It is popular, it is catchy
The MKs said that maternity leave is longer in Europe, but did not point out that those countries are far wealthier, that they are not besieged by wars, intifadas or the Iranian nuclear threat.
The press was pleased about the good news for mothers: an extended maternity leave. The good Knesset unanimously and without reservation extended maternity leave from 12 weeks to 14. Everyone voted for it. Who cares about the price? Who is concerned about priorities? Who is worried about the effect on the budget, growth and employment? All that matters is the results of the primaries. And since the public likes to receive, the Knesset, in this case as in others, will give - even if the money belongs not to them, but to the taxpayers.
During normal times, these populists would face a resolute finance minister, who would block such measures. After all, he is responsible for the entire economy. Now, however, there is no finance minister. The prime minister is also the finance minister, and he is currently fighting for his political survival. And he is weak. He does not control the coalition and he has no power base from which to confront Knesset members. He cannot help any of them get reelected, and they do not know if he will last another week.
Under normal conditions, the coalition stands with the prime minister, supports government decisions and tries to topple opposition proposals. But now, a new world has been created: The coalition and the opposition have forged an alliance in a war on the government and are flooding the Knesset with dozens of generous bills.
Not a single MK raised doubts. No one asked if something more necessary could be done with NIS 250 million. The MKs said that maternity leave is longer in Europe, but did not point out that those countries are far wealthier, that they are not besieged by wars, intifadas or the Iranian nuclear threat. They also failed to note that the norm there is one child per family, while the norm in Israel is three. In the ultra-Orthodox and Bedouin sectors, the average is eight children per family.
Two months ago, the Polio Law passed in the Knesset, also despite government opposition. The law grants between NIS 50,000 and NIS 150,000 to every polio victim - a budget expenditure of about NIS 350 million a year, which the Knesset passed unanimously. No MK bothered to check how much polio victims already receive via disability benefits, allotments for special services and mobility allowances. Had they checked, they would have discovered that Israel is very generous toward polio victims. When I asked an MK why he did not raise any questions, he looked at me in wonder and said: It's obvious - that wouldn't be popular. If that is the case, it is no wonder that the Knesset Education Committee supports the students and Education Minister Yuli Tamir gives in to the lecturers.
But that is nothing compared to the plans of the new social welfare minister, Isaac Herzog. "I'm the government's social voice," he said, as Amir Peretz trembled. This week Herzog spoke of "hunger in the streets" and a government that "abandons its citizens." That is why he is developing plans to distribute food vouchers to the hungry, because "hunger in the streets is a disgrace." Indeed, "poverty" is too soft a word for the minister. "Hunger" is strong. It is popular. It is catchy - despite the fact that there is no hunger in Israel, aside from isolated cases that should be dealt with on an individual basis.
Herzog uses the United States as an example of a good government that distributes food stamps to its hungry. The National Insurance Institute was shocked by the comparison. After all, the United States does not have income maintenance grants, child allowances or even mandatory maternity leave. It only has paternalism, in the form of food stamps. But Herzog got a headline out of it, and that is what is important.
The government is currently facing difficult decisions that have critical budgetary ramifications. It is planning to sign a bad and expensive wage agreement with the teachers. The army is demanding an additional NIS 8 billion to make itself stronger. The Histadrut labor federation is demanding a salary increase of 13 percent for all public-sector workers, which would require a NIS 10 billion budgetary outlay.
To judge by the government's behavior until now, it will give in to all of these demands, and the 2008 fiscal year will be very bad. There will be a sharp rise in government expenses, the deficit and government debt will increase and important reforms will not be implemented. Growth will halt, the slowdown will return and unemployment will rise. The dollar will also start to rise, as will inflation.
We have been in similar situations in the past, in which the fruits of growth were rapidly devoured by a self-destruct mechanism operated by conscienceless politicians. We are about to replay that scenario once more.