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The comic relief yesterday was provided by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he voted in the Knesset plenum against a bill to enact a long school day. Labor MKs booed and shouted cries of protest, reminding the prime minister that he had promised to support this very measure only days ago at the Likud convention.

But Sharon would not be Sharon if he followed through on his promises. In the morning, speaking at a Likud faction meeting, the prime minister said: "I would prefer a multi-year budget. Passing a budget every year exhausts the system." Indeed, this is true. The process of approving the budget this year was exhausting for everyone in Israel. It demonstrated to the public that Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a leader; that the prime minister does not control the members of Knesset; and that every MK is king.

Netanyahu would also like to forget the last two weeks: depleting the reserves before the year even began and the many capitulations to ministers from the Likud and coalition factions damaged the credibility of both the finance minister and prime minister.

It now turns out that Netanyahu's success in putting through budget cuts and reform programs six months ago, during the previous round in May 2003, was not due to his leadership ability. Rather, this success can be attributed to the inexperience of the new MKs and ministers. They were shocked then by the treasury's presentations and voted "yes." But they've grown up. They're not afraid of anyone. Each one organized a personal agenda for himself and a warm spot for some group or another in order to win goodwill and make headlines.

Thus, the NIS 1.35 billion in reserves for 2004 were squandered, down to the last penny - before the year started. Some NIS 900 million was handed out to Likud ministers - mostly for education, health, and industry; NIS 450 million was allocated according to the demands of Shinui, the National Religious Party and the National Union.

Netanyahu has the gall to claim that this was all planned in advance because otherwise Sharon would have channeled all of the reserves to the defense establishment. But now Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is demanding another NIS 3 billion for defense and Interior Minister Avraham Poraz is demanding NIS 1.5 billion for the local authorities. And as if this were not enough, there is another NIS 725 million shortfall following the Finance Committee's decision to strip some of the items from the Economic Arrangements Law that were intended to increase tax revenues. Thus, the 2004 state budget turned into a bluff - not unlike the tale of the outposts.

Netanyahu should understand that the relative stability Israel is currently enjoying is one big gamble by the public - on Netanyahu. Up until now, the public believed that he would lower the deficit, carry out important reforms (including dismantling the Ports Authority) and win the Knesset's approval for the budget the government passed in September. All this is beginning to collapse. Netanyahu should understand that credibility is a tough asset to achieve, but easy to lose. And then the result will not only be a lack of growth, but a real collapse.