We Used to Have a Finance Minister

Netanyahu has completed his transformation - from full-time finance minister to candidate for prime minister who sees the position of finance minister as merely a temporary job, a springboard to the only position that suits him.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent the announcement that he was folding to the political, not the economic, correspondents. The announcement dealt at length with diplomatic issues and with the disengagement, and only at the end was there something written about the economy, dutifully. And thus Netanyahu has completed his transformation - from full-time finance minister to candidate for prime minister who sees the position of finance minister as merely a temporary job, a springboard to the only position that suits him.

Netanyahu was a full-time finance minister for just one year - from March 2003 to April 2004. At the outset, his estimation was that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government would survive for four years, and that he would therefore have to serve as finance minister for that amount of time, and only then embark on the fight to be elected prime minister. During that year, he was Mr. I Don't Have It. He talked about "the thin man" (the private sector) who is carrying "the fat man" (the public sector) on his back and demanded a strict diet for "the fat man." He demanded that the budget be cut, that wages be cut and that guaranteed income payments by the National Insurance Institute be cut. He was not alarmed by Vicki Knafo or by the Histadrut labor federation (he nationalized the pension funds) and he rescued the economy that was teetering on the brink of the abyss.

But in April 2004, the entire deck of cards was reshuffled. Assessments were published to the effect that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was about to recommend indicting Ariel Sharon in the Greek island affair and that the prime minister would have to resign. Netanyahu smelled the prime minister's chair, and became intoxicated. He so much wants to be prime minister again that he has lost his head, forgotten his economic role and begun to manipulate and calculate ways to bring about this end closer.

Yitzhak Rabin once said that for him being prime minister was "an option, not an obsession." For Netanyahu, it is an obsession. He has not forgiven himself to this day for not having run against Sharon in 2001 because then he could have defeated him easily and won the election.

Thus, in April, the public started to get a part-time finance minister. He began to devote more and more of his time to political intrigue and to exercises in buying the public's affection. Suddenly, I Don't Have It Netanyahu announces that he will increase the old-age allotments; suddenly he supports the privatization of Bank Leumi by distributing options to the masses; suddenly he warmly adopts the Dovrat report on reforming the education system; and he even "establishes" a train from Eilat to Ashdod that will render the Suez Canal totally useless. That is, both social-minded and an investor. Even the 2005 budget is not a budget of cuts and revolutions, but rather a budget with a large deficit. During the past three months, he has devoted most of his time to politics. The referendum on the disengagement was, as far as he was concerned, a handy way of embarrassing Sharon and toppling the government. The people at the budget division roamed the corridors in despair: Where has the old Netanyahu disappeared to, the one who spurred them to bring more and more revolutions?

Netanyahu's close associates reject this description entirely. They say that Netanyahu has always worked full time, and that his entire aim was to keep Zevulun Orlev and part of the National Religious Party in the government in order to preserve the coalition that would allow him to pass a budget and to advance the reform of the banks and the ports. It was clear to him that if the NRP quit, he would not have a coalition that would pass the reforms - because with the Labor Party and Histadrut chairman MK Amir Peretz, this would be impossible. Therefore, he did all he could to persuade Sharon to accept a referendum, which would have kept the NRP inside.

But now Netanyahu has whipped out the "re-evaluation" of the disengagement plan because, he says, a new situation has emerged with the departure of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. This is his way of trying to torpedo the disengagement plan once again, to hurt Sharon, and to put himself at the head of the right.

When the day comes, if he represents the Likud in the election, he will also try the trick of "winking to the left;" a month or two before the elections he will start talking about "honoring agreements," about "negotiations," and about "peace and growth" - in order to obtain the votes of the center as well. We have already seen this movie on the eve of the 1996 elections. Therefore, it is not clear whether nowadays there is a full-time finance minister, as his associates say, or a part-time finance minister, who is entirely submerged in his battle against Sharon, and not in the budget, and whose efforts are aimed at getting early elections and not at implementing the important reforms at the banks and at the ports.

The answer to this will be given in the near future. If he drops his involvement with the disengagement and leaves the diplomatic activity to Sharon, it will be possible to start to believe his associates. If he concentrates on getting the budget passed and advancing the reforms, well and good. If he manages to reach an agreement with United Torah Judaism or with the Labor Party in order to obtain a majority for the government, this will be a step in the right direction. If the recommendations of the Bachar committee are implemented and if the ports are split up, this too will be a good sign.

The economy needs a full-time finance minister, not a candidate for prime minister.