Today is Election Day and all signs point to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's winning. If it is difficult to explain this on the security front, as the terror attacks continue, then the answer must surely rest in the economic and social success story of Sharon and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, and today's vote is one of public appreciation. These have been the worst two years since the austerity period 50 years ago, but back then, there was public unity and a light at the end of the tunnel, whereas today the light at the end of the tunnel is one of a train steaming toward us. For the first time in the state's history, GDP has fallen for two straight years. During that time GDP has contracted by 1.9 percent and GDP per capita has plummeted 6.2 percent. We have returned to a standard of living circa 1995, at $15,500 per capita. Personal consumption has also fallen, a most unusual phenomenon here. Investment has tumbled 10.1 percent and unemployment has risen to 10.4 percent, which translates to 265,000 men and women. Inflation has risen to 6.5 percent, after three years of stability, so that we have become the country with the worst economic record in the western world.
Also in terms of government intervention we have reached new lows. No privatization has been carried out in the past two years, and the government budget as a percentage of GDP has increased to 46 percent (pushing us back five years), while public expenditure has risen to 56 percent of GDP: not even Sweden reaches that level.
As for social matters, 2002 will be remembered forever and ever. In a year when there were 1.2 million poor people, half a million of them children, Shalom decided to continue pouring cash into the settlements and not cut any payments to the Haredim. Instead he chose to cut income support, make it more difficult to receive unemployment pay, and reduce old-age pensions. If he had balanced that with freeing more jobs by cutting the number of foreign workers or boosting growth, so be it. But when the economy continues to contract and foreign worker numbers have not fallen, then this becomes a cruel anti-social policy.
In the capital market, shares have plummeted and the short- and long-term interest rates have risen sharply. Everything in the wrong direction. Even the tourists have flown. For the first time since 1982, the number of visitors from overseas dropped below a million in one year, reaching only 862,000 in 2002 compared to 1.2 million in 2001 and 2.4 million in 2000.
Sharon and Shalom try to pin all the blame on the terror attacks. As if they were not responsible, as if they hadn't promised two years ago that they would root out terror if they would only be given parliamentary majority. As if they hadn't been the ones to reject all propositions at diplomacy citing that that there was no one to talk to - just "let the army win." Well we let them.
Most of the population believes these have been two good years such that we should grant the architects another four to finish off the job. Indeed the people of Israel are known to be a wise and grateful people.
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