Only Survival Is Important

Olmert is not cut out to be a finance minister. It is not in his character. He cannot stand up to the pressure.

We have almost forgotten, but the prime minister is still serving as finance minister these days. Menachem Mazuz announced over a month and a half ago that Olmert should not be holding this portfolio, but Olmert is thumbing his nose at the attorney general, who reached this decision in the wake of a criminal investigation into Olmert's alleged involvement in the sale of Bank Leumi.

At the moment, Olmert is preoccupied with one thing: survival. He is now busy trampling on the few principles that still remain in this country with regard to financial management. Koby Haber, Israel's national budget director, cannot sleep at night for worrying about the fate of the budget and the economy. He fears that everything the country has gone through hell to achieve, all the economic growth and the reduction in unemployment, will disappear through Olmert's overspending.

Senior officials in the Finance Ministry say that the ministry's situation has never been so bad. One hears their pain as they speak about a prime minister who cares about nothing but saving his own skin, about a nonfunctioning coalition, about Knesset members who are competing with one another over who can pass more costly private member's bills. This is lunacy, they say.

Olmert is not cut out to be a finance minister. It is not in his character. He cannot stand up to the pressure. Politics runs in his blood. He is always on the lookout for some wily way to close a deal, cut corners, set someone up in a cushy job. His aim is to please everyone, to slap people on the back, to give a little to this one and a little to that one, to settle on a nice compromise - which always costs a lot of money.

Ra'anan Dinur, director general of the Prime Minister's Office, was recently appointed super-boss of the Finance Ministry, and he is focusing on one thing: heading off crises. Dinur's job is to turn down the heat and keep new fronts from opening up. To do that, he will cough up as much as it takes, at the expense of the state budget. Dinur is pushing for a wage agreement with the Bank of Israel that the central bank governor, Stanley Fischer, will like. He is rudely demanding that Eli Cohen, the wage director, set aside all his professional principles and give in. He does not care how much it costs the economy. Mazuz's objections mean nothing to him. He does not care that a precedent is being set for shattering wage agreements. All that matters to him is Fischer's threat to quit if the kind of agreement he wants is not signed right away.

The same thing happened during negotiations with the teachers. In the last three days of the wage talks, Olmert ignored the Finance Ministry's position and stood behind the teachers. As a result, the wage agreement shot up by 25 percent, just to pacify the strikers. This is not what you call a reform.

Now Olmert is looking for a new candidate for finance minister. If you want the job, he will tell this person, there are certain conditions that come with it. One, you have to increase the expenditure ceiling in the 2008 budget by 2.5 percent, because we have big expenses, and I have neither the strength nor the desire to implement budget cuts that are going to get people angry. Two, you need to speak to Ofer Eini, the Histadrut labor federation boss, and clinch a deal with him on wages for the public sector, no matter how much it costs. Three, you need to finalize an agreement with Fischer immediately, and if Finance Ministry officials interfere, tell them to get lost. And while you are at it, it might not be a bad idea to get rid of my mortal enemy, Yaron Zelekha.

The candidate will listen and nod in agreement. After all, he wants the job. The only question is what he will do once he gets it. Will he bust the budget and increase wages, ending economic growth and boosting unemployment? Or will his sense of responsibility win out, prompting him to get the country back on track and erase the bad old Olmert days?