Yesterday was a bad day for economic news. The international credit rating agency, Fitch, published a survey of the Israeli economy in which it said that the economic crisis would worsen following the downward security spiral and the global slump.
At the same time, the Central Bureau of Statistics released data that showed unemployment was on the rise and currently stands at 8.9 percent of the workforce. The Employment Services also released worrying figures showing that the number of those seeking jobs had reached an unprecedented 196,342 individuals.
And when the Knesset Finance Committee attacked Finance Minister Silvan Shalom for the treasury's growth forecast of 4 percent for next year, he replied: "You can't change the forecast every other month."
Perhaps Shalom should be reminded that the moment it was revealed that the treasury's growth forecast for 2002 was 4 percent (and that was a good many months ago), I claimed in this column that it was ridiculous and unrealistic, and that there was loads of time to correct it.
Now, if Shalom wanted to make things worse and really finish the year 2002 with the largest budget deficit ever, he should replace Income Tax Commissioner Yoni Kaplan with Arye Zeif. If he does this, he would have made two political appointments (he recently named Eitan Robb as manager of the Customs unit), and this is problematic. It may be easy and useful: As two individuals who failed to make it in the private sector, they will be beholden to him; and who cares about the Israeli economy anyway?
But within the crisis situation, with all its budgetary constraints, the ultra-Orthodox are out for themselves. MK Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, announced yesterday that he had reached an agreement with the prime minister and Shalom to enter the "coalition expenses" that they receive every year for yeshiva students, educational institutions and teacher seminaries, into the budget's baseline (i.e. a permanent fixture of the state budget). At the same time, Litzman said that the Large Families Law would go into effect.
This is a double scandal. If the claims of the ultra-Orthodox are justified and they have been discriminated against, then they should claim their "coalition expenses" according to set criteria. But everyone knows that they don't deserve these sums, and that all it is is coalition wheeling and dealing. So every year, they struggle to get their funds (NIS 170 million) into the budget's baseline, but whoever is that year's finance minister rightly refuses, gives them the money from budget reserves anyway - as a temporary measure.
Even Shalom knows that if Litzman joyfully promises that the ultra-Orthodox will not ask for anything more the moment the NIS 170 million goes on the baseline, they will not keep the promise. Because the following year, their electorate will demand extra "achievements" to counteract the wicked secular public, and the sector's MKs will have to fight for these extra claims too. So the NIS 170 million becomes a permanent feature on the budget, and the annual "coalition expenses" will crop up each year, getting bigger and bigger, because that's politics.
We can only hope that Shalom wakes up and keeps Kaplan in his job, that he freezes the Large Families Law and that he even puts up a fight against getting the "coalition expenses" onto the budget's baseline; or else 2002 will be even worse than Fitch predicts.
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