The Bottom Line / Santa Didn't Come

Who remembers the promises to distribute Leumi shares to the public for free?

When I heard Accountant General Yaron Zelekha gloat this week over the state's sale of Bank Leumi - "this is a historic day" - I immediately rushed to the door and opened it. I expected to see a messenger from Zelekha standing there with an envelope and a check for me for NIS 1,000. What, you don't remember that he promised to distribute the Leumi shares to the public for free?

Have you forgotten that Benjamin Netanyahu, who now wants to claim the credit for the bank sale, heartily supported this unusual adventure because he wanted to become Santa Claus, distributing shares on the eve of an election? Have you already forgotten that both of them repeatedly said there were no buyers for Leumi? Have you forgotten the snappy logo that Zelekha thought up for the occasion? "Let's share the wealth! How heart-rending!

Right from the start, when the share distribution plan became public (in an exclusive Haaretz report on December 24, 2003 by this reporter), it was imagined that the shares would be allocated at half their value. Afterward, this was improved to an 80 percent discount, but the closer it got to elections, the more generous Santa became, until the final proposition was shares for all - for free!.

But the Father Christmas method required a mechanism for share handouts - identifying the citizens, checking bank accounts, verifying addresses, correcting errors. Some NIS 250 million would have to be spent just on those logistics.

Now Zelekha refers to the benefit to the national debt. Indeed, the NIS 4.6 billion paid for the stake will go into the treasury's coffers and reduce the debt. But why boast such a fact - according to his more creative proposition, no debt would have been paid off and the exercise actually would have cost the state and then some.

The Santa Claus option wasted two years. Fortunately, for political motives (Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not want Netanyahu portrayed as the Great and Good), Sharon canceled the idea, and finally the bank was sold this week to an international strategic investor. Sometimes domestic politics save the situation.

2. Matza or Vita

Eitan Rub announced this week that he is leaving the Tax Authority in January. Finance Minister Ehud Olmert must replace him pronto. The question, however, is will he go for a political or professional appointee? Will he chose Udi Barzilai, former member of the Likud Central Committee, or will he prefer a professional appointment from within the tax sector?

Obviously, professional is better - someone who isn't open to political pressures from ministers and Likud committee members.

Given that there is no current shining external star (like Yair Rabinowitz in 1985), then it would be better to choose someone from within the tax authority, where there are good options. There's Jackie Matza, deputy of professional affairs, and Shuky Vita, deputy for investigations.

The important yardstick is managerial skills. This is a job that requires the managing of thousands of workers together. A good manager with excellent interpersonal skills is required.

3. With all due respect

At a festive news conference yesterday, the prime minister, Olmert and Shimon Peres presented a plan to save the Negev. The program is a multiyear and multibillion shekel plan. Peres won a warm embrace from the prime minister and Olmert. "We have excellent friendly relations. I wish you success," Sharon gushed, and Peres basked in the glory.

Maybe Peres didn't notice, but Sharon and Olmert are his political rivals. Warm fuzzy emotions and economic cooperation play into the Likud's hands.

Better we should adopt the American system where the primaries loser goes home. Then the winner can lead without the claimer to the throne blowing down his neck, plotting schemes, and stopping his work. So Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is right. Peres, with all due respect, should pack up and go.