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Shalom meets reality, but says he can't do anything about it just yet
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About turn: After relentless public pressure, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom and his director general finally caved in.

They finally announced what everyone else has known for months. They admit the economy next year will grow by less than 4%, revenue from taxes will be much lower than the budget states, the budget deficit will be greater than 2.4% of GDP, there is a good chance Israel's credit rating will be damaged, and long term interest rates will rise.

The very bottom line is - the 2002 budget must be slashed by NIS 3 billion, at least.

It is true Shalom accepted the growth estimates of his senior staff, including his director general Ohad Marani, but he should have known they were wrong.

The problem is that despite his late encounter with reality, the finance minister still does not intend to amend the proposed budget for now. He says it can't be done. There is a chance that instead of acquiescing to cuts ¿ Israel's ministers and parliamentarians will be calling for more spending. Shalom is right to worry.

The end result will be that the Knesset will pass a budget that is fundamentally incorrect. That creates a nasty precedent. The only way out is for the minister to rush through his cuts immediately after the budget is passed - the first week of January, so we won't have to live a lie for too long.

Complications: Last Tuesday the Knesset celebrated "Negev Day". All the Knesset committees held debates on the region, with mayors and public workers appearing before many panels. The MKs competed among themselves over who could promise more for Negev residents.

Silvan Shalom is identified with one of the Negev laws, the one that grants tax reductions for all Negev residents, rich and poor alike, despite the fact that the law originated with MK Yisrael Katz who is an expert at distributing public money and assets.

The trouble is, Shalom is pulled between two sides. The press (rightly) castigates him for supporting populist legislation that costs NIS 700 million a year, money the state does not have for investing in infrastructure and education.

On the other side, he is lambasted by Negev residents for reducing the tax breaks that were originally proposed in the Katz law. But if he is serious over slashing NIS 3 billion from the budget, then he must start with canceling the Negev Law. If not, he will be unable to do anything.

In any case, it became clear on "Negev Day" that the public doesn't know a thing about the area.

Did you know that in the Negev, 8% of the population lives on 60% of the country's land?

Did you know that 19% of Negev residents are new immigrants (from the CIS) who arrived in the past decade?

Would you have been aware that Bedouin are 23% of the Negev population? Or that 57% of Bedouins are under 14? Or that a Bedouin woman has 10 children on average? And did you know there are 173,000 people in Be'er Sheva?