Open Heart Surgery

It is difficult to understand the incredible lack of responsibility displayed by Ehud Barak and Eli Yishai. The entire world is in the midst of a dizzying financial hurricane and there are fears of a global recession and dreadful unemployment figures, but Barak and Yishai are carrying on with business as usual. They are looking for "gains." What interests them in the coalition talks is their personal standing and how they can squeeze a few more drops out of the dried lemon that is the state budget.

Both of them are aware that the budget is currently suffering from a huge shortage of cash. Tax revenues are on the decline and a sizable threatening deficit is anticipated for next year. They also know that the moment the unemployment rate increases, the government will be compelled to implement a plan aimed at encouraging more hiring at businesses. If we are hit with a financial crisis, the government will be forced to execute a bailout plan. These programs will come at a significant financial cost, but this does not worry them one bit. They are trying to extract a few more "gains" from Tzipi Livni, and to hell with stability and the good of the economy.

The coalition agreement which the Labor Party initialed last week is a shameful episode in the party's history. It was agreed that government expenditures would not increase. On the other hand, however, Barak's demands were extravagant to the point where there was little choice but to once again slash budgets from welfare and socially-oriented ministries. So what's the benefit?

For example, pensioners were promised that the "old age" stipend would be increased by NIS 150 million. Minister of Welfare and Social Services Yitzhak Herzog will receive NIS 20 million for day-care centers. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer will receive NIS 160 million for the National Infrastructures Ministry, whose exact purpose is still unknown. Shalom Simhon will take in NIS 50 million so he will have what to distribute to the farmers.

In the Labor Party, they call these "gains," but in truth these are a series of cynical moves designed to serve the narrow interests of a few ministers at a time when the state must save every shekel so as to move forward with an especially difficult fiscal year.

This situation is similar to that of a heart disease patient who is likely to require immediate surgery but meanwhile continues to smoke and eat fatty foods, without understanding he is thus rendering the surgery even more risky.

Shas leader Eli Yishai is displaying the same degree of irresponsibility. Every so often he talks about Jerusalem, but what really interests him are child allowances.

In 2003, Benjamin Netanyahu sharply slashed child allowances. The ultra-Orthodox claimed that the cuts would not lead to a reduction in the birthrates of their communities since this is considered a divine commandment (mitzvah). Yet the statistics reveal that the ultra-Orthodox also take financial considerations into account. It has become apparent that the average number of newborn children in an ultra-Orthodox family has decreased by slightly more than one child per family while the drop in Arab and Bedouin newborns is even steeper. In addition, more and more ultra-Orthodox are joining the job market.

And this greatly worries Eli Yishai. He has no desire to see smaller ultra-Orthodox families whose members work more, improve their economic lot and are liable to demonstrate greater independence. He is interested in maintaining a poor constituency that is dependent on him for its existence. He would like to return to the status quo ante: living off government handouts rather than work.

In the ongoing negotiations with Shas, Haim Ramon proposed a "creative solution" whereby families with at least four children would receive a monthly "family stipend" of NIS 500. While, on the surface, it is given a different name, in reality it is the same thing: a handout that dampens the motivation to seek employment and encourages two- and three-children families to have more babies. And everybody knows that what starts today at NIS 500 will later grow to NIS 1,500, just as it did with child allowances.

Tzipi Livni is also investigating the possibility of requiring salary reviews to determine eligibility for "family stipends," but this is an especially bad idea since it is obvious that the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs are those who will "pass" the review. Such a scenario would in a way discourage people from finding jobs. If, God forbid, they earn a wage, they would no longer be eligible for the stipend.

Livni is fearful that if she does not agree to increase child allowances, Shas will not enter the government, and she will be forced to call early elections. But Livni needs to know that Yishai also has something to lose. "The world of Torah" is not what it once was. Donations from American Jews have stopped recently due to the financial crisis, and the yeshivas and their students are in bad shape.

Yishai also understands that it is by no means certain that Shas will be invited to join the coalition following elections. Perhaps due to the economic crisis, Kadima, Labor, and the Likud will form a secular emergency government, and Shas will be left out, just as it was in 2003. In that case, Shas would receive nothing, neither stipends nor funding for yeshivas.

Livni can offer the "world of Torah" a bailout plan. This is what is really important to Ovadia Yosef. She can also propose special subsidies for those ultra-Orthodox who find work: day-care centers, hot meals, free travel and professional training. But she must not destroy the most important social gain of all - the transition from a life dependent on grants to that of work.