Earlier this month senior staffers from the Finance Ministry devoted much time in wooing the three international credit rating agencies to avert any downgrading of Israel's economy. The meetings were held in Washington and New York, and attended by Finance Minister Silvan Shalom himself.
At the meetings, the agencies' economists announced that they would hold their decisions until after the government of Israel had successfully steered the 2003 budget through its first reading in Knesset - with no significant alterations such as increasing the deficit or imposing new taxes.
Passing the budget is no sure thing. Contrary to what has been reported until now, no final figure has been agreed on the defense budget, meaning that a sum of NIS 2-3 billion hangs in the balance. A second item that threatens the budget is the Histadrut's demands for a cost-of-living increment, and for a cancellation of any wage cuts. If the increment is 1 percent or more, then other items of the budget will have to be slashed or bang goes the deficit.
In addition, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon surprised Shalom this week when he announced to the municipal heads of the Negev and Galilee, that he supported their claims and was ready to cancel cutbacks in their preferential tax treatment. The price tag of that unjustified generosity from Sharon is NIS 300 million - which we don't have at the moment.
Another question mark over the budget is the Supreme Court's freeze on cutting back child allowances to those families where neither parent served in the army. This entails a sum of NIS 600-700 million.
A fifth item, no less problematic, are the promises the Labor ministers cajoled out of the finance minister in return for their votes in favor of the budget. They want the cutbacks in their ministries' budgets reinstated to the tune of NIS 500 million.
So even if a miracle occurs and Shalom manages to get the budget through the Knesset with no significant changes, Israel's credit rating on the international markets will be dependent not on the rating agencies but the United States president, as he clearly demonstrated Wednesday in a joint press conference with Sharon.
Suddenly, without being asked, he bundled the vast U.S. economy together with Israel's and said "Terror has affected our economy; terror has affected the Israeli economy."
Then he added the star sentence: "But we've got great confidence in the Israeli people. The greatest asset Israel has is the brainpower and ingenuity of her people. And I'm convinced that the economy will be strong."
Who could possibly ask for more? The whole world heard the words, from a credit officer at the Bank of America to an economist at Moody's. They heard and understood that great big America stands with Israel, on the economy too, and they won't let us fall. If need be, they will put up guarantees as in Rabin's time. If that indeed is the case, then that credit officer at the Bank of America knows he can renew credit lines to Israel and Israeli companies - because when George W. Bush says something, the world listens.
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