Poor time to go to the polls

Labor Party chairman Binyamin Ben-Eliezer sent a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (using his nickname Arik - which appears more than once in the letter), warning that the party will oppose the budget in its first reading in the Knesset unless significant changes are made. The vote is scheduled for late October or early November.

The letter raises suspicions on two counts.

First, Ben-Eliezer has reportedly said more than once that he intends to take the party out of the coalition on "socioeconomic" grounds, at an appropriate time before the elections. Ben-Eliezer apparently believes that differences over the budget's handling of social issues could become a popular excuse for quitting the national unity government.

The second reason is that Ben-Eliezer knows - and if doesn't, he should ask MK Avraham Shochat, who as a former finance minister should know - that the budget cannot possibly be changed in the ways he's demanding. The budget cuts in welfare and defense, and in subsidies for residents of the Galilee and Negev, cannot be changed.

Assuming that he wants to stick to the target deficit for 2003 - 3% of GDP Ben-Eliezer has no choice about cutting the budget, and not only for macro-economic reasons: if the deficit grows, Israel could find its credit rating downgraded.

Therefore, there is no alternative to slaughtering some sacred cows in the budget, including cutting back on welfare and security.

There may be some minor changes in the welfare budget, as a kind of lip service, but the treasury's proposals on that score as approved by the government, are first and foremost aimed at restructuring the job market in Israel.

Will Labor follow through on its threats to quit the government? Too many politicians are pushing in that direction, each for his/her own reason.

One candidate for prime minister wants to quit as early as possible to force early elections, thus avoiding party primaries. Others want to advance the elections - but not too soon, so the primaries take place as scheduled in November.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has presented it as principle to advance the election if the budget does not pass its first reading. But there's no way to ignore the fact that advancing the vote could help him circumvent a clash with Benjamin Netanyahu in Likud primaries in March 2003.

Either way, there's growing suspicion that partisan and personal interests could cause Labor's exit from the government, the coalition's collapse and early elections.

Is that what's best for the country? Even if you think a change in government is vital, you have to ask yourself if early elections will advance the country's political interests.

The Palestinian regime is in the midst of change. An alternative leadership may arise that would allow talks in the future. Early elections could slow down, freeze, or even nullify those processes, in expectation of what kind of government would result from the elections.

It would not be a disaster if the Labor Party were to let those processes reach their culmination, and meanwhile sharpen the profiles of its candidates for chairman and let the voter choose among them.

But the main reason against early elections is economic. Seemingly, there's little difference between six to nine months (elections in January or May) but the damage of advancing them will be enormous.

It would mean the government would be run for months on the basis of the 2002 budget, without the necessary changes introduced in the 2003 budget. Both domestic and international faith in the intentions and ability of the government to restrain spending would be damaged, and economic management would in effect be paralyzed, with election economics, whether open or camouflaged, running rampant.

It's true that an election is slated for the end of 2003. But there is hope that by then, financial stability will be restored, Israel's economy will stop deteriorating, and a multi-party consensus on the need to control election spending will minimize the damage.

The interests of the state and its economy require approval of the 2003 budget before the beginning of the year, not early elections. Partisan and personal interests should not foil a necessary step to halt the slide into further instability, recession and unemployment.

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