From a political point of view, Roni Bar-On made the deal of his life. His clear opposition to increasing child stipends, in spite of Shas' pressure, established him as a brave politician who will not hesitate to give up his seat if his principles are violated.
It was also the correct political decision because the finance minister recognized that Labor has no genuine interest in pushing for early elections. Its standing, according to opinion polls, is not good, and therefore it was clear that a last-minute solution would be found and the vote to dissolve the Knesset would not take place. Nonetheless, had there been a vote in the Knesset starting the process toward early elections, it would not have been a great loss because Bar-On knows that the days of this government are numbered. Therefore, he prefers to fall on his sword, going out in a blaze of glory rather than be remembered as one who surrendered to Shas and destroyed the most important socio-economic achievement: moving from stipends to work.
Bar-On's achievement is even sweeter when compared with the standing of the man he hates more: Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is the father of the cuts in child stipends, but it is he who capitulated to Shas pressure and declared that he would agree to increase the stipends. With this declaration, Netanyahu destroyed his great achievement with his own hands. This is a stain that cannot be erased. How cynical one must be to alter his worldview with such ease. But it turns out that with Netanyahu, his desire for power is stronger than anything else.
Netanyahu is trying to woo Shas even though everyone knows that the party has proven unreliable for every prime minister. After all, Shas betrayed him and stepped out of his coalition government at a critical juncture.
The minute Shas joins the coalition, it threatens to leave. It is hard to work that way. Shas declared that it will leave the government if Ehud Olmert dares move forward in negotiations with Hamas; it said it would leave the government if Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni discusses the division of Jerusalem with the Palestinians. Most recently, it moved over to "social" threats: leaving the coalition because of the child stipends. Indeed, one day it will pull out of the coalition, at precisely the least opportune moment for Olmert.
This government has no chance of holding on for a great length of time. The government is not functioning, the coalition is not in control, each MK is worrying about his own skin and running in the upcoming primaries solo - without any consideration for coalition discipline. Populism is rife in the Knesset.
Budget cuts are not being carried out and the reforms have been forgotten. In view of the excessive budgetary demands of Shas and Labor, there is no chance of passing the 2009 budget in the Knesset. But for the time being, as all this is happening, the director of the Prime Minister's Office, Ra'anan Dinur, is still presenting to the cabinet grandiose, long-term plans without any budgetary backing. Another sign that the government is falling apart.
Bar-On's gamble was correct, not only politically, but also from a socioeconomic point of view, because poverty cannot be contained by raising stipends. That is short-term cosmetic treatment. Poverty can be defeated by encouraging people to go to work, through the Wisconsin Plan, by investing in education, by professional training, by subsidizing day-care centers for employed women, and by instituting a core educational program for basic skills in the Shas and United Torah Judaism schools. But all these important steps are opposed by the minister of industry and trade, Eli Yishai of Shas. He only wants bigger stipends for children.
Yishai is talking about "a clash of ideologies," but the truth of the matter is that he is concerned about the processes under way in Haredi society. It turns out that the cuts made to the child stipends have been effective. More and more ultra-Orthodox are now going to work, and there is even a significant drop in the number of children per family. These phenomena threaten the politicians' control over their flock, because the less they are dependent on stipends, and even go to work, they less they are dependent on tribal fund raisers. The fewer children a family has, the less poor and dependent the family is. Moreover, the number of future Shas constituents is dropping. Therefore, Yishai, who has presented himself as the knight of the war on poverty, is trying to perpetuate it by increasing the public's dependency on stipends. He wants the people to be ignorant, submissive and dependent - entirely reliant on him.
If Yishai really wants to solve the problem of poverty, he should push in entirely different directions. He should push for expanding professional training programs, preventing entry visas for foreign workers, improving education in the periphery and free day-care centers for employed women. He should also push for accepting the educational core program at the religious education institutions. Because there is no contradiction between learning about science, math, history and English, and Torah and Gemara.
Meanwhile, yet another Shas threat failed. The stipends were not increased, and the Knesset was not dissolved. What we will remember out of the latest barrage of threats is the steadfast position of Bar-On. He is the sole politician who won in the whole affair.
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