An Emergency, Sort of

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a tendency of solving problems by issuing fabricated statements or empty promises, assuming that his media manipulations will suffice to remove the issue from the state's agenda.

After his election as prime minister, Ariel Sharon's first decision was to annul the catering habits of some of his predecessors; instead of ordering food and drink from fancy hotels, he dined on the modest fare offered by his office's kitchen. Sharon made such labored gestures of modesty in his previous roles as well. Half a year after he took office, a banquet was served in his official residence for the state's top officials. For appearance's sake, Sharon obliged his initial decision; tea and cake were served by his kitchen staff. In actual fact, however, the affair was a grandiose food-fest, and an accurate reflection of the lifestyle indulged by the state's leaders.

The same contradiction between appearances and reality was evident late last week when the prime minister declared that Israel faces a "state of economic emergency." Sharon has a tendency of solving problems by issuing fabricated statements or empty promises, assuming that his media manipulations will suffice to remove the issue from the state's agenda.

The same leader who declared a "state of economic emergency" last Thursday must explain why two weeks earlier he promised Haredi parties that he would restore to the state budget the clause which provides beefed-up allocation to large families (increased state funds are to be given starting with a family's fifth child). The same leader who issues forecasts about a gloomy economic year must explain why the bleak announcements haven't been preceded by practical steps, such as the revision of the budget's working assumptions and re-adjusting the budget to accord with realistic predictions concerning economic growth and state revenues in the year to come. Instead of such concrete steps, we have been left with a bunch of slogans.

A survey of Sharon's performance as a prime minister up to this point reveals one constant pattern: There are deliberate efforts to create superficial impressions, and little work done to translate the slogans and promises into actual policies and results.

At the start of his term, Sharon was confronted by unrest and strikes in the Arab sector. He convened a meeting with Israeli Arab leaders and turned on his charm, giving them his phone number and inviting them to call whenever they want. Naively, they were flattered by the gesture, not grasping that no genuine step would be taken to satisfy their just demands.

Other domestic policy issues have been put to sleep in the Sharon era, thanks to the establishment of a plethora of committees. Whenever Sharon is aroused and starts dealing with urgent domestic matters, he convenes meetings, demands that action be taken, complains about bureaucratic red tape and generally makes his presence felt for a fleeting moment or two. Then he goes back to dealing with Palestinian terror, the issue which naturally claims most of his time. In the foreign policy-diplomatic realm as well, Sharon often trumpets out declarations that are designed to make a good impression yet lack any genuine substance.

Whenever a moment of truth arises, Sharon's real stripes are manifest: This is a prime minister who is bogged down by hundreds of problems and who lacks the courage to deviate from the policy guidelines set by the exigencies of coalition politics.

Sharon does not compel Finance Minister Silvan Shalom to trim four or five billion shekels from the state budget; nor does he dare to stand up to the Haredi parties, who are prime recipients of state hand-outs. Sharon talks about a Palestinian state while whispering to his right-wing ministers that he has no intention of deviating from the government's policy guidelines. Sharon promises to exchange drafts with Shimon Peres in order to devise a new peace plan, and at the same time he tells the right-wing National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu party that it has nothing to worry about. All told, Sharon acts like predecessors in that his main motive is to protect his job. The problem is that Israel might be able to afford such prime ministerial behavior during normal times, but it hardly suits a period that the prime minister himself defines as a time of security and economic emergency.

A separate question is whether Israel's current economic stagnation really ought to be defined as an emergency, or whether it would be more prudent to deal with specific economic issues in a focused, direct fashion, without dramatic declarations (following the non-theatrical approach used by the United States, Japan and European countries).

At any event, as these lines are written, the Sharon government and the Finance Ministry lack a feasible plan to convert declarations about a "state of economic emergency" into an innovative, pragmatic policy altering the shape of the state's budget.