The Finance Ministry's top brass are going through a rough period. It has been years since they last experienced such a nadir.
The prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who is also the acting finance minister, is subjecting them to relentless pressure to sign a new wage agreement for the Bank of Israel, as he does not want to upset Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. He also wants them to agree to increase the spending limit in the national budget beyond the current 1.7 percent rise.
Treasury officials also realize that they have little hope of passing any sort of reform in the Knesset Finance Committee, because the coalition is dysfunctional. All the MKs are currently promoting themselves ahead of their respective primaries and are therefore engaged in fierce competition with their colleagues. They are competing over who will succeed in passing more expensive private member's bills, which in effect alter the priorities set by the government.
Against this less than ideal backdrop, Olmert must appoint a new finance minister who will restore order to the system and make sure that the growth we are currently enjoying does not grind to a halt.
Will it be Haim Ramon?
Ramon, whom Olmert would very much like to have by his side, is a talented politician capable of original ideas, who possesses experience in finance as well as in politics. He is also someone capable of taking a stand.
Moreover, Ramon is not frightened of reforms. He has carried out a couple of them already: one in the Histadrut labor federation, and another in the health system.
The problem with Ramon is that in recent years he has become a sworn enemy of the treasury's budget department. He believes the treasury's powers must be contained and checked. He also advocates higher government spending. This stance suits Olmert fine, but it also has its disadvantages: It will compromise Israel's credit rating and impede its financial growth.
Additionally, Ramon comes with undesirable personal baggage: In January, he was convicted of indecent conduct for kissing a female soldier employed in a government office against her will while he was serving as Olmert's justice minister.
Will it be Roni Bar-On?
Bar-On already occupies the difficult post of interior minister, a post that is especially problematic in light of the never-ending crises in the local authorities. Bar-On is a political creature par excellence, who hesitates little before using his ministerial sway to draw municipal leaders closer to his party, Kadima.
Bar-On used to be Olmert's rival in the Likud, but has become his closest associate since Kadima was formed. Following the release of the Winograd Committee's interim report on the government's performance during the Second Lebanon War, Bar-On bit the bullet for Olmert and countered attacks on his boss by the politicians and the media.
His economic views are unclear, but he is generally in favor of a market economy.
He, too, however, comes with personal baggage: the Hebron-Bar-On scandal, in which Bar-On was allegedly appointed attorney general so that he would drop charges against then Shas leader Aryeh Deri; in exchange, Shas allegedly promised to back a pullout from Hebron. The allegations forced Bar-On to resign even before taking office.
Will it be Meir Sheetrit?
Sheetrit has served as finance minister before. He also possesses extensive ministerial experience, and he is brave enough to carry out reforms. But he is rash and lacks patience.
Olmert will decide whom to appoint primarily based on one parameter, the one most crucial to him: the candidate's loyalty. He is looking for someone who will ensure quiet on the economic front, who will not surprise him with reforms. The Winograd Committee's final report and security issues will provide him with enough of a headache.
By this criterion, Sheetrit is too ambitious to be made finance minister: He will want to use the treasury as a springboard for his own prime ministerial bid.
Haim Ramon is in second place. He and Olmert are good friends, but he has his own agenda and will be difficult to control.
That leaves Bar-On, the one undisputedly loyal candidate. He would be no more than Olmert's emissary in the treasury.
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