A Finance Minister, Not a Prime Minister

It was a good week for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At long last, he got some satisfaction. Forget about the proximity talks with the Palestinians, which he needs like a hole in the head. Spare him the questions about his shaky relations with U.S. President Barack Obama. Don't bother him about Jerusalem. Give him economics, and he flourishes.

Indeed, the minute Netanyahu heard mid-week that Israel has been admitted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, he dropped all other business and called an urgent press conference, where he exaggerated somewhat in describing the undoubtedly enormous importance of joining the prestigious club. "There is strategic significance in positioning Israel as an advanced economy, something that will attract international investment," he said. "Within a decade, we will become one of the 15 leading economies in the world." Does anyone remember that he made the identical promise 14 years ago, during his first term as prime minister?

Finance Minster Yuval Steinitz, who was on a visit to China when the announcement was made, must have been eating his heart out. It was he who worked behind the scenes to convince the OECD states to vote for Israel's acceptance, but because he wasn't here at the decisive moment, Netanyahu stole the show, and not for the first time.

Netanyahu's aim is clear: to appropriate the achievement as his own. He wants to position himself as "Mr. Economics." That's why he called the press conference and even found the time to give interviews to all the TV channels and speak to several economic analysts. In my conversation with him, I almost got mixed up. I felt like I was in a time machine, seven years back, to the stormy days of 2003, when Netanyahu was finance minister in Ariel Sharon's cabinet, because he spoke so passionately of the reforms that he had carried out, as if this had happened only yesterday. He spoke of the cuts in children's allowances, of the income tax reductions, of getting income assistance receivers jobs, of the removal of provident funds from the banks and of directing pension funds into the capital market.

He could have gone on and on, enumerating his successes, if I hadn't asked: But what about now? Aren't you destroying everything you built up then?

Netanyahu model 2010 is the diametric opposite of Netanyahu 2003. In the last year, he has not carried out a single reform that would have led to a confrontation with either trade unions or capitalists. He has increased children's allowances, hiked the yeshiva budget and made it part of the budgetary base, put taxes up, given in to pressure and waived the drought levy and the VAT on vegetables and fruits, to curry favor with the public. Only a few days ago he was forced into closing down the successful "Wisconsin Plan."

But the prime minister sees himself in a totally different light. He claims that the credit for the major reforms in the economy are his and no one else's, and that even now he is carrying out gigantic reforms in real estate, construction and transportation. He promised that soon he will tackle the dispersal of the economic power of the leading families, as well as education. In his eyes, he is more responsible than anyone else for economic growth and stability, and therefore all the points for Israel's membership in the OECD should be racked up to him.

And what about budgetary policy? I ask. Haven't you made a 180-degree turn here, too? Just the other day you agreed to a new formula whereby the government will increase its expenditures by 2.6 percent, whereas back when you were finance minister, you declared that the public sector was "too fat" and the "thin" private sector was carrying it and about to buckle under its weight, and therefore the budget should be increased by no more than 1 percent.

Now, I finally heard Netanyahu twisting and turning and eventually admitting that he is not really very happy about the treasury's new formula. There were, he said, worse formulas, which he prevented from being adopted.

At this point Europe's most important personality, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, comes to mind. It was she who led the moves that culminated in the plan to rescue Greece. Not long ago, she acted to introduce an amendment to the German constitution whereby the government will not be able to submit a budget with a deficit that is more than 0.35 percent of the GNP. In the constitution yet! That is far stricter than the maximum bar currently set in the Euro bloc, 3 percent, and it is also far more conservative than the projected Israeli budget, although our fundamental situation is far more risky.

Germany does not want to become Greece. It wants stability and to protect the public's savings. It has responsible leaders who are not too scared to tell the people the truth. Here, the leaders look for short-term love. They want, in Menachem Begin's famous words, "to do well by the people," here and now, and they leave the future to the winds.

Seven years ago, when Netanyahu was finance minister, he carried out bold reforms and also cut the budget, because he had the complete protection of Sharon, who stood as solid as a rock against the extortionists and the vested interests.

But now, Netanyahu is on his own. There's no one to give him shelter. This way, he gives in and buckles under and, in fact, shatters the very tablets of the law that he himself inscribed.

Not everyone who has been a promising finance minister can also be a successful prime minister.