The Bottom Line / Bibier Than Thou

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon didn't believe it was happening to him. Labor Party ministers sat with their mouths gaping wide open, and Likud ministers listened in shock.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon didn't believe it was happening to him. Labor Party ministers sat with their mouths gaping wide open, and Likud ministers listened in shock. But Environment Minister Shalom Simhon did not hesitate. He faced Sharon directly and said, "There are differences of opinion between Labor and Likud on the 2006 budget, and I don't find everything acceptable, but the good of the country and the economy demands that you, the prime minister, do everything to amass a majority to pass the budget today, without any delay, because the economy cannot permit itself even one hour without a budget, especially when the country is entering the not-so-simple period of disengagement."

Sharon was stunned. A declaration like this, and that from a Labor Party man, was totally unexpected. Those present suddenly saw how Sharon stood erect, woke up to reality, as if he had received an injection of vigor, and the whole exhausting budget meeting, exactly one week ago, made an about-face.

Until that moment it was not clear at all that the budget would pass. There was a palpable danger that Limor Livnat and Dan Naveh would vote against it, and together with eight Labor ministers, they would stall the budget. The result would be a financial crisis and a real danger that Likud ministers would quit, the government would collapse, and disengagement would be halted.

However, the moment that Simhon stood by the budget's side in opposition to his colleagues, the die was cast. Livnat and Naveh understood that Sharon had a majority, and so they reduced their demands, voted for it in the end, and the budget passed. His fellow party members wanted to eat him alive, but Simhon is decidedly different from them in every way. He supports a free economy, structural reforms, and privatization. He supports reducing taxes and in strictly maintaining spending and deficit targets to bring stability and growth. He is the complete opposite of all the old and mistaken positions of Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon, Isaac Herzog, and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Neither does Simhon hesitate to say that Netanyahu was a good finance minister, but notes that there is a problem of societal gaps which opened up in the past two years, and so war on poverty must be waged. However, one cannot fight poverty by depressing the business sector. "The more rich people there are, the better it will be for poor people," he says - a statement that even Netanyahu would hesitate to say.

Simhon is a minister loved by the treasury's budget division. Its director, Koby Haber, called him last week and asked how and when he would prefer to receive his budget supplement of NIS 100 million which he received at the same cabinet meeting, including how much would go to his ministry and how much to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. No other minister besides Simhon had a pleasure of receiving such a call.

This alliance between Simhon and the budget division ("they are an elite unit") began when he was chair of the Knesset finance committee and promoted reforms that the division submitted. This alliance allowed him to prevent changes in the same cabinet meeting to the dairy and egg industries, thus defending his constituents, the agricultural sector. However, even with them all does not go smoothly. They fought against him with all their might when he took sides in raising the price of water allocated to farmers while he was serving as agriculture minister in the first Sharon government.

Simhon believes the Labor Party has lost its electoral way. It is trying to represent the weaker classes, but these would never vote for it under any circumstance. Even were they to leave Likud, they would migrate to Shas and not to Labor, he says.

His conclusion is that Labor's constituency is the middle class, the community of Yosef (Tommy) Lapid and Shinui and not of Amir Peretz and the Histadrut labor federation. But what can he do? He's a minority voice inhis party on this issue as well.