The Prime Minister's Office issued an announcement Sunday categorically refuting a claim that the cabinet had cut short its meeting that morning to discuss the economic plan, and instead had gone off to watch the World Cup.
But there is no disputing the fact that at 10 that same morning, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon excused himself from the meeting to conduct talks with the coalition. Around 11 A.M. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said there was no point in the economic discussion if neither the prime minister nor the finance minister were present. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who was chairing the meeting, seized the day and promptly declared the meeting over. And as soon as it was over, in walked Finance Minister Silvan Shalom with the governor of the Bank of Israel for the economic debate, finding that the meeting had already dispersed. So even if the ministers had not gone off to watch the England-Sweden match, they certainly closed the Israeli economy with a big, fat nil-nil draw.
Two months after Shalom announced that the government budget deficit must be cut, nothing has been done. The ministers and MKs have all the time in the world. They don't worry over the dollar, or inflation or unemployment. Yesterday, more figures on the state of the economy were published. Tax revenues have slumped to an all-time low, and the budget deficit is growing, but this doesn't really frighten them.
Sharon had left the meeting at 10 to meet with United Torah Judaism MKs in an attempt to bring them back into the coalition. The ultra-Orthodox want a change in the economic plan so that their supporters can continue to get inflated child allowances, while the plan calls for a 24-percent cut in child allowances to any family where no member served in the army.
Army service has been defined as either full military conscription, at least 18 months - for those who participated in the Hesder yeshiva program - or three months - for new adult immigrants who participated in the Shlav Bet program. The ultra-Orthodox want to be defined as "new immigrants" so that they can get away with a three-month service, and then receive the full whack of state payouts. A nice little scam.
I have another idea: Cancel the root of the whole disarray - the Halpert law, which came into effect at the beginning of 2001, and increased allowances for the fifth child onward inordinately. According to the law, payment for the fifth child is five times greater than for the first, even though the costs for a first child are much greater. This law hurts secular families with only two-to-three children, while it increases allowances for the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. This law hits at the productive sector, the middle-income earners, the taxpayers and those who serve in the army. So the easiest, simplest, most Zionistic solution is to cancel the law forthwith and stop trying to correct one distortion with another one.
Yesterday, Shas returned to the government and Sharon announced that the emergency economic plan will be presented to the Knesset tomorrow with no changes - now that's worrying, because when Sharon promises something, you can almost guarantee that the opposite will happen.
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