The Bottom Line / Return of the Magician

Shortly before the Likud party primaries, Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and spoke to a group of financial market players. Netanyahu explained that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom had run the economy poorly, and he would do it better. He pooh-poohed the connection between the security situation and the economic crisis, saying, "These are two separate axes, each of which must be resolved separately. Security and peace do not achieve prosperity, they grant a certain level of economic freedom."

And now for the riddle: How long will it take for Netanyahu to start blaming the security situation and terror in every speech and to anyone who will listen? A month? two months? Three?

And if we are tossing out riddles: How long will it take before he starts blaming his predecessor for the terrible legacy? A week? Two weeks? Three?

And while we're at the riddle game: How long will it take for Netanyahu to get into a head-on confrontation with Sharon? One hour? Two? Three?

The truth is that the security situation, particularly terror in our city centers, is a substantial contributor to the terrible economic situation. Tourists have stopped coming and foreign investment is fleeing in the face of the terror attacks. And the increase in defense spending is a result of the battle in the territories.

But in this matter, responsibility is shouldered equally by Sharon, Shalom and Netanyahu, who are responsible for the complete lack of a peace process, due to their refusal of international mediation, so they can blame no one but themselves.

At that same stock exchange speech, Netanyahu said Israel is a centralized and bureaucratic state, so if we switch to a free market economy, if we cut the red tape in zoning and construction, if we privatize state-owned companies and banks via the exchange, the economy will leap forward as though its spring had been released.

These are beautiful and true words. But is he ready to carry that out? Is he ready for the confrontation with the labor unions at the electric company, the port authority and Bank Leumi?

In his last term as prime minister, he also promised to privatize those companies - but nothing budged. He got cold feet.

On the state budget, Netanyahu said "budget cuts and tax hikes are not the solution for a deteriorating economy, but cutting taxes and increasing investment." These words are rather worrisome in the context of the 2003 state budget. It is well known that we need a NIS 10-15 billion budget cut, in order to avoid a financial crisis like the one we barely scraped through in June 2002. So he cannot play around with increasing the deficit, not openly and not using sophisticated methods.

As far as taxes go, Netanyahu promised us the moon. He said he would act to lower the marginal tax rate to 35 percent within four years. Now, with that rate at 60 percent, the state is choking under a serious revenue shortfall. It will be interesting to see how the magician waves his wand and performs this hocus pocus, without cutting budgets for the settlements and a peace process.