Analysis / Budget Affair Has Left Netanyahu Bruised and Weakened

Without a human flak jacket in the form of a strong finance minister, Bibi is the target for all the criticism.

Ofer Eini strolled around the Prime Minister's Office before dawn Wednesday as if he owned the place. The Histadrut labor federation chairman had achieved his coup. Everyone patted him on the back.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi muttered "well, I don't have an Ofer Eini" at the cabinet session. Ministers looked at him with envy. "All we need is that he'll begin to believe everything they say about him in the papers," a Likud minister said.

Roni Bar-On, finance minister until about two months ago, said that for the first six months of his tenure Eini didn't dare to cross his threshold, but "today he's setting the state budget."

Bar-On and Kadima's other MKs gathered for an urgent meeting in the Knesset Wednesday to celebrate the budget farce, in front of the cameras, of course. In their most optimistic dreams they couldn't have foreseen that fewer than 50 days after the new government took office they would be celebrating its first serious foul-up.

Suddenly the opposition parties don't seem so disastrous after all. A few more such performances by Benjamin Netanyahu's government and Kadima's service in the opposition could end sooner than expected, an MK said.

The budget affair left Netanyahu bruised and weakened. Without a human flak jacket in the form of a strong finance minister to separate the prime minister from the ministers and the Histadrut leader, Bibi is the target for all the criticism. He was blasted for the economic edicts and again for canceling them. Instead of choosing one policy and sticking to it, he ran amok among various theses and doctrines.

Before returning to the prime minister's chair, Netanyahu said he had learned something from all his predecessors. But has he? His predecessors had enough brains and experience to leave the economic woes to their finance ministers.

Ariel Sharon appointed his most bitter rival, Netanyahu, as finance minister in 2003, when the economy was in dire straits. Netanyahu rehabilitated the economy while imposing bitter edicts on lower earners - Likud's voters. Nobody held this against Sharon. In 2006, on the eve of his debilitating stroke, the polls predicted that Sharon and his party Kadima would win 40 Knesset seats in the elections. Likud-led Netanyahu would only get 12. The public was punishing them for those edicts.

It's clear who the winners and losers here are. Netanyahu and his vanishing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz are the biggest losers. Eini and Labor chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are the winners.

Only Israeli politics could produce such an irony - the threadbare Labor Party is having great moments in, of all paces, the Netanyahu government. It seems one can go far with just 13 Knesset seats, minus four and a half rebels. This should please Barak and his ministers, because it seems they will continue to have a future in government, whatever is left of their party after the next elections. As long as Ofer Eini is around.