May Ehud Snub His Friends

Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't have many friends. Even the ones he can boast have suffered mainly disappointments at his hands. He's self-involved, cold, technical, dry; he forgets you quickly, he turns his back on you - Netanyahu is a man with a purpose, only one. Outside his focus on that, nothing exists.

We're going to miss this man who had no friends. Because barring last-minute surprises, next week Israel's economic management will be in the hands of people whose economic ideology boils down to taking care of the guys.

Netanyahu is broadly perceived as a son of the elites, a man surrounded by wealthy friends, the Bronfmans and the Lauders. Pundits across the board say that during his period in power, the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer.

Great story, the only problem is, it isn't quite so. Many of the richest men in the land loathe Netanyahu. They are tied to Ehud Olmert and would prefer Amir Peretz.

Netanyahu, a man with excellent English, a cigar and a home in Caesarea, a man who loves the good life, was from the perspective of the rich families - the worst finance minister they'd ever encountered.

When the crunch came, the billionaires and millionaires clustering about him discovered that Netanyahu was a man committed only to himself.

What a rich man really wants

He was the first finance minister in the history of Israel who believed in the free market and in competition. The billionaires and the managers may talk the talk of free markets, but it's lip service: they hate the idea of competition. They want to rake in profits through monopolistic powers. They like government tenders.

They like the antitrust commissioner weakened and cowed. They like the Supervisor of Banks to be castrated, they want the treasury director-general to be considerate and the accountant-general to be a man with whom they can reach wink-wink understandings. That is what they want and like and what they want and like is usually what they get.

Like his predecessors, Benjamin Netanyahu erred - in cruelly cutting support for the aged, the weak and the disabled. It was necessary to cut government spending, but the knife should have been brandished at the public-sector fat cats, which abound.

But it was Netanyahu's cutbacks that saved the economy from meltdown. It was his policies that enable politicians to wax loquacious about the help they'll confer on the needy.

But the Bibi erupted from inside him and Netanyahu abandoned the fray. He acted rashly and paid a heavy personal price. He could have regained the prime ministerial seat; now he's all but sure to be in opposition.

Mapai alert

But he isn't the only one to pay the price.

In the coming year, the economy will continue to flourish because of what he did, because of the back-wind from global economic growth, the U.S. loan guarantees and aid.

But Israel's economic strategy is in danger. The economic reins are about to be seized by Mapai types whose top priorities are to avoid conflicts and to help their buddies.

We know Ehud Olmert. The chairmen, the chief executives and the owners in corporate Israel adore him. "He's a friend," they tell us again and again. You can rely on good old Ehud. Nochi trusts him, Eitan relies on him; he'll never let down a friend.

Just as terrifying is Olmert's candidate for finance minister, none other than Avraham Hirchson, a political hack devoid of economic strategy, a master at stepping on eggs and hooking up to the right powers at the right time.

If Hirchson becomes Israel's next finance minister, we may well be treated to a rerun of Sharon & Sons. But this time it will be Hirchson and his offspring Ofer, a failed financier up to his neck in tens of millions of shekels of debt.

Wherever Hirchson appears, there's Mickey Zoller, a fixer who's spent the last decade in the twilight zone between wealth and power, between Hirchson and the capital market. Nobody is sure exactly what Zoller owns or how he presses buttons in the public sector.

Then there is Raanan Dinur, Olmert's right hand, an economic Bolshevik who supports more and more government involvement in the economy.

I hope this is all wrong. I hope Olmert changes his spots and turns his back on his friends. I hope the Finance Ministry is manned by a person with clear economic vision and long-term strategy.

I hope the prime minister's office is manned by people other than representatives of the rich, people who simply want to build up their power base before abandoning government for the private sector. I hope it has officials who care not only about their fortunes but those of us all, and who care about the image of Israel's economy in an era in which all shame has been lost.