On the eve of his election, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised economic and social affairs would be at the center of his agenda, and he would head the social and economic cabinet. Promises are one thing, deeds another.
The prime minister went on to devote all his time to security and diplomatic affairs, with an occasional passing foray into economic matters. At the end of last December, in a one-off flicker, the prime minister was responsible for a package deal that led the governor of the central bank to slash key lending rates by 2%.
Recently Sharon has learned that if he continues to ignore the problems of the economy, they will bounce right back and topple his government. Last Wednesday Sharon met a delegation of economists and senior members of the economic community, headed by Professor Elhanan Helpman, perhaps the most senior economist in Israel. The delegation warned Sharon the economy is heading for the abyss with giant steps, and if he doesn't take matters in hand he could find himself being blamed for its collapse.
On Monday night, after the government's astonishing defeat in the Knesset - a defeat in which the prime minister too played his part - all of a sudden, Sharon had an attack of leadership, determination and tenacity. He sacked the Shas cabinet ministers, admonished the education minister, and declared the emergency economic plan would be back in the Knesset, unchanged, on Wednesday.
At a stroke, the prime minister saved Israel from having its credit rating downgraded on the international markets and from the collapse of its capital markets. But with all due respect for his impressive stand against Shas, Sharon still has his economic work cut out.
Economics is not a side show, and Sharon can't keep on zigzaging. It is imperative for him to become a full-time economic prime minister, just as he is a full-time security prime minister. Sharon's success as prime minister will not be measured just on matters of security, but also on economic achievement or failure.
Meanwhile, negative far outweighs positive. For example, it is not at all clear why the prime minister, who hasn't allowed his bureau to remain empty for even a day, has been without a full-time economic advisor for more than a year.
Getting the budget through its first reading today, and its second and third readings next week, without capitulating to sectoral and political interests, is only a first step Sharon must take. The big tests stand in front of him - implementing the budget, tax reform, stabilizing the economy, and getting back on a track to sustainable growth. There are no shortcuts. What is needed is a lot of effort, creativity and efficiency.