It appears that Israel's politicians feel they have time on their hands. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed he won't beg the Labor Party and the other factions that oppose the budget. If they buck at backing it in its first reading into law next month, he will bring forward the elections, the prime minister threatened.
Meanwhile, Labor Party chairman Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has ruled that his party will decide on the budget's fate only "after the holidays". Read: in late September or early October. Nor, Ben Eliezer sniffed, will it happen until he gets back control over the Israel Broadcasting Authority, after Sharon "expropriated" it in contravention of the coalition agreement.
Labor and Likud, Sharon's party, were to have convened last week to try to settle their differences over the budget before year-end. They did not meet.
It is not even clear whether Likud and Labor are being guided by relevant considerations, or narrow partisan ones. Ben-Eliezer seems to view the budget's abrogation of social benefits as reason to bring down the government in which he sits. On Sharon's part, bringing the elections forward would give him an edge over Benjamin Netanyahu.
None of them seem to care whether the budget is approved on time, whether the next fiscal year opens without an updated budget, and whether millions will be wasted on campaigning while the economy stutters in reverse.
It is impossible to overstate the danger. Just months ago, the Israeli economy was wracked by crisis created by a speculative wave after what appeared to be the loss of control over economic policy.
The government's avowal to slash the 2003 budget and to institute legal and organizational changes calmed the storm. But the public's faith in its economic leaders can only be restored if the government keeps its word, pushes the tightened budget through parliament, and implements the rest of its resolutions. If it doesn't, the shekel and government bonds are in for a beating, as is Israel's credit rating abroad.
Furthermore, the longer the uncertainty persists, the more the public's faith will deteriorate. It is already happening, as evinced by the recent decline in government bond rates.
Bringing the elections forward, with all the costs that would involve, will exacerbate the negative processes.
In addition, the danger of conflagration hovers over everything due to the possibility of an American attack on Iraq in the autumn.
The world is gearing up for crisis. Crude prices are approaching $30 a barrel and climbing. The prices of "safe harbor" investments such as the Swiss franc and gold, are rising.
Can Israel afford to enter a period of global uncertainty with a divided government, without a solid economic policy and with elections on the doorstep?
No differences of opinion, even legitimate disagreements over the composition of the budget, can justify a government crisis at this time.
True, the budget is full of harsh decrees, but no economy can absorb a 6% drop per capita in its gross domestic product, as has happened here in the past two years, without paying the price.
Marginal corrections can be made in the budget to please the parties, but the differences must not become grounds for a crisis. Anybody who lends his hand to such a development will deserve the punishment of the electorate.