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When Benjamin Netanyahu took up his post of finance minister 10 months ago, economic pundits were alarmed. They remembered Netanyahu as prime minister - arrogant, unfulfilled promises, paying off favors, and paying back wrongs instead of following a principle, and all spin. But it quickly became clear that Netanyahu had learned his lesson.

He spoke of principles and began dealing with the economy's basic problem: a bloated public sector, breaking up the state-owned monopolies, and moving people from being dependent on welfare to working for a living. And the public lapped it up, believing him. But this week he managed to remind everyone of that Bibi of old.

The fighting over the government budget for 2004 was one great fiasco. Part of the reforms presented in the budget will not take place, and the reserves that stood at NIS 1.33 billion have already been spent to the last nickel. About NIS 1 billion went to the Likud ministers, and NIS 350 million went on the demands of coalition partners Shinui, National Religious Party and One Nation. And we haven't even started with the demands of the defense establishment (another NIS 3 billion), the crisis in the local authorities, which all helped to turn the 2004 budget into one great charade, like evacuating the outposts.

Netanyahu continues to play the media as if everything is still fine, as if he's still in control. But the truth is that he, together with Uri Yogev, head of the Budgets Division, have demonstrated amateur management that has brought us to utter chaos. Why did Netanyahu agree to give out a further NIS 1 billion to Likud ministers? Did they truly have an alternative other than voting in favor of the budget in the Knesset? Are 40 Likud MKs really ready to face new elections? Netanyahu, encouraged by Yogev, delightedly withdrew the budget last week from Knesset debate, and scurried to the prime minister for his support. So what was all the fuss about?

And why was he so ready to give in, only 10 days before the end of the year? Did he believe that Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman would be so thrilled at the Education Ministry's getting extra that he would withdraw his own demands? In handing out the additional NIS 1 billion to ministers, Netanyahu was making it quite clear that there was more money in the pot, that his ear could be bent, that he wasn't being serious when he said this was the final budget, don't ask for more. The factions immediately understood the message, came, demanded and received.

This incredible backing down will affect current negotiations that Netanyahu is conducting with the Histadrut. Union chief Amir Peretz is also aware of what's going on, and he also understands that Netanyahu seems tough, but that's only on paper. Because if NIS 1.33 billion suddenly appears for "causes close to my heart," then another few billion could be found for the Histadrut. So I will not be surprised if a large part of the changes in the civil service will not be implemented, that no public worker will be laid off in 2004, that at the end of the day only the Public Works Department will become a state-owned company, and educational television will pass into Shinui hands. Even talks with the Ports Authority look in pretty bad shape today.

Netanyahu should know that faith is an asset that is difficult to instill, but very easy to squander. He has blown up every size and color of balloon and given us something to believe in about his ideas and principles, but the whole caboodle has been burst with an almighty bang.