2004 - the end of the recession?
Is Netanyahu really right, can we return to rapid and stable growth of 5 percent - without any connection to the state of war with the Palestinians? One thing at the end of 2003 is indisputable: Netanyahu has succeeded - with the help of the loan guarantees - to halt the downward trend.
In my dreams I see Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu basking in the sun in June 2004, with a big smile on his face. "Nu, what do you have to say now? Do you see that I was right when I said in November 2003 that there is no doubt that we have pulled out of the recession? Perhaps now you will stop writing all those contemptuous and skeptical things - you can see that we will soon reach growth of 5 percent."
I awaken bathed in sweat. Is Netanyahu really right, can we return to rapid and stable growth of 5 percent - without any connection to the state of war with the Palestinians? One thing at the end of 2003 is indisputable: Netanyahu has succeeded - with the help of the loan guarantees - to halt the downward trend. Immediately after being appointed to his position (by surprise) at the end of February 2003, Netanyahu changed the atmosphere.
He made cuts of NIS 9 billion in the budget, reduced the size of the public sector, promised a long line of reforms and began speaking about a free economy. The public believed him, and after shrinking for two consecutive years, the gross domestic product recorded growth of 1.2 percent. The problem is that when speaking with businessmen, industrialists, merchants and self-employed individuals, they mention the continuation of the recession, a sharp drop in sales, bankruptcies and layoffs.
"The prophecies of growth have not been fulfilled at all," says Arik Raichman, CEO of Tnuva, which controls a large share of the food sector. "Just the opposite - in recent months the situation has become much worse."
Indeed, the figures submitted by the supermarket chains show a drop in consumer purchases; importers are lamenting the plunge in the prices of motor vehicles, furniture, televisions and computers; people are going out less to restaurants and movie theaters; and the construction industry, an important growth engine, is stalled in its tracks.
So what is behind the measure of growth in 2003? Exports, which grew by 5.5 percent - but this is very asymmetrical growth. It is not felt at all in the depths of the economy, where the recession is continuing full force, with layoffs and wage cuts. It is therefore no wonder that the general public does not yet feel any change for the better - perhaps just the opposite.
Even if next year brings growth of 2.5 percent (in keeping with the treasury's plans), when an economy comes out of a recession employers are in no hurry to hire new workers, or to add production lines. First they take advantage of the existing manpower and production capability. So unemployment will not decline and wages will not rise.
Initially, the fruits of the new prosperity will be harvested by the employers and the gap between the rich and the poor will only widen and deepen. Only when growth reaches 5 percent and encompasses all sectors of the economy will there be a drop in unemployment, a rise in wages and a change in the atmosphere.
Can stable 5 percent growth really be achieved without a halt to the war with the Palestinians? Before he was appointed finance minister, Netanyahu dismissed any connection between the security situation and the economic crisis. "These are two different paths," he said. "Peace and security do not determine the prosperity of a country; the levels of freedom in the economy do."
During his first year in office Netanyahu changed this attitude when he saw that the attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Hadera were stymieing the economy. That is why he adopted the separation fence. This cruel and writhing snake, however - which divides communities, which violently separates farmers from their fields, which puts millions of West Bank residents in a shriveled island devoid of viability - will not reduce the number of attacks, but will increase them.
No fence can stop suicide bombers. They will disguise themselves to pass through the 34 crossings, will clamber over and tunnel under the unguarded sections, will send rockets and mortar shells. And when the terror continues, the economy will not be able to grow at a stable rate of 5 percent annually.
What solution will Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu offer us then? The augmentation of the fence with a bulletproof glass dome over Israel - with a few holes in it for El Al planes.