Bits and Pieces

It's difficult to envy the finance minister. Not only are economic conditions quite impossible - high-tech crisis, intifada, Twin Towers, have all fed the economy into a deep trough - but he also depends on those fellows at the Knesset who are not interested in anything but themselves.

The seriousness of the economic emergency makes no impression on them. They have been running for the next elections from the moment they got into Knesset, and to get their names in the headlines they are prepared to do anything.

After protracted negotiations with Finance Minister Silvan Shalom to remove 13 laws from the Economic Arrangements Bill, this week they torpedoed Shalom's efforts to get what was left in the bill transfered to the Finance Committee for debate.

MK Yossi Katz, the chairman of the Knesset House Committee wanted to split the bill, and distribute the unending discussions on each clause to various Knesset committees. But the moment the bill is split, bang goes any chance of having the entire legislation passed as drafted by the government, because the committees are full of those very MKs who proposed the irresponsible private bills in the first place.

So why should they cancel their laws now?

As an example - the government decided to freeze the Large Families Law that grants higher child benefits to the fifth child and upward. This would have been sent to the Labor and Social Affairs Committee for debate, and there a freeze would be out of the question because heading that very committee is Shas MK David Tal, who is all in favor of the law. Passing the proposed freeze on these populist laws to the various committees for debate in effect ensures the spending of an extra NIS 1.2 billion in 2002 - at a time when the budget ought to be slashed by NIS 5 billion.

Another problem is that many laws caught up in the economic arrangements debacle affect infrastructure - Jerusalem's light railway, for example, or extending the Trans-Israel Highway, or building a desalination plant in Ashkelon. Each one of these has its opponents, so that if the bill had been split and passed separately to several committees, these projects would surely never have got off the ground.

Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, also keen to create a little brouhaha, threatened this week that in any case he would not pass the economic arrangements bill in full by the end of the month. But if Katz and Burg succeed, then 2002 will begin with no government budget, investors' confidence in the Israeli economy will drop, unemployment will rear its head, problems in the balance of payments will return to haunt us, the public will chase dollars, inflation will take off, the governor of the Bank of Israel will be forced to raise interest rates, and our relative stability in which we live will collapse.

But so what? Who will be the first to blame Shalom and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when the economic reckoning comes? Katz and Burg of course, whose specialization is increasing expenses. They will readily forget that they were the ones who caused the crisis.

So why not give Katz and Burg what they want? Give Katz the job of ambassador to Germany, which is what he is really after (even now at this critical time he has slipped off to Germany for 10 days.) Give Burg the top job as Labor party leader. Then the two of them will abandon their present jobs at the Knesset - and the economy and the unemployed will eventually be able to breathe a little earlier.