It All Depends on Today's Polls

The fate of the state budget for 2003 will be decided Sunday. But the scales won't be tipped by economic factors like the soaring unemployment rate or the acute recession. The decisive factors will have more to do with politics.

The fate of the state budget for 2003 will be decided Sunday. But the scales won't be tipped by economic factors like the soaring unemployment rate or the acute recession. The decisive factors will have more to do with politics, specifically with the personal interests of Labor Party Chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Asked what his recommendation will be at Sunday's party conference, Ben-Eliezer said that in the event that the NIS 5.4 billion that was cut from the defense budget is not restored, "This means that there is no security, and I will vote against the budget." Told that NIS 5.4 billion is a huge amount of money, and that there is nowhere for it to be taken from, Ben-Eliezer responded that the settlers receive seven times what citizens on the western side of the Green Line do, so there are funds that could be transferred to the defense budget. He adds that the Labor Party also wants to see modifications to several aspects of the budget related to social matters, such as pensioners and single-parent families.

But since this NIS 5.4 billion is not about to materialize, it would appear that the die has been cast, and that Ben-Eliezer will lead his party to vote against the budget and leave the coalition. Or will he?

Politicians don't always say everything that's on their minds, particularly when speaking to journalists. So Ben-Eliezer hasn't yet made a final decision. Privately, he's been agonizing over what path to take. But he doesn't have much time left, so his decision will be made today, when he reads the latest polls published in the newspapers.

If he finds that his standing in the polls is down, and that either Haim Ramon or Amram Mitzna is leading among the 112,000 party members eligible to vote in the primaries, he'll feel that he has to make a bold move that will jolt the situation and improve his prospects. If that's the case, then on Sunday, one can expect him to give a fiery speech to the party's central committee excoriating the Finance Minister for not agreeing to any compromise and not giving anything to the defense budget or the Ministry of Industry and Trade budget, or to any of the other ministries headed by Labor. Then he'll fulminate about how Silvan Shalom also refused to rescind any part of the cutbacks affecting pensioners and single-parent families and insist that the Labor Party, as a fighter for social justice, cannot continue to sit in such a government. He'll also crow about how, despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's great displeasure, he resolutely dismantled 22 outposts in the territories and he'll urge that U.S.President George W. Bush's "road map" be accepted (with minor adjustments) because, "There is no military answer to suicide bombers." He'll conclude with a rousing exhortation for the party to vote against the budget and resign from the coalition.

By shaking things up like this, Ben-Eliezer would hope to cause the party's 112,000 voters to change their thinking and vote for him in the primaries on November 19 - thus allowing him to maintain the party chairmanship and lead Labor in the next elections.

But an opposite, "optimistic" scenario is also possible. In this scenario, the latest polls will show that Ben-Eliezer enjoys a clear majority among the voters who will go to the primaries. If that is so, and with everything else unchanged, Ben-Eliezer will be singing a very different tune when he appears before his party's central committee. He'll boast to the crowd that Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon was quite successful in getting impressive improvements made to all the relevant sections of the budget, that the cuts to the ministries headed by Labor were reduced, and that the treasury was moving closer to meeting Labor's demands regarding the weaker sectors, the elderly and single-parent families. And furthermore, Ben-Eliezer will say, it would be an irresponsible act to vote against the budget when the economy is in such a bad state and international credit rating companies are threatening to lower Israel's credit rating. For the climax, Ben-Eliezer will tell his breathless listeners that the United States seriously intends to go to war against Iraq and that, at such a time, when war is imminent, it would certainly be a reckless and unpatriotic act to abandon the helm of responsibility. And if that's not convincing enough, then all the Labor ministers, from Shimon Peres to Simhon to Matan Vilnai, will take the stage and, in voices laden with emotion, explain why their presence at the cabinet table is so crucial, and how it's not the perks of their posts that keeps them there, but the magnitude of the tasks ahead.

If this scenario plays out, Labor will vote in favor of the budget on the first reading, and then Ben-Eliezer will eagerly await the November 19 primaries while maintaining the distinguished status of defense minister. If he wins and is re-elected as party chairman, he'll continue to support the budget and the government until March 2003, when he'll find a suitable political reason to resign from the Sharon government in order to prepare his party for the October 2003 elections. But if he somehow loses to Ramon or Mitzna, neither one of them will wait a day before leading Labor out of the government.

Which scenario will come to pass? We won't have to wait long to find out. A look at today's polls should offer a clear indicator of whether the unity government will continue along in its present composition.