This week Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened the Likud ministers and told them, "I'm all finished and ready to submit the budget for first reading on October 29, because every month that we don't have a budget means millions of shekel's worth of damage."
Finance Minister Silvan Shalom also pitched in to help the economy, adding, "It is a shame that, at a time like this, the Labor Party is putting political interests before national responsibility." Other government ministers who were present at the meeting called on Labor "to show national responsibility and not harm the unity government for internal party reasons."
Indeed, they are right - because how could they vote against the budget "at a time like this" and drag the economy into an even deeper crisis? Even so, if ever there was a group of people who should not preach to the Labor Party, it is Sharon, Shalom, Limor Livnat, Reuven Rivlin and the rest of the Likud ministers.
Not long ago, in late 2000 and early 2001 (at the height of current intifada), they did not consider the Israeli economy, the unemployment, society or the stability of the shekel. At that time, they prevented the previous finance minister, Avraham Beiga Shochat, from passing tax reforms and then prevented former prime minister Ehud Barak from passing the 2001 budget in the Knesset.
When Shochat pleaded with them, for the sake of the Israeli economy, Shalom, Livnat and Rivlin said, "Forget it." Back then, those same patriotic ministers supported all the irresponsible private members bills (such as increased child allowances for fifth and subsequent children) saying, in Rivlin's words, "Without the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] we have no government. It may be a detrimental law, but I want a government."
Therefore, the Likud ministers, and first and foremost Sharon, should hold their peace when discussing national responsibility for the condition of the economy. The general public, on the other hand, has the right to ask Labor to prove its responsibility at a time like this, because if the budget is not passed on its first reading on October 29, we can expect a crisis, a loss of faith, a rapid depreciation of the shekel, high inflation, the flight of capital overseas and the withdrawal of savings from the banks - with the situation deteriorating until it resembles the Argentinian crisis.
At a difficult time like this, it is also impossible to agree to the demand to bring elections forward. Therefore the responsible solution to the situation is Labor's support for the 2003 budget, after which it can immediately leave the government and begin its campaign for public opinion.
The job of convincing the public should not be all that difficult, because the Sharon government is one of the worst Israel has ever known, and only the sycophantic and frightened media such as that which has developed here in the past year has failed to clarify this to the public.
In his election campaign, Sharon promised peace and security, but the year and a half that he has been in office has seen the highest number of civilians murdered than any other prime minister. He promised security, but the public is frightened to go out, even to the local mall. The economic situation has never been so bad or so frightening, and the standard of living will continue to decline - due to lack of political vision.
Sharon's and the Likud's distorted perception is not allowing any negotiations with the Palestinians or an end to the blood feud because the former believe that the settlements, even the most distant and most isolated, are more important than Ofakim and Ma'alot combined. The fact is that a lot of money is continuing to flow to the territories and to the settlers, and the Likud is continuing to support the Haredi evasion of military service - for the sake of the holy covenant with Shas.
Sharon is not willing to adopt any plan for a political solution because he knows the price will be the immediate removal of settlements, to which he objects. As long as the other side has no political horizon or chance of establishing an independent state, the terror will not abate but will continue and intensify, and in its wake the economy will continue to decline.
The senior Labor officials should explain all these things to the general public and for this they have to leave the government immediately after the approval of the budget in the Knesset. That way they will prove their national responsibility and also that they are the desirable alternative to the current government.
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