The Bottom Line/The Freeze That Goes Nowhere

An extra meeting between Finance Minister Silvan Shalom and the head of the Histadrut labor federation, Amir Peretz, yesterday made it clear to all that regarding the "package deal" for the economy, two of the partners are superfluous - the governor of the central bank and the representative of the manufacturers.

A deal needs only whoever can give, and whoever has a political interest - hence Peretz and Shalom. It is also clear what the deal is going to be - a wage agreement, and an end to the strikes, and everything else is background noise.

In July 2001 the previous national wage agreement came to its end, and Peretz preferred in these difficult times not to take the route to a national strike. Instead he encouraged individual groups in the public sector to push their local gripes - bonuses, job titles, company cars.

When they had sorted these out, Peretz would launch a campaign for a national wage agreement. On the other side, Shalom wanted Peretz to accept an agreement that would call off all the local haggles and stop all strikes.

The name of the game is freeze. The treasury wants a wage deal to cover 2002 to 2004, with a complete wage freeze in 2002 - no extra pay, no extra promotions, or increments to seniority pay. This alone would account for wages creeping up by 3 percent a year.

What would Peretz gain from this? He would stand out as the workers' leader. He would present any agreement as an achievement, and gain points. He would get some assurance on minimum wages for the future. He could reach some compromise over the equality of pensions for widows and widowers, and might even stave off the torpedoing of the temporary workers law.

In reaching this freeze agreement, Shalom will today approach the Knesset House Committee to suggest that MKs, ministers and top civil servants have their own salaries frozen.

MK Yossi Katz, chairman of the committee, supports the idea, but the position of the other committee members is not clear. Whatever - they shouldn't get too excited, because it is really not clear if average wages will rise this year.

Knesset members' salaries are still linked to the average wage, because Katz and others on the committee were against the treasury's idea of linking their pay to the CPI. That same committee pushed retired judge Shaul Aloni out of his position just four months ago of sorting out MKs pensions and conditions.

Aloni put forward an alternative salary for MKs, but this wasn't acceptable - they wanted more, and Aloni had to go.

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg announced with great fanfare that he would convince the committee to accept Aloni's plans, to get him back in the post, but the politicians had a better idea. Forget Aloni and put Yossi Ciechanover in his place.

Ciechanover enthusiastically accepted the job. He knew exactly why he was chosen, and he knows exactly what MKs expect of him. They are already rubbing their hands in glee.