The Good, the Bad and the Tunnel

If Netanyahu had anticipated that the media would largely support Olmert and Sharon, and would leave him in the lurch, he would have clung to his seat and stayed put.

If Benjamin Netanyahu had assessed that Ehud Olmert would become such a dominating figure in politics and the economy - and would make fun of him from every podium and even accuse him of sticking a knife in the Likud's back, Netanyahu would have stayed on as finance minister, disengagement or not. If he had anticipated that the media would largely support Olmert and Sharon, and would leave him in the lurch, he would have clung to his seat and stayed put.

But Netanyahu can't help himself. He has no patience for anything. He didn't have any patience in 1993, when he ran to the TV studio to tell everyone about the "red-hot cassette" that wasn't, and he had no patience to wait for the end of the Sharon term when he attempted to carry out a putsch in the Knesset in 2004, from which he emerged battered and humiliated.

And now he has gone and shot himself in the foot again by resigning on the eve of disengagement without having succeeded in preventing it, and by virtue of his resignation presenting Olmert with the Finance Ministry portfolio on a silver platter. In ordinary times, the post of finance minister is a political dead-end - he is forced to cut budgets, restructure, lower wages, eliminate social-welfare stipends, and stand up to all the claims and counterclaims. But in an election year, the job is worth its weight in gold. Finally the minister can do good - dole out, promise and accommodate - and line up some political brownie points. But Netanyahu jumped ship at the critical moment, and in so doing, benefited his big rival. Is there any greater political blunder than that?

Olmert visited the home of Shlomo Yitzhak, a Likud activist in the Taanakh region near Afula, this week. Five hundred members of the party waited with bated breath to hear what he had to say. Suddenly he's become the darling of the crowd, because he holds the cash box. As for Olmert, he doesn't hesitate to take full advantage of his position. He appears daily in the media, riding on the poverty problem, partly to distinguish himself from that evil Netanyahu and partly to conduct a sophisticated pre-election economy.

Poverty can be battled in two ways: the king's road or the short-term populist road, which is better suited to an election year - for example, the "individualized treatment" method. In this method, the minister "goes into the field," from one local authority to the next, solving problems "hands on" - in other words, distributing election bribery to local authority heads. This is an unacceptable practice that harms the economy.

In contrast, the king's way is long and hard, but is the only real solution to poverty: bringing people back into the workforce. Several means may be employed to achieve this - specific professional training, consultations and referrals, expansion of the Wisconsin Plan, ancillary services such as transportation to work and subsidized child care, high-school equivalency degrees for adults, (mandatory) core programs in ultra- Orthodox schools so that students will be able to integrate into the workforce, heavier investment in education in schools in the periphery and socioeconomic disadvantaged areas - and a significant reduction of foreign workers, whose migration from Israel in the past year was halted due to pressure from industrialists and farmers.

Along with encouraging people to join the workforce, it would be wise to increase stipends to those outside the labor market: the elderly, handicapped, ill and others who are unable to work. This human obligation is incumbent on us all.

Encouraging people to go to work should take place while growth in the economy is accelerated, since this would create an increase in demand for workers as well as a salary increase, which is already happening now. But in order for the economy to grow quickly, a diplomatic horizon is required.

We have not yet forgotten that it was Olmert who advised Netanyahu to open the Western Wall tunnel in Jerusalem in 1996, which set the territories on fire. Nor have we forgotten that he has been an enthusiastic backer of settlements throughout the territories in the past. Olmert can't run away from his responsibility for supporting the policy of wasting tens of billions of shekels in the territories, which were cruelly held back from the periphery and the socioeconomically weaker areas and is the main reason for the increase in poverty and social gaps in the past 30 years. But "whoso confesses and forsakes his transgressions shall obtain mercy."

Olmert now is presenting a responsible stance. He is ready to make far-reaching compromises in the West Bank, and in so doing building a positive diplomatic horizon, which is a condition for stable, sustained economic growth. Up till now, that is his contribution to the economy.