Hunting Season Has Begun

With their own hands, Olmert and Hirchson have put the economy into a dangerous spin, like that witnessed at the start of the 1990s.

Like a hungry tiger who senses the fear emanating from a deer a second before he leaps to devour it, so the teachers, lecturers, students, the Histadrut labor federation, the local authorities, the railway workers and those of the Israel Electric Corporation smell the fear and weakness emanating from the government and are preparing to leap and bite with all their might.

The only problem is that the government is actually us. We are the prey. Ran Erez, chairman of the Secondary School Teachers' Association, explicitly says this is a weak government and therefore "our opportunity." He is leading the pupils and their parents astray, first causing the high schools to strike and then the junior highs, fighting with Education Minister Yuli Tamir and also with Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson. And no one puts him in his place, because the government is weak and fearful.

It has been some time since we had a prime minister whose control of the coalition members has been so lax. Every one of them has his own agenda and some of them, led by Avigdor Yitzhaki, are not interested in having Erez dismissed. Olmert is afraid of the warning letters issued by the Winograd Committee and the investigation into the Bank Leumi affair and does not want to open another front. His finance minister is also in a delicate position. Hirchson will possibly have to take a leave of absence because of the police investigation into the Nili organization affair; in such a case, it is difficult for the two of them to face up to a strike.

The students understand this. They threatened a little, called names a bit and in a short while enjoyed the fruits of their labor. They were able to nullify the Shohat Committee's report even before it saw the light of day. The education minister who appointed the committee was not able to withstand the pressure they exerted. The students said that she had destroyed higher education and she, in conjunction with the prime minister, hastened to give in: Tuition will not be raised, and the universities will not be able to carry out plans to prevent a brain drain.

On the local government front, too, no one dares speak the truth - that there is an overwhelmingly large number of cases of poor management. There are certain local authorities where only 10 to 20 percent of the potential municipal property tax is collected, but the local council is bursting with surplus manpower. The religious councils, too, which some time ago were supposed to turn into small departments inside the municipalities, are continuing to maintain their independence, at a high price to the public.

Why does Interior Minister Roni Bar-On not dismiss the heads of local authorities that have failed and appoint a committee to run their councils instead? Because there are political considerations. The council heads have power, and, after all, election day will arrive.

When one adds up all the demands of bodies threatening to strike, the price is gargantuan. The Histadrut is demanding a 13 percent wage hike for public sector workers, with every percentage point worth NIS 800 million - that is, NIS 10 billion per year. If we add to this the demands of the teachers, the lecturers, the doctors and the research workers, we will get to NIS 20 billion per year, a sum difficult to grasp.

They dare to demand such high sums because the finance minister and the prime minister created the impression that the coffers are full, and one just has to make a request. After all, if there is money for negative income tax, why should there not be money also for wage hikes? And the heads of the workers' committees and of the Histadrut also have to show achievements to their electorate.

A finance minister who knows his job would say that the economic situation is indeed good but fragile, and it is not at all clear growth will continue in the face of so many threats. Therefore, the cuts to the state budget must be maintained and so must the cuts to wages and manpower.

In the face of these threats, the Histadrut should have raised its voice loud and clear to achieve a great deal for the workers - annulling cuts to salaries and dismissals. That is the customary process. But when Hirchson and Olmert say that the situation is excellent, and it is possible to distribute more and more, the entire order gets confused, and high wage demands become inevitable.

Thus, with their own hands, Olmert and Hirchson have put the economy into a dangerous spin, like that witnessed at the start of the 1990s. During those years, the Rabin-Shohat government distributed tall salary increases to lecturers and teachers, which soon seeped down to all public sector workers. The result was a huge deviation from the 1995 budget, which made it necessary to apply stringent cuts in 1996 and thus led to a recession and a rise in unemployment in 1997-1999.

This mistake must not be repeated. Let's at least learn from experience.