If Olmert's Leaving, Why Is He Meeting With the Fat Cats?

Next year will be tougher than 2008, with a slowdown in economic growth expected, but not negative growth. That was the message conveyed to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday during a powwow he convened in Tel Aviv with some of the country's business and economic leaders.

Attending the session, which was held under the shadow of deliberations over the 2009 state budget as well as the expected end of Olmert's term, were a number of businesspeople, regulatory officials and representatives of unions and other professional organizations.

They expressed support for the current draft budget and discussed economic and public policy in Israel.

According to the chairman of the Bank of Israel Advisory Council, Aharon Fogel, the economy's main - and perhaps only - problem is the low rate of the dollar against the shekel.

Businessman Eliezer Fishman said a 4-shekel dollar would solve the problems of the private sector.

Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, however, said that interfering with the exchange rate would prevent Israel from maintaining its position in the global economy and make it harder for it to integrate with the OECD.

No action points came out of the discussion, which was more of a venting session than a policy meeting.

According to sources who were there, there was no pervading sense that Israel is in an economic crisis.

"Without any reference to the political situation, I felt that we must pass the budget," Olmert said.

"The State of Israel is part of the global economy. Failure to approve the budget would be tantamount to paralyzing the activity of 40% of the economy - the government's share in the GDP. It could be a big mistake," Olmert said.

"The peace negotiations that Israel is conducting and the moves in the Israeli-Arab arena contribute to Israel's economic position and its ability to live comfortably in the future as well," the prime minister added.

Additional attendees of the roundtable discussion included Bank Leumi President and CEO Galia Maor, Elbit Systems Chairman Michael Federmann, Harel Insurance chairman Yair Hamburger, Israel Manufacturers Association President Shraga Brosh and Motorola Israel general manager Elisha Yanay.

Bank of Israel Advisory Council Chairman and Migdal Insurance Chairman Aharon Fogel, Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce President Uriel Lynn and Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel President Reuven Schiff, as well as former Finance Ministry Director-General David Brodet, current Treasury Director-General Yarom Ariav and Treasury Budget Director Ram Belnikov were also at the meeting.