The prime minister provided the comic relief yesterday when he voted against the proposal for extending the school day. Labor's MKs broke into boos and shouts of protest since only two days ago, at the Likud convention, the prime minister promised a long school day. But if Sharon were to do what he promised, he wouldn't be Sharon.
In the morning, speaking to the Likud faction in the Knesset, Sharon said: "I'd prefer a multiyear budget; passing the budget every year exhausts the system." True. Passing the budget this year exhausted the nation. It made clear to the people that the finance minister is not a leader, that the prime minister does not control his MKs and that every MK is a king.
Benjamin Netanyahu would like to forget the last two weeks. He'd like to forget how he wiped out the reserves even before the year began, his many concessions to Likud ministers and the coalition factions, which turned the promulgation of the budget bill into a long day's journey into disgrace - and all of it only harmed his reputation and that of the prime minister.
It turns out that Netanyahu's success in passing through cutbacks and reforms six months ago, in the first round of May 2003, was not so much a result of his leadership skills but because of the lack of experience of the MKs and ministers. They panicked at the treasury presentations and voted in favor. Now they've grown up and aren't scared of anyone. Everybody made arrangements for his own personal agendas and favorite lobbies - to win some goodwill and newspaper headlines.
Thus the NIS 1.35 billion in reserves were frittered away even before the year began. Likud ministers, especially the Education, Health and Industry ministries, took NIS 900 million. The other NIS 450 million went to Shinui, the National Religious Party and the National Union.
Netanyahu still has the arrogance to claim it was all planned in advance because otherwise, Sharon would have designated it for defense. But now the defense minister is demanding NIS 3 billion for defense and Shinui Interior Minister Avraham Poraz is demanding NIS 1.5 billion for the local authorities. And if that's not enough, there's still a NIS 725 million hole as a result of decisions made by the Knesset Finance Committee, which cut out revenue-producing elements from the Economic Arrangements bill. The budget for 2004 is a bluff. Like evacuating outposts.
The senior treasury officials handled the passage of the budget like amateurs. Netanyahu had the flu part of the time, and then he went to Romania for an unnecessary trip. Instead of planning his moves ahead of time, instead of having everything wrapped up by December 31, he began making his moves too late, haphazardly, without any organization, demonstrating weakness to the MKs.
Why did he threaten them with withdrawing the budget? He has time until March and until then, all the lobbies they like so much wouldn't get a thing. Why not threaten going to elections? Are the 40 Likud MKs so ready to run again in their party central committee?
One can complain about the ministers and MKs wiping out the reserves and more, but why complain about them when Netanyahu dug himself the hole? He couldn't restrain himself and had to announce on November 17, "there's no doubt we're out of the recession, growth will start this year and the economy is on the way up." If so, why shouldn't the ministers and MKs invite the public to the party? Why shouldn't they increase spending, when in any case tax revenues will climb as a result of growth?
Netanyahu must be made to understand that, given the relative stability we currently enjoy, the public is actually taking an enormous gamble - on him. So far, the public believed he would reduce the deficit, conduct the important reforms - including dismantling the Ports Authority - and pass the budget the government voted for in September through the Knesset. It's all begining to crumble. Netanyahu should know by now that credibility is very difficult to win and very easy to waste. And then the result is not simply lack of growth. It's a real crash.
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