The Return of Sallah Shabati

To look good in the eyes of the public and the media, the finance minister solves small problems, becoming a local hero, while ignoring the bigger picture.

According to one of the favorite folktales of top Finance Ministry officials, they have immense power, they determine fates, they maneuver the cabinet ministers as they wish and they decide how the budget will be divided. The truth is a bit different. The top officials are not so big. It is the finance minister who decides, and the officials fall into line. And they do so in a way that makes one gape in wonder at the flexibility of their spines.

Let's take, for example, and this is only a random example, Eitan Rob, the director of the Tax Authority. When former finance minister Silvan Shalom was attacked for the policy he took, Rob went to the media and valiantly defended the minister's stand. Afterward, Netanyahu came along and switched direction. He cut the budget and lowered taxes, and Rob did a wonderful job of explaining the new policy.

And then this week, when Ehud Olmert took top Finance Ministry officials for a tour of poverty hotspots in the south, Rob expressed shock and said, "We require a policy in which the national pie will be divided more equitably and fairly ... Poverty is solvable and must not be left without a governmental and budgetary response."

Hold on, what's going on here? Has poverty only now been discovered? Has the fact that the budget pie has been divided unfairly only now been found out? And if so, why did Rob so fervently defend the Netanyahu policy?

This is merely a case of the songs changing according to whichever king is in power, and now there is a new king and senior Treasury officials are starting to sing new songs. Indeed, Olmert exploited his first month in office to let these officials and the public understand that he is not Netanyahu. He will be the "social good guy" as opposed to Netanyahu's "economic bad guy." He will visit soup kitchens while Netanyahu will visit E-1. Olmert will show sympathy for the weak while Netanyahu will be exchanging blows with Sharon.

Dealing with the social issue suits Olmert in electoral terms, as well. There is nothing more popular than a grand talkfest about the bitter fate of the poor, the hard-hit periphery and the full soup kitchens. But what about accomplishments? Where will the weak receive "bigger slices of the pie?" On whose account? After all, Olmert pledged that he would increase neither expenditures nor the deficit.

The danger is that Olmert will adopt a method that is particularly favored by politicians on the eve of elections: "individual care." Although it is the treasury's job to set macro policy and carry out reforms, Olmert knows that the public likes micro policy - the minister goes out into the field, goes from town to town and solves problems with his own two hands.

The system works like this: you charter a couple of buses, one for politicians and officials and one for reporters and photographers. You arrive at a problem-stricken town and put on a spread at the local council. The head of the council talks about his deficit, unemployment, neglect and outmoded infrastructures. The finance minister listens, and instructs his underlings to immediately solve the problems: transfer a special grant to the municipality, subsidize wages for any new factory that arises, find the budget to build a new community center, and presto! - back on the bus and on to the next town.

Everyone comes out happy: Olmert receives complimentary articles as someone who is concerned with the plight of the weak and fights poverty. The head of the council gets funding and remains with a political debt to the finance minister, and the reporters get "human interest stories." Only one thing is awry: the economy. Because "individual care" causes a distorted division of the resources. Those who yell louder receive more. Those who are politically connected receive more. Those who ran the council poorly are given more, because it is on the verge of collapse. And most importantly: All this new money comes at the expense of other cutbacks in the state budget, at the expense of infrastructures, development, education and culture - in other words, at the expense of the same weaker classes about which Olmert cares so much. But while the budget cuts are concealed from view, the budget supplements are quite visible and are marketed to the public with a great deal of fanfare.

In this manner, we will, in one fell swoop, go back 50 years in time, to the historic Mapai period, to the unforgettable days of Kishon's Sallah Shabati.