The scent of elections does something bad to opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud. This has happened before and is happening to him again now. The lust for power is blurring his thinking, and he is losing his sense of direction. If there is one thing that is identified with him, it is the cuts he made in the bloated and inefficient "fat" public sector. On this he built an entire career, and rightly so. Until now, that is, when he is asked about the possibility of enlarging the budget and he says he would not dismiss this out of hand, and that all the options are open.
The real answer by the "old" Netanyahu would have sounded like this: Not only should the budget not be enlarged by 1.7 percent, it should go back to being enlarged by only 1 percent. This is because the problem that Israel is now facing is too large a deficit in the wake of the expected decline in revenue from taxes, and a large deficit means a loss of the public's confidence in the stability of the economy, which will lead to a rise in inflation, a rush to the dollar, a demotion in the credit rating, a rise in the interest rates, damage to the business sector - and therefore a recession. All this must be prevented by cuts and efficiency in the budget.
The "new" Netanyahu, however, is talking differently and also acting differently. During the course of 2008, with the scent of early elections in the air, Netanyahu has raised his hand in the Knesset in favor of a long series of populist laws, the meaning of which is an irresponsible enlargement of the budget. He has voted in favor of a pay raise for soldiers doing compulsory service, in favor of reducing taxes for Negev locales, in favor of tax breaks for child-minder expenditures, in favor of lengthening maternity leave by two weeks, in favor of a tax break on the interest on mortgage payments, in favor of an additional increase in the old-age stipend, in favor of increasing the addition to the health basket, in favor of increased rights for public housing tenants, in favor of a free trade zone in Eilat - and this is just a partial list.
True, he himself was not the initiator of any of these. These are the initiatives of the new duo of populists in the Likud, MKs Gilad Erdan and Gideon Saar, who are vying for the crown against Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich. But why should the "bad" Netanyahu be in favor of enlarging the budget, come what may?
I asked him this, and to his credit, it must be said that he is not proud of those votes. He said there are constraints in politics and that he is more of a saint than all the leaders of the opposition who came before him. "But I am not a total saint," he said.
This, however, is nothing as compared to his position with regard to the National Insurance Institute child allowance. He, who cut the allowance in 2003, thus contributing to the welcome phenomenon of the return of the ultra-Orthodox to the labor market, and to a decline in the number of children in their families, is prepared today to go to Canossa and to agree to increasing the allowance to curry favor with Shas.
On this issue Netanyahu replied that he does not intend to return to the insane formula of the Halpert law, whereby each child in a family after the first two received an incrementally larger allowance, "but it's no disaster if the allotment per child is increased a bit." The truth is that it is indeed a disaster. This is because a larger allotment means a reduction in the pressure to go out to work and makes it more worthwhile to increase the size of a family that is poor in any case.
Recently, Netanyahu has said that a safety net should be spread for the public's savings in provident funds and pension funds. In this, too, he has joined a long line of politicians who have made the same demand: Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, and Meretz MKs Haim Oron and Zahava Gal-On. Is he trying to bypass them on the left?
I asked Netanyahu this as well, and he replied that a state needs to ensure its citizens' pensions, and that his intention is to spread a safety net, which doesn't promise the profits of the past but only a low gain for the future.
But with no connection to the substance, the very fact of public talk about a safety net causes panic. Politicians must not talk about devaluation, or about a safety net. This is done only in the innermost sanctums at the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Israel, far from the public eye, because public talk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, anyway, who says that after five years of high profits in pensions and in provident funds it is not permissible to lose a little?
If Netanyahu intends to become a "good" politician, who hands out budgets and tells the public everything it wants to hear, this will be his biggest mistake. His good reputation is precisely in the other direction, as someone who says the most difficult things straight out - and also implements them. The public is not stupid. It understands that someone who sees to a restrained budget, is not dragged into populist legislation and also carries out important reforms is, in fact, a good finance minister who leads toward growth, who fills the coffers and decreases unemployment. The public understands that budgetary responsibility is what is now preventing the economy from getting swept deep into the ocean in the financial hurricane that the world is experiencing. The public does not need a "new" Netanyahu whose positions in the budgetary area are not clear and who supports increasing National Insurance allotments and spreading a safety net. We have politicians like that to spare.
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