Likud party members will choose Thursday between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter is relying on the public's short memory, telling us that during his term of office the economic situation had improved. Now to put that straight once and for all - unemployment went up, and growth fell. Those were Netanyahu's achievements.

True, if we were to compare with today's figures, Sharon doesn't come out any better, and the sad truth is that it doesn't really matter how they vote in the Likud this week, because either Sharon or Netanyahu (assuming one or the other wins the January election) will lead us to the toughest years, socio-economically, because of their diplomatic policies. Because what put us in such a state (both Sharon today and Netanyahu back then) was renewing the war in the territories and the terror attacks, and these will only get stronger under their rule.

Both of them are against any diplomatic solution to the conflict, and oppose any type of negotiation. Both regard every square inch of territory as holy. Both encouraged and developed the settlements - legal and illegal - and both intend to keep blocking every attempt at compromise. Both believe in the solution of strength and more strength, and basically every thing else is just electioneering nuance.

In the meantime, Sharon is using his position as prime minister to run a simple and ridiculous election economy. Yesterday he suddenly became the society-minded prime minister, calling the social-economic cabinet together and telling them (and the media too) that development of 11 towns on the seam line is to be accelerated, and that those receiving income support are to brought into the labor force. How touching.

This is the same Sharon who devotes billions through, inter alia, the defense budget, to settlements in the territories: giving tax breaks, subsidizing kindergartens, subsidizing public transport, building plush villas and beautifully-groomed lawns in every settlement - at the expense of the 11 towns on the seam line, because there is nothing left for them.

This is the same Sharon who plans to draw those on income supplements into the labor force at exactly the same time he stops a special fee on employing foreign workers, and moves to bring in such foreign workers "for the agricultural industry."

Sharon has also discovered the ultimate answer to the defense budget problem. He has requisitioned $1 billion from the U.S. aid (we haven't even mentioned the U.S. Congress yet) to cover the hole in the defense budget. Thus, he will not have to decide how much needs to be slashed from the defense spending, and the 2003 budget can be closed with this artificial maneuver, citing "receipt of special defense grant from a friendly nation."

It is not clear how the cut-and-paste accounting will get past the Knesset, but it is reasonable to assume that the 2003 budget will end in much greater deficit than the 3 percent planned. It was therefore no surprise that the Bank of Israel chose to leave interest rates unchanged yesterday. How grateful we should be that they didn't put them up.