Analysis / To Be Loved, Be the Bad Guy'

Silvan Shalom's threat to resign was not hollow. It was supposed to happen at 7:30 last night, when Ariel Sharon planned to convene a press conference to announce a massive reform in the financial markets.

Silvan Shalom's threat to resign was not hollow. It was supposed to happen at 7:30 last night, when Ariel Sharon planned to convene a press conference to announce a massive reform in the financial markets.

Sharon would have opened with a dramatic announcement about the important reform, the growth it would spur, and the government's determination to march the economy forward - and make all the necessary budget cuts.

That way Sharon would be the super-finance minister, which he's wanted to be ever since he named Silvan Shalom as finance minister. He would explain he decided to eliminate all the limits the central bank puts on short-term loans; he would announce new liberalizations in foreign currency - including institutional investment overseas. And for dessert, he'd throw out the bomb: a change in the foreign currency market, namely, the elimination of the currency fluctuation band, from 2 percent to 0, in other words, a flat line.

The public would have heard two other dramatic announcements at the same time - Shalom's resignation and David Klein, the central bank governor, announcing a 2 percent cut in the interest rates. That's what Sharon worked out with Klein yesterday, and everyone waited for the press conferences.

Klein has been trying for a long time to persuade Shalom to eliminate the currency band, or at least get rid of the bottom end. But Shalom refused. Mediators meanwhile convinced Sharon that it would be good for the economy, and Sharon accepted it because the profit was clear: the 2 percent cut in interest rates.

Only this week Shalom said he would never agree to the bottom of the slope being cut - but yesterday he was forced to agree, if he wanted to stay in the political limelight.

So, on Sunday, the most hypocritical play in town will go on stage. Sharon, Shalom and Klein will stand together and tell the reporters about their new, wonderful achievement: lowering interest rates and market reform. They'll flatter each other and smile for the cameras, while each tries to claim credit for the deal. If not for prison sentences, murder would take place.

Shalom decided at the last minute not to resign. He was afraid that if he stepped off the stage, Sharon's people would glue the mark of failure on his brow. He worried that if they would go to the press, openly and in secret, and tell everyone how Shalom was to blame for the failures and how he functioned so poorly.

Shalom also is conscious of the Dan Meridor precedent, which is very much like his current dilemma. Meridor quit in June 1997 because Jacob Frenkel, then central bank governor, made a deal behind Meridor's back with then premier Benjamin Netanyahu about widening the currency fluctuation band in exchange for lowering interest rates. Meridor was opposed, claimed that Netanyahu was torpedoing his every move, and quit.

But what did Meridor gain from the resignation? Silvan Shalom remembered. He didn't want to break Meridor's record as the finance minister who served the shortest term. Meridor held out for a year. If Shalom quit yesterday he would have been in the job only 10 months. Besides, Shalom didn't want to make Limor Livnat happy over the weekend.

After Sunday's press conference, Sharon and Shalom will still face the real mission: cutting NIS 6 billion from the budget. They have to get it through the government and the Knesset - when there's no package deal, no agreement for a minimum wage freeze, indeed no wage freeze at all.

To succeed, Shalom will have to finally give up his beloved Negev Law, not be too impressed by the demonstrators in the south, and not worry about his fate in the Likud central committee. Because if he doesn't cancel the Negev Law, he won't be able to get rid of the Large Families Law, or shelve all the other populist bills - and without that he can't get the needed, and painful, budget cuts.

Nobody ever said the finance minister's job was easy. Nobody said that it's possible to be a "good" finance minister. A finance minister is like a treasurer. He always has to be able to say "no." He has to be the "bad guy," and if he sticks to the role of the "bad guy," in the end he'll succeed - and then the public will love him.