It is hard to be a finance minister in Israel. It is a post that involves constant struggle with many interest groups: defense, agricultural, industrial, banking, union lobbies, and 120 populist MKs who begin their election campaign for the next primary the minute they are elected to the Knesset.
It is a thankless job, which requires you to say "no" every day, and all the disappointed attack you in the media, arguing that you have a heart of stone and are unable to appreciate that now is the time (and it is always THE time) to bust open the budget and give generous handouts to everyone.
This time, because of the global economic crisis, the next finance minister's task is particularly difficult. Everyone is demanding that he "dole out." Everyone is asking for bigger budgets, a bigger deficit, employment subsidies, grants, guarantees. And he needs to be made of granite, so as not to give in.
But this is not the finance minister's only challenge. He has another big problem: Benjamin Netanyahu. At every available opportunity, Netanyahu declares that, essentially, he will serve as a "super finance minister." He wants to uphold his reputation as "Mr. Economics." True, he will appoint someone for the job, but whoever fills the post will be a puppet. That is because Netanyahu will formulate policy, he will decide on the economic programs, he will make the decisions, and the media will laud him while lambasting the finance minister for his failures.
There is no reason to feel pity for the next finance minister; it is his choice whether to fall into the trap or not. It is Israel's economy we should feel sorry for. Because the model Netanyahu is proposing is bad for the economy, bad for society and bad for unemployment. It will not allow for a rapid emergence from the crisis the economy is in.
It is important to understand that a "good" finance minister is a "bad" finance minister. The economy needs a strong finance minister, someone who can say "no" - the sort who puts a screeching halt to all the pressure of interest groups trying to empty the state coffers. After all, only the finance minister sees the whole economic picture; only he knows all the limits and all the dangers. That is his job. He must be the evil treasurer, the keeper of the treasure. He is the one who is supposed to lower civil service wages, to institute cuts in the defense budget, to refuse to raise grants for children. He is the one who is supposed to stand up and refuse to give in to the demands of industrialists, bankers, the Histadrut labor federation and the politicians.
But the finance minister will not be able to do all this without the prime minister's absolute backing. No finance minister can carry out any of these tasks if the prime minister bypasses him the way Netanyahu intends to do. Netanyahu likes to recall how, when he was finance minister under Ariel Sharon, he had an agreement whereby Sharon granted him free reign in the Finance Ministry, and in return he did not interfere in the security or political motions Sharon set in play.
In this manner, Netanyahu managed to pass a series of tough and unpopular measures in the cabinet and the Knesset in 2003, which saved the economy from descending into the abyss. Every attempt by Sharon to intervene in the Finance Ministry's work was met with stiff resistance by Netanyahu.
But now Netanyahu does not intend to offer similar backing to the next finance minister. He wants "to set the tone:" in no time everyone will know that there is no point in dealing with the finance minister. They will scorn him and pass him over. Ofer Eini, the Histadrut chairman, will go directly to the prime minister to discuss strikes and wages. Shraga Brosh, the president of the Industrialists' Association, will meet with the prime minister to negotiate guarantees and grants. Shas will make deals on increasing children grants, and the defense establishment will obtain the prime minister's approval to replenish its inventories and acquire new weapons systems.
In view of the fact that a prime minister's coalition is constantly under threat of losing stability, and because he lacks a budgets office responsible for long-term economic stability, he will be more willing to pay than the finance minister, especially if this means buying "calm" for a few weeks. The result will be a breach of the budget limits, increasing public debt and leading the economy into an even worse crisis than the present one.
When a convert came to Hillel the Elder and asked him for a quick way to learn the Torah, Hillel told him the golden rule: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." It seems Netanyahu does not think much of Hillel the Elder.
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