts political and personal considerations ahead of the good of the economy. When he first took office, he declared that he would not pursue "lost causes," but only items that were politically viable - or in other words, he would not tackle the difficult, controversial issues. Now he has apparently decided to change direction and start pursuing the "lost causes" - because without these, it is impossible to fix anything. If he truly wants to mend his image, he must ensure that the plan also passes its final reading unchanged. To that, Shalom says: "I will not agree to make any significant change in the plan."
He tells his friends that he feels as if the whole world is against him. Even the Histadrut and the industrialists have joined together to oppose the plan; in the Knesset, Shinui cooperated with its most detested foe, Shas, to defeat the bill in the first reading.
As an opposition MK, Shalom cast his share of populist votes. For instance, he supported the law granting increased child allowances to large families. Now, he says that not everything he did then was right - and he does not intend to "retreat a single millimeter" on his plan. As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said upon being elected, things look different from the seat of power. The truth is that Shalom cannot afford to retreat a single millimeter. As it is, the plan already contains too many new taxes and increases the deficit too much; any more would be a death blow to growth, employment and price stability.
But on this front, Shalom sees a ray of light in the Shas affair: Now, he says, everyone understands that the government is serious about passing the plan intact, with no further changes. Shalom prides himself on being a political fox, and looks distinctly uncomfortable when asked how he could have failed to realize that he lacked a majority for Monday night's vote. He replies that there were enough coalition MKs in the plenum; he has never before seen MKs enter the hall and then not vote. Had he known that would happen, he said, he would have demanded a roll-call vote to shame some of the non-voters into voting yes.
Shalom is certain there will be a majority for the plan today even without Shas and United Torah Judaism, and therefore does not intend to speak with either before the vote. Shas offered Sharon a compromise, whereby its MKs would vote against the plan but its ministers would abstain, but Sharon refused: He will not take Shas back into the government unless it votes in favor of the plan.
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