The Bottom Line / Netanyahu's Credibility Test

During the past months, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been waging a campaign to dismantle the Ports Authority.

During the past months, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been waging a campaign to dismantle the Ports Authority.

He makes a point of declaring at every opportunity that he will do everything in his power to carry out the government's decision three months ago to transform the ports of Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat into private government companies that would compete against each other and be required to operate more efficiently.

Netanyahu claims that this step is very essential and important for the economy and that, consequently, he will work to promote it at any cost.

Netanyahu also makes sure to emphasize that since the government made this decision, he has remained steadfast in the face of opposition by the port workers, who are organized in strong unions, and that he will not capitulate to them.

Thus, for example, when the workers began their strike after the government decision in September, Netanyahu - together with Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman - initiated a move to circumvent Israeli ports by transporting goods via Jordanian and Egyptians ports.

The strike, which lasted about two weeks, and caused considerable economic losses, was stopped only after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intervened and a decision was made to establish a committee of representatives from the Histadrut labor federation and the government to negotiate the implementation of the government decision.

Now it appears that the negotiations have yielded a compromise that represents a retreat from the treasury's decision to immediately dismantle the Ports Authority. According to the compromise being worked out, the ports of Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat would be transformed into independent government companies in several stages, lasting a number of years.

During the initial stage, the ports would become subsidiaries of the Ports Authority. (A similar process has already been under way for the past year and a half.)

According to the plan, the subsidiaries (that is, the ports) would receive considerable authority, but would still have to answer to the Ports Authority.

Following the Haaretz report published yesterday about the compromise taking shape in the negotiations, the Finance Ministry was quick to deny that it was backpedaling from its original plans.

The treasury issued a press statement declaring that the Ports Authority would be dismantled according to the original government decision and that the ports would immediately become government companies.

"This structure," the statement said, "will enable maximum efficiency to be attained and raise the productivity of Israel's ports at lower costs and with modern management."

There is no doubt that the treasury's position regarding the importance of implementing structural change at the ports is correct and just. The current structure of the ports, which bestows great power upon the workers, has for years created a cumbersome and inefficient system that makes life very difficult for those who transport via the sea.

It now remains to be seen whether the treasury stands behind its declarations and the government decision will be implemented as planned when the negotiations conclude.

A retreat from the plan will also show other monopolies - which Netanyahu also wishes to dismantle in the future - that it pays to put up a fight and strike.