It would be a major exaggeration to say that the Israeli economy suffered in any major way from the absence of a full-time finance minister over the last two month. Foreign investors continued to arrive, the shekel remained strong and Ahad Ha'am Street kept on roaring, even without Avraham Hirchson. But it's about time that one of three top cabinet positions was occupied again, and not only because of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's ruling that this had to happen after the Labor primaries.
Usually the Finance Ministry, the most powerful of all government departments, can be relied upon to work well on autopilot. It recruits only the best business and economics graduates, who are inculcated with an ethos that has remained unchanged for over two decades, regardless of the government or minister of the day. But lately it has been rocked by scandal and controversy and the new minister will have to appoint a whole raft of candidates to the ministry's most senior positions: accountant-general, budget director, wage superviser and head of the government companies authority, to name but a few.
In addition, the 2008 budget will soon be reaching the Knesset for its preliminary discussions. A minister has to be there to shepherd it through. The coalition members are getting extremely frisky and each party will try to tag on as many additional items aimed at their specific constituencies as possible. So will Kadima ministers anxious over the prospect of early elections. Only a minister with serious political power will be able to stem this flood of pork-barreling.
For this reason, despite the talk of senior business figures being offered the job, it's extremely unlikely that we'll see a "professional," non-political, finance minister being appointed. Any such candidate worth his salt will quickly realize that an outsider will have little chance of swimming with the sharks. The idea of bringing in a star from the private sector, as he did with the post of justice minister, obviously appeals to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but he will likely have little choice but to select a hard-hitting minister from his own party. There is no question whatsoever of handing the portfolio over to any other coalition party. Don't forget, the Treasury is so valuable to Olmert that he preferred that Amir Peretz become defense minister.
Of the three Kadima politicians who see themselves as candidates, Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit seems the most natural. He has the widest ministerial experience in the cabinet, including two short stints at the Finance Ministry. His appointment would also have the advantage for Olmert of mollifying one of his main rivals within Kadima. But Sheetrit could prove too independent-minded for the PM, as happened when he served as temporary justice minister. Olmert is therefore expected to appoint a loyalist.
His first choice would be former justice minister Haim Ramon, both a close friend and the only MK who rivals Olmert as a political operator. A Ramon appointment would be ironic since he was once Histadrut secretary-general, and faced finance ministers in pay disputes.
The problem with Ramon is that, despite the fact that he has completed his community service after being convicted for committing an indecent act, his selection will definitely bring on Supreme Court petitions and the chance that the appointment might be struck down. To make matters worse, the Attorney-General's Office that decided to prosecute Ramon less than a year ago might refuse to defend his rehabilitation now.
If Olmert decides not to risk another showdown with the justice system, the job will most likely go to Interior Minister Roni Bar-On. A lawyer by profession, with only a year of cabinet experience, his elevation to the government's most senior economic position would prove once again that in politics, the most important qualification is often loyalty.