Who Will Be Next Finance Minister?

The candidate's first mission will be to push a budget for 2009 through parliament, while simultaneously tackling the grave ills of the Israeli economy.

Regardless of who wins the election, the next finance minister had better be dexterous. His first mission will be to push a budget for 2009 through parliament, while simultaneously tackling the grave ills of the Israeli economy, which are part of the even graver disease of the global system.

Moreover, the new government will have only 45 days to pass the budget. Otherwise you'll be back in the voting booth - that's the law.

If Benjamin Netanyahu wins the election, he'll probably keep the Finance portfolio for himself, at least for a few months. Then he can personally shape economic policy from the lofty heights of his dual jobs as prime minister and finance minister.

Truth be told, he has no natural candidate for the Finance Ministry in his party, Likud. Former finance ministers Silvan Shalom and Dan Meridor aren't in the running.

Netanyahu would love to have Stanley Fischer take the job, but the Bank of Israel governor is unlikely to agree. That's fine for Netanyahu. He imported Fischer to lead the central bank, and Fischer completes his first term as governor in April 2010. In any case, Netanyahu would like Fischer to stay on as governor.

Unlike Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni has an embarrassment of riches for the Finance portfolio. The leading candidate is the incumbent, Roni Bar-On, who's proved his mettle during his short but intense stint as finance minister. One advantage is that he won't have to learn the job, and he's also considered a close associate of Livni.

Two other Kadima candidates are Shaul Mofaz and Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik. Both did better than Bar-On in the Kadima primary. But Mofaz won no kudos for his performance as transportation minister, and Itzik would probably prefer to remain Knesset speaker.

Since Israel's establishment in 1948, the finance minister has always been a member of the prime minister's party, because of the vast importance of the job - with one exception: the Labor-Likud unity government in the late 1980s. That union ended in a big bang, when prime minister Shimon Peres of Labor fired the finance minister, Yitzhak Moda'i, of Likud.

But in the absence of a clear Likud candidate other than Netanyahu, the Likud leader may search outside his party if he wins - and give the portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu.

Netanyahu and Lieberman have worked together before. The Moldovan-born politician was bureau director general when Netanyahu was prime minister.

Yet another possibility is that after holding the portfolio himself for a while, Netanyahu will choose an outsider. The leading candidate in that case is Aharon Fogel, chairman of the Migdal insurance company and Ness Technologies, who also leads the advisory committee to the Bank of Israel. The man who placed Fogel at the central bank was Netanyahu himself.

Like Bar-On, Fogel could hit the ground running. He's served as director general of the Finance Ministry and as director of its budget department, he knows Israel's economic system inside out, and he knows all the relevant personalities as well. Even so, Jerusalem circles have also touted former Bank Hapoalim chairman Shlomo Nehama, and former Bank of Israel governor Yaakov Frenkel.

Two people who have Netanyahu's ear on economic matters are Uri Yogev, who led the budget department at the Finance Ministry when Netanyahu was finance minister, and Yaron Zelekha.

Zelekha was Netanyahu's appointment as accountant general of the Finance Ministry. Both he and Yogev led major economic reforms. Yogev clearly doesn't want to return to public service.

Zelekha is another story entirely.

The former accountant general, who is also close to Lieberman, was thrown out of the Finance Ministry during Bar-On's term over his famously terrible relations with his colleagues. Some of those colleagues have moved on to the business world, and others are still at the ministry. The point is that if Netanyahu decides to bring back Zelekha, a lot of sleeping dogs are likely to wake up.

At present Zelekha is being mentioned as Prime Minister's Office director general if Netanyahu wins, or as director general of Finance, or as leading economic adviser to the prime minister. There are not a few powerful elements near Netanyahu pulling every string they can to keep Zelekha as far from the treasury as possible.