If the campaign started last week with the single mothers' march on Jerusalem has accomplished anything by now, it is that Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and minister Meir Sheetrit have at long last made a projection about the budget deficit for 2003 - 6 percent of GDP.
Not that this figure is surprising to anyone in any way, but until now Netanyahu and Sheetrit have consistently evaded commenting on the expected deficit in 2003. Yesterday, for the first time, they publicly admitted the deficit would be NIS 32 billion, higher than the most bleak projections the treasury had previously produced.
The statement was aimed mainly at deflecting pressure from by the marchers in support of single parents - the first victims of the economic recovery plan. Although the treasury has managed to get the plan approved and jump over parliamentary hurdles, it has no immediate answers for the victims of the plan - which is why officials are now flashing the dire deficit data.
This is no manipulation of the figures, just a statement of fact, which raises the question of why Netanyahu and Sheetrit have so far wiggled their way out of making any projections about the deficit. There are several possible answers.
First, treasury officials, who over the last few months have toiled to stop Israel's credit rating from being downgraded, did not want to feed the ratings companies with such negative data, and preferred to focus on measures to stop the economy from sliding.
Second, these officials were also concerned about possible repercussions on the domestic front, mainly from the governor of the Bank of Israel, David Klein. He has been preaching relentlessly and making no concessions for any deviation from the original 3 percent deficit target.
Third and most substantive is the treasury's inability or unwillingness to face the real meaning of such an enormous deficit.
The budget of 2003 was slashed by NIS 11 billion. Vicki Knafo, Ilana Azoulay and the other marchers on the front line feel these cuts keenly at first hand. But in order to meet the 3 percent target, the treasury would need to cut another NIS 17 billion on top of that - which would have left many more victims and created even more bitter campaigns.
With such cuts, the marchers by now would include career officers and employees of even the strongest, largest government corporations. The treasury spared itself this scenario for now, but it is quite possible that when the budget of 2004 is discussed, it will have no choice but to take on the more powerful segments of Israeli society as well.
A fourth reason to avoid providing accurate details of the budget deficit has probably got to do with wishful thinking. As they were drafting the economic recovery plan, treasury officials kept asking themselves whether the economy was approaching a turning point. The more sure this proximity, the smaller the cut.
The treasury believed the positive impact of the plan would become evident even this year and the government would not have to haul out the big guns this year - maybe not at all. Netanyahu and Sheetrit clearly now believe this is not so. There will no choice but for more cuts in 2004 that will be at least as serious as we have seen this year.
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