The Big Spenders in the Prime Minister's Office

The state budget is allowed to grow by only 1.7% from year to year, by the law. In some ministries, such as education or defense, the budgets increase by more than that in certain years, when priorities change.

The state budget is allowed to grow by only 1.7% from year to year, by the law. In some ministries, such as education or defense, the budgets increase by more than that in certain years, when priorities change.

But there is only one government office whose budget has grown every single year out of proportion. It is the one nearest and dearest to those in power, and everyone is scared to touch it. Even the treasury is scared of it and treats it with kid gloves.

In 2005 the budget of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) was only NIS 300 million. In 2006 Ehud Olmert replaced Ariel Sharon as prime minister, and the budget for his office more than doubled, to about NIS 650 million a year.

True, quite a bit of that increase went to fund the Sela disengagement administration, but a large part went to new operations within the PMO. Olmert turned his own ministry from a mere staff headquarters into an operational branch, under the command of his Director General, Ra'anan Dinur.

In 2007 the PMO's budget grew once again, to about NIS 700 million, and the planned budget for this year is now NIS 770 million.

The number of employees in the PMO has also grown, from 490 in 2005 to 580 in 2008. Is there no one who can rein in Olmert and Dinur's huge appetite?

Last week a senior Finance Ministry official was asked why he does not loosen up the budgetary reins - after all, ratings agency Fitch raised Israel's credit rating recently.

"We need to do exactly the opposite," said the official. "Fitch says it raised our rating because of the rapid drop in the debt to GDP ratio over the past four years and the near-zero budget deficit in 2007. We also promised them that we will continue with the same restrained budgetary policy in coming years," he said.

Fitch also recommends lowering Israel's debt to GDP ratio to only 30-50% of GDP, so we have a long way to go from today's 80% ratio.

Of course Fitch is not ignoring our special security situation. It wrote that another constraint on the credit rating is the security situation, which may cause deviations from the path, such as happened in 2001-2002. But at the same time Fitch quickly balances its comments, citing the political, economic and military support of the U.S. as a moderating factor.

In other words, the character and plans of the U.S. president to be elected in November will also have an effect on Israel's credit rating. Fitch clearly states that it recognizes that the government intends to faithfully keep to its fiscal policies. That is why the senior treasury official explains: Not only do we not need to loosen the reins, but [we] need to make an immediate budget cut, in order to meet our commitments and keep to the correct budgetary path."

The problem is that the prime minister is busy with other matters, political and diplomatic. He also doesn't want to make cuts, especially not in his own office.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have bought time-share vacation apartments over the years. The best known is the Club Hotel in Eilat.

Many have come to the conclusion that they made a mistake. They simply are no longer interested in the same week-long vacation in the same place, but are forced to continue paying annual maintenance fees every year that can reach NIS 2,000.

Often, the time-sharers would simply like to get rid of both the annual vacation and the annual fees, but the management companies are not interested: They want their yearly checks.

You may have started hearing radio jingles for a company claiming to have a solution. We will save you from your time-share, they say.

When you meet with the company representatives they offer a deal: Sign over your unit to us and we will reimburse you for all your expenses up to now, including all the annual maintenance fees and the original purchase price.

In one case they offered a time-share owner NIS 180,000, in monthly payments over the next six years. But there's a catch - and what a catch: You must pay them, that is, the company, not the owner of the property, now - that is, immediately - NIS 80,000 in cash. Why?

Their answer is they are a "financial solutions company." The idea is that you pay NIS 80,000 now and in the future you will receive NIS 180,000, in installments.

But who can promise you that the company will still be there - and able to pay - six years from now? Of course the firm says it will provide bank guarantees.

As my mother used to say, such promises aren't even worth the paper they're printed on.

So the poor client not only bought a weekly time-share vacation he doesn't really want, now he has to pay NIS 80,000 to get out of the mess. I can't think of a worse deal.