By this time, it's common knowledge: Finance Minister Silvan Shalom is a changed man.

He has come to his senses, he has learned lessons, he has seized the reins. He has submitted the most courageous budget seen in years. He's cutting, he isn't afraid, he is slaughtering sacred cows. Roll up, roll up - meet the new Silvan Shalom.

Well, at least that's what one might think from the press in the last month, and from meeting the man himself: Shalom is convinced he's spearheading the bravest set of steps ever seen, and that the only problem is, he doesn't have backing not from the press, not from his fellow ministers, not from the Knesset and mainly, not from the public.

The sages have said, and Shalom recently said it again: Blow not thy own trumpet. But the problem is that nobody's blowing his trumpet, so he has to do it himself.

Yet there are a few mulish cynics who refuse to be impressed by the finance minister's campaign of the last month. They insist on dwelling on those deadly dull numbers, and read documents such as the government's resolution regarding its "Economic Policy for 2003", on which the 2003 budget is based. One such cold fish is Smadar Elhanani, the economic adviser to the Knesset's Finance Committee.

Elhanani is an economist who has been following the Knesset's process of approving budgets for years. She knows the gambits forwards and backwards, inside and out of the treasury, of its budget department, of its ministers. The headlines leave her clammy: what engages her attention is the figures.

Last week, before going abroad for holiday, Elhanani penned a 3-page paper that she distributed among the Finance Committee members, in which she analyzes the main figures resulting from the government's decisions regarding its economic policy in 2003. It is hard to reconcile her paper with the gushy headlines blaring the "great message" of the 2003 budget.

• For months the treasury people have been trumpeting that the 2003 budget is "revolutionary" for the first time in Israeli history, the finance minister is leading a genuine budget cut, unprecedented in scope.

Surprise! Elhanani calculated and found that the 2003 budget, without repayment of debt, is NIS 173.3 billion, compared with NIS 170.4 billion this year. Meaning, the budget has bloated by 1.7% in real terms. Where did Shalom say that cut is?

• For months we've been hearing that the civil service will finally be tightening its belt in 2003. Recruitment of manpower will be frozen, and as people retire, they will not be replaced, thus slimming down the ranks.

Surprise! Elhanani says that according to the 2003 budget, the public sector manpower will grow to 56,700 people, from 55,000 today. Meaning, the civil service will increase by 3%.

• Treasury director-general Ohad Marani explained again and again that the 2003 budget is especially conservative. The era of the Finance Ministry's overly optimistic, wishful forecasting is gone, ne'er to return now budgets are built on firm legs.

Surprise! Elhanani writes that the budget is based on the "problematic" assumption that the economy will grow by 1% in 2003. She also says that the government's decision on the 2003 budget was made without the treasury presenting an estimate for tax revenue next year. The result is that we can't see the effects of the tax reform, and the forecast of real growth and tax rebates.

• A month ago the government approved the finance minister's "revolutionary" economic program, including courageous budget cuts, after the ministers were persuaded that the economic situation is so bad, there was no alternative.

Surprise! What the ministers approved is meaningless, in practice. Elhanani explains that the government decision okayed the 2003 budget using 2002 budget prices, while agreeing that the finance minister would present the Knesset with a 2003 budget after adjustment to 2002 prices. That "adjustment" is not a technical tweak. It includes forecasts of procurement and wages in the public sector, governmental wages, the shekel-dollar exchange rate, and building materials. In short these adjustments are tremendous, and they will determine whether there are any surpluses in the budget, or if it will fall short.

• One of the purported crown jewels of the 2003 budget, on which the Finance Ministry has repeatedly trumpeted, is the knife cutting at that most hallowed of cows defense. That cut, if carried out, would prove that the treasury doesn't just hack at the weak and defenseless! but also at the strongest lobby in the country.

Surprise! The budget does wrest NIS 9 billion away from defense but does not include what Elhanani calls the "before" and "after" figures.

In English: the original defense budget for 2002 was NIS 41 billion. During the year it grew to NIS 45.5 billion. The defense budget for 2003 is NIS 42.2 billion meaning, it grew! and the cuts were made only from the additions that the treasury approved during the year.

• We cannot wind up this tale without infrastructure. The treasury chiefs said it once, twice and thrice, and more and more, that despite the lion-hearted cuts to the national budget, they decided not to touch investment in infrastructure because that, as we all know, is the hottest slogan around.

Surprise! Elhanani says that the treasury has very concrete plans indeed to increase investment in infrastructure but there is not a whisper of these intentions in the budget draft approved by government.

The treasury said yesterday that it does not want to comment on Elhanani's paper at this stage.

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