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The national budget has no heart, says the prime minister. The Finance Ministry is not impressed. According to the ministry, the national budget reflects a shortage of cash, not a shortage of heart. The shortage of cash is what is forcing the finance minister to cut even in the places where it hurts most: the neonatal intensive care units that are collapsing from the burden, medications for cancer patients, medical treatments that can save the sight of elderly people who are in advanced stages of going blind, discounts in property taxes for disabled people in wheelchairs, the national nutrition program, the care of youth in distress and more. All of these needs, claims Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cannot be fulfilled because the public coffers are empty.

According to Netanyahu, any deviation from the economic policy he has led means economic disaster. Economic restraint is therefore the order of the day. Nevertheless, when the finance minister wants to advance his own values, all of a sudden the missing resources are found in abundance.

In recent months the Finance Ministry people have evinced extraordinary generosity with respect to financing the privatizations that advance their worldview. The most outstanding example is the ports arrangement that gave port workers NIS 100,000 each along with a wage hike of 17 percent plus an additional 16 percent for their pensions. The overall cost of the agreement is estimated to be billions of shekels.

Privatization, with funding and support from the Finance Ministry, has also come to the field of health care. After years of cutbacks to health services in the schools, suddenly NIS 150 million has been found for an experiment that aims to bring about the privatization of the Tipat Halav well-baby clinics.

In the area of education, too, the state is finding funds for privatization and firings, while the Finance Ministry is declaring that it does not possess the necessary cash - NIS 100 million - to implement the Sick Children's Education Law. In the 2005 budget, the Finance Ministry has managed to find NIS 500 million intended for carrying out the reform in education, which will be almost entirely directed at compensation for fired teachers, or in other words, the reduction of the public sector. The dismissals of teachers have not yet begun and the Finance Ministry is already announcing the privatization of the community centers.

The privatization train is surging forward indiscriminately and pulling with it both physical infrastructures and social services. The magic word "privatization" does not discriminate between ports and community centers, between banks and well-baby clinics, between roads and tutoring for schoolchildren - everything is for sale. In Netanyahu's vision, private investors will run our lives and derive profit not only from operating economic organizations but also from giving inoculations to infants, helping children in need and caring for the disabled and the elderly. Anyone who believes that it is possible to provide egalitarian and qualitative social services and make a profit - should speak up now.

No one has spoken up, nor has anyone stopped to think about the long-term results of the current policy. And in the meantime the Israeli economy is being run to Netanyahu's satisfaction, on two distinct planes: The first plane is characterized by extreme miserliness that is expressed in the state's sloughing off the maintenance of the most basic interests of the individual - the right to live in dignity and the right to nutrition, health services, education and a suitable living environment. The second plane is characterized by extreme generosity that is expressed in huge benefits to individuals and public organizations on the way to privatization and the reduction of the public sector.

The debate on the national budget should, therefore, have been an ideological debate - a debate on national priorities, and not on one specific item or another in the budget. However, there is no opposition that is confronting Netanyahu and presenting the public with an orderly and convincing economic alternative. The little opposition that still remains is fighting an uphill battle over one budget provision or another while losing daily in the battle for the big picture. Is this the right economic package and are these the right values for the State of Israel - about this more than about any other issue it is appropriate to hold a profound public debate and perhaps also a referendum.

The writer is a Labor Party MK