No Staying Power

Olmert surrenders easily, instead of encouraging the ultra-Orthodox to go out and work, he gives in to Shas' and UTJ's coalition demands to increase child allowances.

It is rather sad to note that even when Israel finally experiences an important social revolution, it does not last very long. It was just three years ago when the government - with the enthusiastic support of Ehud Olmert - decided to equalize National Insurance Institute child allowances; and lo and behold, this equalization is fading away.

When the coalition talks with Shas and United Torah Judaism began, Prime Minister Olmert said repeatedly that the issue was one of principle and, as such, there was no chance that he would agree to reinstate the discrimination between an ultra-Orthodox child and a secular child. But Olmert is not Ariel Sharon. Olmert perspires easily, and he has neither Sharon's imperturbability nor his patience. He does not hang the other side out to dry, nor does he let it stew in its own juice. He failed to realize that Shas' desire to join the government outweighed his desire to have the party in his coalition. He wants to demonstrate success, but complete coalition negotiations rapidly - the mistake is too costly.

The primal sin in this matter was committed 30 years ago by the Ben Shachar Committee, which decided to change the government's method for supporting families with many children. Instead of tax breaks for working parents, the committee recommended paying out allowances - irrespective of whether the parents work or not.

The ultra-Orthodox understood immediately that there was a gold mine here. They began to press for increasing the allowance from the fourth child onward; and the Finance Ministry, so as to balance out the additional expense, cut the allowance for the first and second child. And it all reached an insane high in 2001 - an allowance of NIS 856 for the fifth child onward, as opposed to an allowance of NIS 171 for the first and second child.

This was not just discrimination, and not just a blow to secular families, but also a policy that encouraged larger families among the ultra-Orthodox, Muslim and Bedouin sectors, undermined the desire to work, and increased poverty - with every new child born into these families immediately registered among the poverty statistics.

In 2003, then-finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu put an end to the destructive process, and a decision was made to gradually equalize child allowances by 2009.

But then Olmert came along: In the coalition talks with Shas, he waived the principle of the equalization of the allowances; and it was agreed with Shas that the process would be frozen at its current level - namely, the first child in a family will receive NIS 148, but the fourth child and onward will get NIS 328. It was also agreed that every child born from now on will receive only NIS 148 - irrespective of his or her place in the family. Treasury sources say that under such an arrangement, child allowances will eventually be equal - but only in 2016.

But this is a deception - because the moment there is a crack in the dam, it is impossible to stop the flood. And indeed, Justice Minister Haim Ramon, on Olmert's behalf, is offering United Torah Judaism a "large family grant" of NIS 500, on condition that the family has four children or more. Thus, the fourth child in the family becomes the child who is "worth" most - NIS 828 a month.

Everyone knows that the vast majority of secular Israelis have up to three children, that they work hard, pay taxes, serve in the army and are strangled by their mortgages - but they, after all, are the eternal patsies.

And this is not the end of the process. After the ultra-Orthodox have succeeded in this matter, the crack will only get wider. When the next coalition crisis comes around, Shas and UTJ will threaten to quit if they don't increase the NIS 500 to NIS 1,000, and the allowance for a new child from NIS 148 to NIS 328, and so on. And what will Olmert do then? Then, too, he will fear that without them, he doesn't have a government.

Instead of violating the principle of equality with regard to the child allowances, he should have offered the ultra-Orthodox money for the encouragement of general education. He should have offered them subsidies for kindergartens and professional training on the state's account - in order to encourage going out to work. But Olmert surrenders easily. He has no principles, he is easily pressured, and he has no staying power.

And if this is the case, how will it be possible to trust him when he conducts the fateful negotiations on the country's borders?