In the Money / Bowing to the Inevitable?

1. There are quite a few cynical explanations as to why the Histadrut labor federation has decided to put off the general strike. The fact that next week schools are closed anyway, and that during Hol Hamo'ed the following week, most government offices and many private businesses also go on vacation for the intermediate days of Pesach, would have taken the sting out of the strike. According to this reasoning, the Histadrut only postponed the strike because it would benefit more from it after the holiday.

But there are also uncynical explanations. One is that by withholding legislation on condition that the strike is put off, Netanyahu has backed the Histadrut into a corner. Some even feel that Amir Peretz and his fellow Histadrut leaders have actually decided to exercise responsibility instead of fighting tooth-and-nail against cuts that are unavoidable.

Unavoidable is indeed the key word here. The reality is such that the fundamental shortcomings of Israel's economy have to be dealt with, which is exactly what the Finance Ministry's plan is about. The plan tackles at least three main economic failures: the pension fund crisis, the structural problems and inefficiency of the public sector, and the unacceptable corruption of local governments. Even if the solutions proposed are far from optimal, the very fact that the treasury aims to handle them after more than 30 years is itself revolutionary.

Netanyahu's plan is not foolproof. Many parts of it are unnecessary, ineffective or simply controversial. As always, a better plan could have been drafted. But that makes no difference. Things being as they are, Israel's economic problems have to be addressed once and for all. The proposed plan must therefore be supported despite its shortcomings.

2. District Court Judge Drora Pilpel has this week handed down an interim ruling against the treasury's move to oust the managers of the pension funds and appoint its own people instead. Although the ruling was basically technical, the judge expressed her surprise at the treasury's rush to depose the managers, since the funds are only expected to move from the black into the red in 5 to 30 years.

Pilpel's comment suggests that the court will only allow the treasury to step in after the funds collapse and have no money to pay pensioners. The implied recommendation here is to handle the pension fund crisis only when it is full-blown, in line with the usual Israeli policy of putting out fires. This was probably not the court's intention, since no modern country can afford to work this way.

The standard by which the pension crisis should be evaluated is much simpler, like the one defined after the crisis that followed the unauthorized trading in bank stocks: he who pays the piper calls the tune. When the state was made to pay up the banks' debts in 1983, it also took control of their stock. By the same token, if the state is to pay out pensions instead of the funds, at any point in time, the state then is the rightful owner of the funds.

This is an ethical matter. Since the public will be financing the pension funds, the public should also be entitled to own them. Any other solution would make a laughingstock of public funds and trample over the taxpayers' rights.