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Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just couldn't wait. The moment he received the March data on tax collection, he called a press conference to announce new tax cuts. On the eve of Passover, the celebration of our release from slavery, the finance minister wanted to send a message to the market and earn some brownie points while about it.

The economic recovery budding in recent months and the sad memories of Passover in recent years beg genuine debate about the economic cost of Israel's security situation.

With all due respect, the real cost is better gauged by the consumer traffic in Israel's malls as Passover approached, not by tax collection in this or that month. The real cost isn't the billions the various ministries are pouring into the Jewish settlements. That cannot be reliably tracked anyway. Nor is the most onerous cost Israel's diplomatic isolation, which tends to deter foreign investors.

Shallow media

The real economic cost is the defense agenda that has dominated Israel since its establishment, an agenda that has just become more immediate and intense since September 2000, when the second intifada broke out.

The defense agenda supersedes all debate, all analysis, all discussion of economic, social or civilian matters, relegating them to the bottom of the list of priorities at almost any given moment.

The defense agenda renders the media and press shallow, spending their time constantly chasing and reporting on the latest "positions" and "statements," or more accurately, the posturing by Israel's politicians and generals regarding the "process," the "conflict," the "exit," the "disengagement," the "fence," the "assassinations," the "closures," "the Palestinian Authority" and all the rest of those defense-related cliches in fashion.

The defense agenda gives rise to news shows consisting of PR for the Israeli army, reporting on the cutting-edge jets the air force got from abroad or the latest successful military exercise, while almost entirely ignoring the greater issue of resource allocation.

The defense agenda dictates a national television diligently and blankly pursuing statements, interviews, noisy and sterile debates about diplomatic and security matters. Everybody knows what the guests will say and how they will spin events, and the competition is only over who will spout righteous indignation at the appropriate moment.

The politicians wrap up their vacuous speeches on Israel's security situation, step back from the mike, leave the studio and peacefully resume their usual routine - finding jobs for the boys, making sweetheart deals and making political appointments. Goodness knows they have a lot of jobs to find and deals to do for the members of their parties, all of whom want to make a living, and a plush one at that.

The defense agenda overwhelms any genuine debate of the gigantic defense budget, pension and wage arrangements in the army, the police and the other security forces. The defense agenda prohibits discussion of why the defense budget has done nothing but grow in the last decade, although the eastern front has fallen silent.

The public is ignorant

The defense agenda keeps the public ignorant of the true economic problems Israel faces. We pay tax through the nose and receive bad service, but devote not one second of the public agenda, or our private agendas for that matter, to understanding what is wrong with the system, or what should be done to change it.

The defense agenda leads to an astonishing phenomenon, in which hundreds of thousands of businessmen who know a thing or two about financial and economic matters evince utter ignorance, or disinterest, in the economic issues of the state, the issues that dictate our economic well-being. That is because the defense agenda is the ultimate distraction, wearing us down to the bone and freeing the politicians to do as they damn well please without paying the price.

The defense agenda is responsible for the politicians practically never paying for their economic or social mistakes and failures. They are measured by their "positions" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or really, mainly by their ability to shift their position in accordance with the mood of the public.

It is the fault of the defense agenda that corruption and pure stupidity in leadership fades from the front pages at warp speed, because of the competition with the latest act of terrorism.

The defense agenda enables politicians, prime ministers and ministers to distract from their mistakes in the civilian arena by drumming up military missions or leaking plans of missions.

The defense agenda is the narcotic that enables the very many politicians and generals with which we are blessed to persist with their dreadful policies over decades, without paying a price.

It is the smokescreen behind which our leaders and public servants continue to divvy up national resources, unchecked by exposure, analysis or debate. It is the reason that the evil absurdities in Israel's economic policies will remain blurred and repressed.

The defense agenda is the reason why at Passover 2004, nobody will rise and ask a fifth question:

Why, for all the remarkable talents the nation possesses, for all the billions in investment and support pouring in, for all the international high-tech revolution, for all the wonderful things we like to say about ourselves - why does Israel's economy remain the only one where the standard of living hasn't budged for seven years?

Nobody is asking. So nobody is being forced to answer.