Silvan Shalom Redux

If I were Silvan Shalom's media consultant, I'd say: Silvan. Until yesterday you were on the right track. Just three and a half years have passed since that dreadful stint of yours as finance minister, and it seems you'd rehabilitated your image pretty well. Getting the Foreign Affairs portfolio was a brilliant move: an incompetent, maladroit finance minister and Likud party hack married to a fat cat's daughter morphed into a seasoned, suave diplomat. That's very good, Silvan.

Just one thing Silvan, I'd have added: don't even touch economic issues, at least for a decade. You owe that cooling-off period to yourself. You have to take ad-man extraordinaire Reuven Adler's advice on this one: one day he ran into Ariel Sharon and said, Arik, enough, don't ever get involved in arguments on Lebanon, it will only hurt you. Get it straight once and for all: the war in Lebanon NEVER HAPPENED, and now go build yourself a new image of the good responsible granddaddy.

The same goes for you, Silvan: the years 2001 to 2003 NEVER HAPPENED. Delete delete delete. You were never finance minister, you were born a foreign minister cum diplomat. You are above these piddling economic affairs. Let Bibi wallow in poverty, the unemployed, economic reforms. You stick to your new mission: the hollow, er hallowed, salons of diplomatic chitchat that birthed all of Israel's great leaders.

Actually, that's all old-world type media advice. Today there are clever, aggressive and savvy new media consultants, with a whole new message: All you need to do, Silvan, is repeat something say 200 or 300 time, and finally it will become etched in the national consciousness. The name of the game is: rewrite history.

Talking nonsense

Silvan is evidently enamored of that Orwellian sort of media advice. Yesterday he made an appearance at the Caesarea Economic Forum and talked about economic policy in recent years. Among other things, he said: "As finance minister, I faced two possibilities: to climb fast and leave the public exhausted and hurt, or to climb slowly and moderately. Naturally I chose the second path. There were others who chose the fast track, as though the economy stood at the brink of the void and Israel was about to become another Argentina. But oddly enough, Israel's sovereign credit rating didn't change from 1999 to 2004: it stayed as it was."

In English, Shalom was claiming that all the talk about economic crisis was balderdash that Bibi made up. The economy was perfectly robust, the rating agencies demonstrated their faith in us, and I adopted a responsible economic policy of slow, gradual climb.

Goodness. This may be an appropriate time to remind Silvan of the economic parameters of his term at the Finance Ministry, of the farcical budgets that he submitted, and of the collapse of the public's and economy's faith in government policy.

But maybe we don't need all that. It would be far simpler to quote what Israel's former accountant-general, Nir Gilad, who was Silvan Shalom's right-hand man at the Finance Ministry, had to say after he left the treasury for private business.

"In June 2002, the state of Israel faced bankruptcy. We all understood that the situation was starting to be reminiscent of what happened in South Korea and the Philippines - dramatic decrease in the value of the local currency.

"I started to fear that we'd start to approach NIS 6 to NIS 7 to the dollar. A situation like that has significance not only for the cost of capital to the government, but for the entire financial structure of the country, for the stability of the banks, and for the confidence of citizens in their deposits.

"The public knew nothing about this because it was secret, and the discussions between the prime minister, the finance minister and the Bank of Israel governor were secret. We didn't want anybody to know about it."

Comparison with Argentina is indeed irrelevant. Israel has a low foreign debt and a gigantic internal one. In Israel, local investors lost their confidence in government policy and in Israel, the protracted recession threatened the stability of the banks, as in 2002 - we had basically no financing market outside the banks.

The violent, swift steps that Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to take when he replaced Silvan Shalom at the Finance Ministry were not based on some version of capitalist ideology. He did what he had to do, because the Israeli economy had been contracting for two years, the problem debts at the banks were bigger than their shareholders' equity, and public expenditure 60% of GDP was breaking world records.

Now we know the facts. And all that remains is to wait and see which public-relations strategy works best: to rewrite history and turn the era of economic darkness under Silvan Shalom into a time of heroism; or to adopt the tried and true method of presenting Silvan Shalom as a diplomat by nature, and people of his caliber are far above grubby little things like budgets, deficits, and interest rates.

That's it. The column is over. We didn't mean to frighten you with that headline, which could have indicated that Silvan Shalom was actually returning to the treasury. But we didn't have enough space to write "Silvan Shalom reminisces about his days at the treasury". No, he is not going back there. You can relax.